Reports on Genocide in Myanmar Highlight the Need for Change

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Reports on Genocide in Myanmar Highlight the Need for Change
By Dr. Ronan Lee is a PhD from Deakin University on School of Humanities and Social Sciences , JAN 24 2016

‘It’s a genocide’, was the conclusion of two recent research reports about the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. Yet despite disturbing conclusions both reports have been criticised for their use of inflammatory language and their pre-election timing. Some argue the publication of a ‘genocide’ conclusion makes it harder to resolve the underlying causes of the Rohingya’s persecution. This article suggests these reports, despite the criticisms, highlight a human rights tragedy that needs to be publicised but that solving this tragedy must involve going beyond labels.

Instead, a resolution and peace require working with both major ethnic communities in Rakhine State. Sittwe is a town divided. Barbed wire, sandbags and armed police today separate the Buddhist communities of ‘free Sittwe’ from restricted Muslim areas. It has been this way in the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State since 2012, when state-wide communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims left almost 200 dead and around 140,000 displaced (International Crisis Group 2013). Physical separation is part of the authorities’ largely successful strategy to prevent a repeat of this violence but it has come at a terrible price for the state’s Muslim community known as ‘Rohingya’.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, are denied Myanmar citizenship and the rights and protections that accompany it. Despite claiming centuries of connection to the area now known as Rakhine State, the Rohingya’s heritage is disputed by many in Myanmar who consider them illegal Bengali migrants and certainly not members of an indigenous ethnic national race (Ware 2015).

The consequences of this for the Rohingya have been dire. Myanmar’s citizenship laws are based on group rights associated with ethnicity and race (International Crisis Group 2014; Taylor 2015), and the Rohingya’s failure to be included among the country’s 135 recognised ethnic groups has given the government the legal ability to deny them civil, political and economic rights (Burma Citizenship Law 1982; Human Rights Watch 2015). Individuals who previously held citizenship papers have had them removed meaning those claiming their ethnicity as ‘Rohingya’ are now stateless and vulnerable to human rights abuses (Ware & Lee 2015).

Today the Rohingya are living in pitiable circumstances and forced to endure deplorable restrictions on travel, economic activity, marriage, and pregnancy outside of marriage (Author’s observations; Human Rights Watch 2013; International Crisis Group 2013). The authorities’ strategy of separating Buddhist and Muslims communities means that, for the Rohingya, large parts of northern Rakhine State resemble an open prison, or worse. Tomás Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in 2013 reported receiving credible allegations of, “widespread and systematic human rights violations by state officials targeted against the Rohingya and wider Muslim populations” (OCHCR 2013). The situation has not improved in any significant way since then.

My fieldwork in Rakhine State confirms that travel restrictions are having a devastating impact on Muslims’ access to health, education and their ability to earn a livelihood. This fieldwork also confirms the material circumstances of many of Rakhine State’s majority ethnicity, the Buddhist ‘Rakhine’, often portrayed as the instigators and perpetrators of the 2012 violence, are similarly tenuous as they rely on a subsistence rural economy. However, the Rakhine, no matter their poverty, are not subject to the travel restrictions and human rights violations forced upon the Rohingya.

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