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The Plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar : Root Causes of the Crisis and Durable Solutions
By Dr. Myiam Francois is a journalist and academic with a PhD from Oxford University and Bethsabée Souris is a PhD candidate in Political Science at University College London (UCL).
Rakhine state, formerly known as Arakan state, is situated on the western coast of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. Despite the strategic location and a wealth of natural resources, it remains one of the poorest states in Myanmar, with heightened underdevelopment and economic marginalisation. Around 3.2 million people live inRakhine state, with the majority of the population being ethnic Rakhine and predominately Buddhist. The second largest group in Rakhine state are the Rohingyas, the majority of whom are Muslims and speak Rohingya dialect, which is not recognised as a national language. Rohingya is a self-identifying term that is not recognised by the Burmese government. Hence, no national reports refer to the Rohingyas. Similarly, projects conducted by international organisations working with the permission of the Burmese state do not necessarily refer to ‘Rohingyas’, but rather refer to the population located in northern Rakhine state or the Muslim population in Rakhine state.
It is difficult to establish the precise figures of the Rohingyas, as they were not accounted for in Myanmar’s 2014 national census. It is nonetheless estimated that there were one million Rohingyas in Rakhine state before the 2017 mass exodus. Rohingyas accounted for most of the population in three northern Rakhine townships: Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. While the northern Rakhine state is populated by a majority of Rohingyas, it is also home to other Muslim minorities, like the Kamam and the ethnic Rakhine, who can also be Muslim.
There were 140,000 Rakhine Muslims, a majority of which are Rohingyas, internally displaced after the 2012 widespread violence in Rakhine state. Furthermore, there has been a constant influx of Rohingyas to Bangladesh since 1978, with a peak of arrivals in 1991 and 1992. Following the outbreak of violence in August 2017, at least 646 000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, either in refugee camps or spontaneous settlements and in the host community.
As of 7 of December 2017, the total Rohingya refugee population living in Bangladesh has reached 858,59012. The Rohingyas have faced long-standing discrimination and have been gradually stripped of their citizenship. The UNHCR estimates that in February 2016, 940 000 people were without citizenship in Rakhine state, of which a majority are Rohingyas. The Rakhine state is among the poorest state in Myanmar, with larege needs for humanitarian assistance to address health and food crises. According to the World Bank, the Rohingyas are among the poorest minority in Myanmar, as they are 2.4 times more likely to be poor14 than the population at large.
Addressing the Root Causes of the Conflict — The first and most fundamental step for a resolution of the Rohingya crisis is to address the root causes of the conflict. As the Rakhine Advisory Commission led by Kofi Annan has stated, the ‘status quo in Rakhine state is not tenable’ and deep changes are necessary. There are no ‘quick fix’ solutions to the conflict in Rakhine state. Yet, European policymakers, in particular from the EU External Action Service, could push for few actions to be taken to find a path forward. There is a consensus among experts that the root causes of the conflict first lie with the lack of citizenship rights for Rohingyas. In Myanmar, acquisition of nationality is a political process that depends on an exclusive, ethnic citizenship regime.
As such, the ethnic minorities who are not recognised to have settled in Myanmar prior to British colonisation in 1824 are excluded from citizenship rights. This is the case for the Rohingyas, who are believed to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who arrived in Myanmar during the British colonisation, and they have, therefore, no clear legal status. As such, the 1982 Citizenship Law is the crux of the Rohingya plight. In addition, several aspects of the 1982 Citizenship Law are not in compliance with international standards and norms, such as the principle of non-discrimination.
Genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as other human rights violations, undermine the fabric of entire societies. Therefore, accountability for crimes and gross violations against Rohingyas is likely to be key to reinstating stability in society and rebuilding trust in public justice and security institutions. Accountability can also be a powerful deterrent from renewed human rights violations. Hence, the EU External Action Service and its member states should support the following initiatives to ensure the accountability of the alleged crimes against Rohingyas.
Finally, the EU and the International Communities should reinforce its humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees and ensure that they can return safely to their homeland.