apartheid their government as laws. As a result, “ethnic

 

apartheid before genocide

Rohingya Human
Rights Abuses in Myanmar

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STATE OF DISCRIMINATION

Myanmar
has long been a hotbed of ethnic and religious strife.  The Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist
population have a history of violent clashes. Government authorities within
Myanmar refer to the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’, differentiating them from the
Buddhist ‘Burmese.’ The Buddhist population has long outnumbered the Muslim
population, often enjoying social and economic privileges. Eventually, these
privileges became codified within their government as laws. As a result,
“ethnic Burmese groups enjoy certain privileges compared to those labeled as
non-Burmese.”1

In his
book, “The Laws of Genocide: Prescriptions for a Just World,” Thomas W. Simon
states that “Discriminatory attitudes held largely by individuals take on an
entirely different form when they become sanctioned, reinforced, and promoted
by organizations, particularly by state organizations.”2 Indeed, this seems to be
the case within Myanmar. The military was often brutal in the takedown of
“non-Burmese ethnic insurgencies,” and this has “led to an institutionalization
of differential treatment for Burmese vs. non-Burmese populations.”3

Many
of the Buddhist leaders are not ashamed of their desire for a ‘pure’ Buddhist
state. Monk Ashin Wirathu had this to say of the Rohingya within Myanmar:

Muslims
are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and
they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering
under the burden they bring us. Because the Burmese people and the Buddhists
are devoured every day, the national religion needs to be protected.4

The
editor-in-chief of ultranationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha says:

“We’re
not oppressing Muslims, and we recognize their existence. But we don’t want
Muslims to swallow our country. … They will not finish with attacking just
Rakhine. They will also invade Chin State or Irrawaddy region. Then this
country will be a Muslim country. It is such a shame for us that the land we
inherited from our former generations will be lost in our time.”5

Similarly,
a spokesperson for Rakhine state, stated “The population growth of Rohingya
Muslims is 10 times higher than that of the Rakhine Buddhists.”6 Many fear the Rohingya
will overwhelm the Buddhist population.

However,
the numbers do not back up this claim.  A
census conducted by the country’s government found that the Muslim population within
Myanmar has been around 4% since the 1980s.  Also, while the Rakhine Muslims may have a
slightly higher birth rate than average (country conditions make numbers hard
to measure), the unrest in Myanmar have caused many Rohingya to flee the
country, resulting in a Harvard study finding that there has been a “net
outflow of Rohingya from Burma after 1950.”7

While
exact figures are hard to come by, the CIA World Factbook estimates that
Myanmar’s population is 87.9% Buddhist, 6.2% Christian, and 4.3% Muslim.8 A contested 2014 Myanmar
Population and Housing census reported that the state of Rakhine—where the
majority of the country’s Muslims live and where the majority of violence takes
place—is 52.2% Buddhist and 42.7% Muslim.9

One of
the difficulties in measuring the number of Rohingya is the government’s
refusal to recognize the population. Even though Muslims have lived in the area
for centuries, Myanmar officials and Buddhist monks claim the Rohingya are
recent migrants. A spokesperson for Rakhine state is quoted as saying, “There
are no people called Rohingya in Myanmar.”10 He went on to explain
that most are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.11 The denial of the Rohingya
identify and the fear of being “swallowed” by Muslims are two major factors in the
ongoing violence.

It may
not be only religious differences that fuel the discrimination. Physical and
cultural differences mark the Rohingya as unlike the majority population, and
they also speak another language. A Myanmar government official in Hong Kong
wrote a letter in 2009 that calls Rohingya “ugly as ogres” with “dark brown
skin.”12 Professor Michael
Jerryson of Youngstown State University says that racism is a defining factor
of the issue:

In
Myanmar, the ethnic Burmans have had privileges political, economically, and
socially for decades. They are positioned as superior to those that are on the
opposite extreme, the Rohingya. … Racism thus works well to describe the
ways in which those in power in Myanmar, the Buddhist Burmans, have treated and
view their ‘untouchables,’ the ones who they refuse to acknowledge by name: the
Rohingya.13

