Defining Myanmar’s “Rohingya Problem”

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Defining Myanmar’s “Rohingya Problem”

By Benjamin Zawacki is the Senior Legal Advisor for Southeast Asia at the ICJ, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Much has been written either empathetically or as a challenge of Myanmar’s “Rohingya problem.” Between June and November 2012, the Rohingya bore the brunt of communal violence, human rights violations, and an urgent humanitarian situation in Rakhine State, and still face an uncertain future. A great deal of rhetoric has attended these accounts—by officials and citizens of Myanmar, Rohingya organizations, journalists, human rights groups, and others—essentially attaching labels to the situation. And while there have been a number of thoughtful attempts to define or even explain the Rohingya problem in historical or political terms, they have been largely drowned out by emotive outbursts and media-friendly sound bites.

This is not only unfortunate, it is also consequential, for as was seen in 2012, rhetoric can influence both the way in which a crisis plays out as well as in how it is responded to. In other words, how we talk about what it is we are talking about matters. What do we mean when we talk about the “Rohingya problem”? In proffering a modest definition of Myanmar’s “Rohingya problem”—one almost entirely of its own making—three distinct but related areas of law and fact warrant particular examination: 1) nationality and discrimination, which focuses exclusively on Myanmar; 2) statelessness and displacement, which implicates Myanmar’s neighbors as well; and 3) the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, which draws into the discussion the role of the international community.

These three areas demonstrate that although the root causes of the “Rohingya problem” are within Myanmar, their effects are felt regionally and are of relevance even further afield. They are thus progressively causal, and they imply where efforts toward solutions should be directed and prioritized. The violent events of 2012, as well as those of 1978, 1992, 2001, and 2009, can be attributed to systemic discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar. That is, to a political, social, and economic system—manifested in law, policy, and practice—designed to discriminate against this ethnic and religious minority.

This system makes such direct violence against the Rohingya far more possible and likely than it would be otherwise. Further, in the eyes of the Myanmar authorities at least—as evidenced by the lack of legal accountability for civilians and officials alike—discrimination also makes the violence and violations somehow justifiable. This is the Rohingya problem boiled down to its most basic element.

In 1978’s “Dragon King” operation, the Myanmar army committed widespread killings and rapes of Rohingya civilians, and they carried out the destruction of mosques and other religious persecution. These events resulted in the exodus of an estimated 200,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh. Another campaign of forced labor, summary executions, torture, and rape in 1992 led to a similar number of Rohingyas fleeing across the border. In February 2001, communal violence between the Muslim and Buddhist populations in Sittwe resulted in an unknown number of people killed and Muslim property destroyed. In late 2008 and early 2009, Thai authorities pushed back onto the high seas several boats—lacking adequate food, water, and fuel—of Rohingyas in the Andaman Sea.

Eliminating it now, however, is urgently required for a future of sustainable peace in Rakhine State. Equally important, it is imperative under human rights law. The system’s anchor is the 1982 Citizenship Law, which in both design and implementation effectively denies the right to a nationality to the Rohingya population. It supersedes all previous citizenship regimes in Myanmar. The 1982 Citizenship Law creates three classes of citizens—full, associate, and naturalized—none of which has been conferred on most Rohingyas.

The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, agreed upon by the UN General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, has three main pillars: 1) the state carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement; 2) the international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist states in fulfilling this responsibility; and 3) the international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. ##

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