The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar : Past, Present, and Future

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The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar : Past, Present, and Future

ENGY ABDELKADER  is based at Rutgers University where her teaching and research explores religion, race and gender at the intersection of law, politics.

The United Nations has long characterized the Rohingya Muslims as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.5 By way of background, anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment has long tainted the state’s political and social spheres.6 More recently, escalating violence has not only exasperated the humanitarian crises confronting the Rohingya Muslims, but it also threatens to undermine the Burmese transition from one-party military rule to democratic governance. It adversely impacts global security, too.

This writing examines the Rohingya Muslim experience historically, but perhaps more significantly, it examines their experience through a contemporary humanitarian and human rights lens as well. Indeed, it begins with a brief history of the Rohingya Muslims in post-colonial Myanmar. The second section analyzes contemporary humanitarian developments. The third section explores several key human rights abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims. The fourth section discusses realities surrounding the United States policy on Myanmar. The final section concludes with recommendations.

Upon achieving independence from England in 1948, Myanmar struggled with armed ethnic conflict and political instability during a prolonged period of political reformation.8 In 1962, a military coup produced a one-party, military state informed by socialist notions of governance—it would last for more than sixty years.

During that time, the Burmese army committed numerous human rights abuses, such as killing, raping, and torturing10 the state’s Rohingya Muslim population.11 Notably, the army subjected the group to mass expulsions in 197712 and 1992,13 creating what has been widely viewed as a chronic refugee crisis in neighboring Bangladesh. Two years later, many of the Rohingya were forced to return to Myanmar; instances of excessive force by the Bangladeshi security forces and the Burmese troops (receiving the Rohingya) resulted in some deaths. Those Rohingya who returned were granted limited rights to movement and employment. Thousands remain displaced even today, surviving on international humanitarian aid while continuing to endure brutal repression by state border guards. Such repression includes forced conscription to perform labor, arbitrary detention, beatings, and other mistreatment.

The human rights and humanitarian condition of the Rohingya is further exasperated by their official “statelessness.” The Citizenship Act, enacted in 1982, codified the legal exclusion of the Rohingya, presently numbering approximately one million, by denying the group citizenship rights. The Act officially recognizes 135 “national races” that qualify for citizenship. The Rohingya Muslims are not included on that list and as such are denied the full benefits of citizenship on account of what the Burmese government has described as their “nonindigenous ancestry.” Widespread societal prejudice against the group informs the historical (and contemporary) lack of political will to repeal the law.

To be sure, the denial of Burmese citizenship has resulted in additional injustices and inequalities.25 Illustrative is a Burmese law— the Emergency Immigration Act—requiring the possession of National Registration Certificates by all citizens. As noncitizens, however, the Rohingya can only possess Foreign Registration Cards, which are rejected by a number of schools and employers.

The government has also restricted their rights to marry, own property, and move freely—rights guaranteed to non-citizens as well as citizens under international law. Human rights violations continue until present day notwithstanding a nominally civilian Burmese government ushered in by popular elections in March 2011. Set against this humanitarian background, several critical human rights issues may be distilled vis-à-vis the Rohingya Muslims: denial of citizenship rights, restrictions on religious freedom, forced displacement, and the lethal use of force. In fact, these issues were examined earlier this year when the late64 Congressman Tom Lantos scheduled a related hearing before the Human Rights Commission.

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