Human
rights activist Jamila Hanan agrees saying “Since they are of a darker color,
follow a different religion, and speak a different language to the rest of the
population in Myanmar, it is no surprise that they fall victim to prejudice and
hatred. But the military in Myanmar have used and encouraged these hostilities
for their own power grabbing agendas.”14

The
rampant prejudice combined with discriminatory laws have caused Amnesty
International to accuse Myanmar of apartheid against the Rohingya, a conclusion
that many have agreed is apt.  Amnesty International states in a report:

Apartheid
is a crime against humanity. It is conduct imposing and maintaining a regime of
systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another within a
country. It’s a system that’s upheld by legislative and administrative
measures, policies and practices all designed to isolate a racial group – in
this case the Rohingya – to deny their human rights and to stop them from
participating in the political, social and economic life of a country. In
practice, acts of open violence such as rape, torture and unlawful killings
have also been used as tools of oppression and domination.15

The
Myanmar government refuses to grant Rohingya citizenship, making them
stateless. Describing Rakhine state as an “open air prison,” Amnesty
International describes how Rohingya are restricted from traveling and denied
access to medical care.16 In addition, Rohingya
children are not allowed to attend school. Many restrictions are codified in
Myanmar law, including a two child policy for legally married couples; women
who are not married are prohibited from having children.17 Exacerbating this
situation are the restrictions on marriage for Rohingya couples. They must go
through a lengthy process that is “often humiliating and financially
prohibitive.”18

All of
these conditions are reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa, where
institutionalized racism entrenched white superiority. The South African
government “passed a series of increasingly oppressive laws,” including
restrictions on marriage.19 Apartheid—the Afrikaans
word for apartness—fittingly describes the situation the Rohingya are in:
restricted to a separate state with different laws compared to the rest of the
population. In fact, the United Nations takes it even further, describing the
Myanmar’s military 2017 security operation as “a textbook example of ethnic
cleansing.”20
During this operation, over 270,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in less than
three weeks.21

How
did this happen? What led Rakhine Buddhists to drive such a brutal campaign
against Rohingya Muslims? The region’s history may shed some light on the current
turmoil.

 

THE BUILDUP OF DISCRIMINATION BEFORE 1982

Rakhine
state in Myanmar, formerly known as the Kingdom of Arakan, has been home to
Muslims and Buddhists for centuries. Historically ruled by Buddhist royalty,
Muslim traders were in the area in the eighth century and often played an important
role in regional politics, though there were periods of unrest as well. The
British colonized and ruled the area from 1824 until 1948. During this time,
many workers migrated to Myanmar from India and Bangladesh. The current Burmese
government views this migration as illegal, and is one reason the Rohingya are
currently refused citizenship. However, “the Rohingya have had a well-established
presence in the country since the twelfth century.”22

Myanmar
declared its independence in 1948, and friction escalated between the
government and the Rohingya. The government declared that the immigration from
India and Bangladesh during British rule was illegal, and the Rohingya were
denied the right to citizenship. This began years of unrest that often resulted
in armed action between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists. Things only got worse
from here. The Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) (sometimes described as a
military junta) came to power in 1962, and they disbanded Rohingya social and
political organizations. Then, in 1977, came Operation Nagamin, or Dragon King.23

 

THE EXPULSION OF 1978

Human
Rights Watch called the operation “a national effort to register citizens and
screen out foreigners prior to a national census.”24 One foreign affairs
specialist has said the operation was “designed to expel a group of Rohingya
insurgents, the Rohingya Patriotic Front, from northern Rakhine state.”25 In this systematic,
large-scale operation, military forces and Rakhine Buddhists attacked Rohingya,
and the military was accused of raping and murdering civilians. Over 200,000
Rohingya fled to Bangladesh as a result.26

An
international effort resulted in the establishment of the Rohingya as refugees
and the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR). After pressure from the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations,
Myanmar leadership allowed the Rohingya to return to Myanmar. At first,
repatriation was slow, but “the number increased when the Bangladeshi
government allowed camp conditions to decline and restricted food rations.”27

