By Louise Vuillemin
The question of human rights in Myanmar has been pressing in recent years, as more and more information, reports and stories have made global news. These past few weeks, one long standing issue has been brought up a lot because of recent developments: the persecution of the Rohingya people, an ethnic group living mainly in the Rakhine region of Myanmar. The group is estimated to be composed of more than 2 million people, the majority of which are Muslim. Although they have historically been living on their territory for centuries, they have been heavily discriminated against by the government and citizens of Myanmar. Notably, the 1982 citizenship law excluded the Rohingya from being considered citizens in the country, as they were not considered one of the “national races”. This law has led hundreds of thousands of individuals to be considered stateless, or without citizenship, restricting their movement and their rights under the legislation of Myanmar.
In 2016, armed forces and police began heavy persecution in Rakhine, leading to accusations of violations of human rights by multiple international organizations. According to a 2017 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (or OHCHR), evidence has been found of “Extrajudicial executions or other killings, including by random shooting; enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention; rape, including gang rape, and other forms of sexual violence; physical assault including beatings; torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; looting and occupation of property; destruction of property; and ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution”. A 440-page report by the UN has concluded that armed forces have been partaking in a genocide of the Rohingya, a claim refuted by Myanmar. Before the 2016-2017 crisis, an estimated 1 million Rohingya lived in Myanmar. By December 2017, according to Reuters, 650,000 had fled from Rakhine to Bangladesh. The genocide by armed forces has led to a large-scale refugee crisis in the countries nearing Myanmar, and the future still looks rather bleak for the ones who fled their homes, in addition to the ones who stayed behind.
The situation has escalated these past weeks, as Bangladesh declared they would not accept any more Rohingya refugees. Myanmar, on the other hand, refuses to repatriate the ones who fled, going so far as calling the Rohingya “Bengalis”, stripping them of their original identity. Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh Shahidul Haque has declared that “as far as repatriation is concerned, the situation has gone from bad to worse”, summarizing just how bleak the future may seem for refugees in Bangladesh.
Furthermore, according to TIME, the Rakhine region has seen “a renewed flare-up in violence”: in January, fourteen police officers were killed in a conflict with militants. As a response to this tragedy, armed forces have been even more aggressive in their streak of violence against the Rohingya, believed to be the guilty militants. However, the attack did not come from them; they were confused with another Rakhine-native separatist group, the Arakan Army. The Arakan Army are mostly of Buddhist faith, and are believed to have overall killed more armed officers than the Rohingya over the past few decades. The ongoing conflict between the Arakan and the government of Myanmar may soon escalate, as the former have been providing themselves with weapons, purchased with profits from the drug trade they partake in. If they were to come head-to-head with full weapon capacity, it could have disastrous consequences on citizens and especially heavily-targeted groups like the Rohingya, given the government’s history of blame-shifting onto such groups.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has been pushing the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to pursue legal action in order to establish Rohingya basic rights, to render the actions of the government of Myanmar condemnable. As for the UN, the Security Council has been unable to reach a decision, as two veto-power members, Russia and China, support the Myanmar government, and have boycotted talks.
Tension grows in Myanmar as the 2020 general election nears, and while the UN Security Council is in the middle of hearing refugee testimonies in order to judge the situation adequately, Russia and China do not seem inclined to change their position; for now, the Rohingya remain stateless.