Understanding causes of human rights violations : a case study of the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar

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Understanding causes of human rights violations : a case study of the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar
By  Dr. Nyi Nyi Kyaw,  Exciting and Innovative research, UNSW, Canberra, Australia.

The present study is one of the first academic efforts to systematically study the causes of the massive human rights violations that Rohingyas have suffered in Myanmar over the past half a century. While most of the existing literature treat the “Rohingya problem” as a case of forced migration or de jure statelessness, I trace it back to colonial times and the immediate post- independence period, demonstrating that it is a sedimented problem involving different players at different critical junctures. In theoretical terms, the study is informed by broad social theories of rationalism, structuralism and culturalism and specific theories of repression, identity and threat construction and perception. Methodologically it is a process-tracing case study of the Rohingya plight. I argue that the Rohingya plight is a case of human rights violations caused by rationalist political aspirations and demographic insecurities of Myanmar and, later, Rakhine authorities, structural imbalances between Rakhines and Rohingyas in ethnic terms and between central Bamar-dominated governments and Rakhine State, and conflicting cultural identities between Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhist majority in Myanmar.

This chapter first discusses the issue on which the present study focuses, i.e. the plight of the Rohingya. It then poses a research question to guide the study: what are its causes? Then, it presents a review of the existing literature on the question. Then, it discusses three contested terms – Rohingya, human rights, and human rights violations – and defines them as they have been understood in the study. Lastly, it explains the case study and its merits, the method of process tracing, and establishes why they are useful for the study.

The issue —  Famously portrayed by the United Nations1 and the media as one of the most persecuted peoples in the World, the Rohingyas are an ethnoreligious and linguistic minority group mostly concentrated in the three towns of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung in northern Rakhine State (NRS) in the West of Myanmar which shares a border of 176 miles with Bangladesh. The Rohingya population in NRS is estimated to be around1,000,000 ( One Million ) with a larger diaspora abroad as refugees, forced migrants or illegal economic migrants approximating two to three million mainly in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The issue, which started out as one of forced migration or refugees in the late 1970s, has grown over time into a multidimensional and multilayered issue involving different players within and outside Myanmar.

Usually depicted as a classic case of statelessness (more de jure than de facto ), the plight of Rohingyas stands out as one of the most serious and protracted human rights issues in Asia, stemming from within Myanmar and spilling over first in the late 1970s to Bangladesh, and then in recent years to Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, etc.

On two occasions in the past, in 1978-79 and 1991-92, state repression committed on the pretext, first, of an immigration check and, later, of military expansion and counterinsurgency caused a mass exodus of Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh. Each of the two exoduses involved around two hundred thousand Rohingya refugees or forced migrants. Most, if not all, of the refugees have since been repatriated home, often in involuntary ways, but Bangladesh still hosts around 30,000 recognized Rohingya refugees in two camps and around 250,000-500,000 undocumented Rohingyas in the southeast district of Cox’s Bazar, all of whom live under extremely precarious conditions. Since almost all of the Rohingyas who fled during the two exoduses were repatriated, the 250,000-500,000 undocumented Rohingyas supposed to be still stranded in Bangladesh are likely to have fled in smaller numbers in-between and afterward the two exoduses.

During the 1990s and 2000s, with the door to Bangladesh closing, Rohingya boatpeople started fleeing to countries further away, such as Thailand and Malaysia, often falling prey to regional human traffickers and smugglers. Some even made it to the faraway shores of Indonesia and Australia. Most of these new destinations treat them not as bona fide refugees but as illegal, irregular sea migrants and potential threats to their maritime and national security. Although third countries in the 2000s resettled thousands of other Myanmar refugees fleeing government repression, Rohingyas, with their undocumented or disputed belonging to Myanmar, have generally not been accepted. The UNHCR and refugee-receiving countries often assume that the Rohingyas might better integrate in countries, such as Bangladesh and Malaysia where they share the common religious denominator of Islam with the host communities. The  reality is different, however, and Rohingyas are generally unwelcome and repressed by the local authorities and peoples in both countries. With few opportunities for resettling in third countries or integrating into neighbouring countries, the only alternative left for many Rohingya refugees is to return home, which is extremely difficult.

The drivers of this refugee crisis are the subject of this thesis. During the Naga-Min Operation in 1978, there were many accusations of ill treatment of Rohingyas at the hands of the Burmese security forces. After the refugees were repatriated, presumably because they had been able to document their belonging to Burma, the Burmese authorities failed to officially acknowledge that the refugees, as well as those who had remained in NRS, are citizens or legal residents of Burma. Instead, a nationwide project to draft a new citizenship law was launched in 1979.

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