 

CONTINUING VIOLENCE

Another
mass exodus of approximately 250,000 Rohingya occurred in 1992, in response to
a campaign by the Burmese army that included “forced labor, rape and religious
persecution.”28
Bangladesh again desired to quickly send all refugees home, and the UNHCR and
non-governmental organizations became involved. Under conditions that involved
some forced and coerced repatriation, almost 230,000 refugees returned between
1993 and 1997.29

Then, in
2012, a Buddhist woman was murdered in Rakhine and three Muslim men were
accused. Buddhists monks called for retribution, and the rioting that followed
ended with many Muslims being killed and their homes being burned.30 An estimated 200,000
Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. Many eventually returned to Myanmar. Approximately
25,000 Rohingya left Myanmar by boat in 2015. Hundreds died and many that lived
chose to remain in exile.31

The
latest eruption of violence began in late 2016, and the current population
displacement dwarfs many previous situations. The BBC estimates that over
740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017.  They continue:

More than 350 villages, nearly all of them Rohingya, have
been burned down, some recently. The military, which is accused of terrible
human rights abuses, still runs northern Rakhine state. It has denied the
abuses, denied access to independent investigators, and strictly limits access
for aid agencies.32

One
attack, on Tula Toli village in Rakhine state, has been described as a massacre
by news outlets. Survivors describe how Burmese security forces raped the
women, then locked them in houses with their children, and burned the houses
down. Human Rights Watch reported that “soldiers, and in one case Rakhine
villagers, killed children, including infants and toddlers, using machetes,
spades, and wooden sticks, and in several cases, threw children into fires or
the river.”33
This attack was part of a massive military campaign that has destroyed at least
354 villages and killed at least 6,700 Rohingya.34

In
January 2018, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to a repatriation timeframe for the
Rohingya refugees. International aid agencies are following the progress
closely, to ensure no one is forced to return.35

 

ANTI-MUSLIM LAWS

With
the myriad number of discriminatory laws still in place, it does not appear as
if their situation, once returned, will improve. The Congressional Research
Service (CRS) outlined the laws in a 2017 report:

·       Denial
of Citizenship – In 1982, Burma’s military junta replaced the 1948 Union
Citizenship Act with a new law, the 1982 Citizenship Law, that effectively
revoked the citizenship of most of the Rohingya in Burma, rendering them
stateless.

·       Denial
of Suffrage and Representation – In 2015, then-President Thein Sein invalidated
the temporary identification cards (“white cards”) possessed by many Rohingya
that had permitted them to vote in past elections. As a result, Union Election
Commission did not allow the Rohingya to vote in the 2015 parliamentary
elections, and prohibited Rohingya political parties and candidates from
running for office in the elections.

·       Denial
of Education and Employment – Because they are not citizens, most Rohingyas
cannot attend public universities, work for the government, or join the
military or the Myanmar Police Force.

·       Restrictions
on Movement – Rohingya in rural areas are prohibited from moving out of their
home villages without the permission of local authorities. 36

These
laws have teeth. Security forces perform spot checks to ensure the policies are
being followed, comparing the residents within a household against the numbers
in official registries. Law enforcement officials are instructed to take photos
of families and compare them against family pictures, to determine the correct
number of people registered per household. Women are also forced to “breastfeed
infants in the presence of soldiers,”37 as a way of checking to
see if the women are really birth mothers, and not covering for someone who
violated the two child policy. Young children may also be questioned
separately, to evaluate the accuracy of the family registry. Women who
disobeyed childbirth restrictions—either by having more than two children,
having a child out of wedlock, or by having a child in an unofficial
marriage—are punishable by “imprisonment up to 10 years, fines, or both.”38

Women’s
health is profoundly impacted by the two child policy and restrictions on
giving birth out of wedlock. Without access to safe birth control options, many
pregnant women try to leave Rakhine, either by sea to neighboring countries, or
on foot to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Some women also resort to illegal and
risky abortions; this has “resulted in death and harmful medical repercussions.”39 When women choose to have
a child in violation of the law, their children are not officially registered
(also known as blacklisted), not an uncommon occurrence. There are an estimated
60,000 unregistered children in Rakhine. These children with no status are
often denied education, and, as adults, are not able to marry or be employed.40

Not complying
with marriage restrictions is also a punishable crime. One government policy
states that “action must be taken against those who are married unofficially
and live together.”41 The marriage law in place
is no simple registration requirement. Couples must “present themselves to law
enforcement officials multiple times, alongside their parents and other
witnesses.”42
In addition, the marriage application asks for a photograph with the man
cleanly shaven and the woman without a head covering—both requirements in
opposition to commonly practiced Muslim customs. They must also present
themselves without hijab or beard in front of authorities. In practice, the
marriage application process requires steep bribes as well. The spot checks
mentioned earlier also check to ensure married couples are properly registered.43

Rohingya
in Rakhine state also cannot travel between towns without authorization, and
permission to leave the state is almost impossible to obtain. This prevents
many from access to proper medical care, and even access to food, water, and
sanitation. It’s been reported that only the very rich can afford a travel
authorization. Rohingya who ran from violence and end up in internally
displaced person (IDP) camps are often trapped there, sometimes separated from
family members.44
Ironically, these movement restrictions for Rohingya Muslims but not Buddhists
may lead to a rising Muslim population, exactly what the Buddhists claim to
fear.45

The
above laws have been around since at least 2005, according to Fortify Rights,
who obtained government documents referring to legal enforcement and policies.
More recently, the “Race and Religion Protection Laws” were adopted in 2015.
Though they apply to everyone in the country, they seem to be aimed at Muslims.
Buddhist monks spearheaded the movement that led to the adoption of these laws
that put further restrictions on the Rohingya.46

The
new policies include:

·       Monogamy
Law: Outlawing having more than one spouse, as well as living with a partner
who is not a spouse.

·       Religious
Conversion Law: Changing religions requires approval from a new registration
board for religious conversion.

·       Interfaith
Marriage Law:  Marriage applications
between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men must be publicly posted for two
weeks. The marriage may only proceed if there are no objections—from anyone.

·       Population
Control Law: Women in certain regions must space children 36 months apart. The
regions are determined by experts, based on the reproductive rates of specific areas.47

Another
2015 law also severely impacted the Rohingya and denied them the opportunity to
participate in Myanmar’s first free election in 25 years. Many Rohingya
possessed white cards—a temporary identification document—that allowed them to
vote in 2010 elections. In February 2015 those cards were annulled. Further,
several Muslim candidates for office were disqualified.48 

CONCLUSION

Hatred
towards the Rohingya combined with a network of discriminatory laws generates a
culture of oppression for the Rohingya, not to mention a disregard for the
human rights enshrined in many international instruments. At the very least, it
constitutes apartheid. The rights to life, health, nondiscrimination, and
freedom of movement have all been violated. Human Rights Watch has found that
the violations committed by Burmese military amount to crimes against
humanity—in 2012, 2016, and 2017.49 The United Nations has
called it ethnic cleansing, perhaps even genocide.50

On
January 18, 2018, a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh told England’s Channel 4
News: “We will not go back. We would rather die here than
be sent to Myanmar.”51 It is impossible to comprehend
the situation they find themselves in. International rights groups are
appealing for the international community to take stronger action; so far, to
no avail.52
The results of nonaction will be profound. Before World War II, Jews “were also
often treated as perpetual aliens who were not truly part of the nation.”53 Apartheid South Africa
defended a state built on racism, forcing many to live in substandard
conditions and plunging millions into poverty.54 Ethnic tension in Rwanda eventually
led to the slaughter of 800,000 people.55 The Rohingya people have
suffering persecution for at least the last 70 years, and already, thousands
have been killed.56 We can only hope the
international community steps in soon, before history repeats itself.