“Five soldiers were taking turns to rape a 25 year old woman after they butchered her husband with a knife, when her eight month old son started crying because he was hungry and wanted to be breast fed. To silence him, they killed him too with a knife.”
This is the nature of reports currently pouring out of the Rohingya community in Myanmar. The Rohingya have been described as the most persecuted minority in the world. So why do so few of us know who they are?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority, originating from the Rakhine State (formerly Arakan) in Myanmar (Burma). They are both ethnically and religiously distinct from the Buddhist majority. Their heritage in the Arakan region dates back centuries. The exact date is in dispute, but there is strong historical basis that the Rohingya are indigenous peoples of the Rakhine State.
Following independence in 1948 and prior to the 1962 military coup, the Rohingya had full citizenship and corresponding rights and freedoms. However, beginning in 1962, the ruling military junta deemed the Rohingya people illegal “Bengali” immigrants. This further fueled and legitimized anti-Rohingya attitudes already held by the Buddhist majority.
These sentiments became systemized, and, over time, the Rohingya were stripped of civil, political and economic rights. At the height of this discriminatory campaign was the 1982 Citizenship Law, which specifically excluded the Rohingya from the list of recognised ethnic groups. The Rohingya were made stateless within their own state and were legislated out of existence.
For decades, they have consistently been subject to flagrant human rights abuses including restriction on movement, forced labour, land confiscation, denial of rights to education, work and marriage. Such policies have clearly been designed to push them to the fringes of society, marginalizing them and forcing them into a life of extreme poverty. Most significantly, this has disempowered them as a community, eliminating their ability to effectively resist.
Between the late 1970s and early 1990s, the denial of basic fundamental human rights forced the Rohingya to flee their homeland to escape the tyranny of the regime. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, however they continue to live in hostile environments in refugee camps. Rather than find sanctuary, the Rohingya have suffered sexual violence and continue to be denied basic fundamental rights.
In 2012, deadly sectarian violence emerged between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists. The government not only failed to intervene but the security forces partnered with the Rakhine mobs and committed killings, rape, arbitrary violence, and mass arrests against the Rohingya. The state sanctioned violence led to the displacement of over a 100,000 people.
The institutionalized discrimination continued with former president Thein Sein passing four Protection of Race and Religion laws in August 2015, which received widespread criticism from human rights groups for their discriminatory nature and targeting of Muslim minorities intended to eradicate the Rohingya’s right to exist as a distinct minority.
Central to the Rohingya plight is the denial of citizenship, the denial of a right to identity—essentially the denial of a right to be. An example of this is the revocation of Rohingya ID cards. One may only obtain a new card, and therefore apply for citizenship, if they identify as ‘Bengali.’ Tactics such as these have been employed to erase the Rohingya’s existence as an indigenous group and to redefine their very humanity.
A number of parallels can be drawn between the Rohingya plight and the Palestinian plight, a key area of CCR’s work. Parallels include state sponsored discrimination, policies designed to distort geographical and historical realities to erase an indigenous group. One similar policy is Israel’s ID card system used to control Palestinian identity in the wider context of the Zionist colonial project. Palestinians can apply for Israeli citizenship at the expense of denying their heritage, asserting themselves as Israeli as opposed to Palestinian.
Like Palestinians, the Rohingya continue to face systematic persecution, despite the historic elections in 2015 where so-called human rights activist Aug San Suu Kyi won by a landslide. Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya has been described as “shameful,” and rightly so given her reputation as an iconic Nobel Peace Laureate and the violence that has flared up since October 2016.
Countless atrocities against the Rohingya have been reported, including extrajudicial killings, villages being burnt down, mass rape, disappearances and forced displacement. There have been reports to UN investigators of babies and young children being trampled or knived to death. One five-year-old had her throat slit for screaming trying to protect her mother from being gang raped. As of 6th February, the UN Humanitarian Office reports that 69,000 Rohingya people have fled to Bangladesh. Their efforts to flee remain futile, with Bangladesh often forcing people back.
Where does the international community stand in all of this? As a result of Myanmar’s alleged move towards democratization, a number of countries including the U.S. have lifted sanctions against Myanmar, completely disregarding the plight of the Rohingya and providing a license to continue to act with impunity. All we have had in response to one of the gravest humanitarian catastrophes of our time is the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s “deep concern” for reported human rights abuses in the Rakhine State which has more recently developed into statements that Myanmar security forces have ‘very likely’ committed crimes against humanity.
The Rohingya struggle is one of the starkest embodiments of the failure of international systems and international law. There are a number of legal and normative frameworks that ought to apply to the Rohingya plight, including international human rights law, international criminal law, international refugee law and the responsibility to protect. Yet there is no relief, no remedy and no effective recourse.
The phrase “never again” is often espoused on genocide commemoration days when we talk about preventing mass atrocities. But, in so many cases such as Myanmar, Palestine, Syria and Yemen “over and over again” is more accurate. Language, labels, and legal definitions are selective because they reflect oppressive relationships of power that enable human rights violations to begin with. Too often, oppressed people have to wait for their suffering to reach an arbitrary threshold imposed by those complicit in their oppression. Consequently, their struggle is appropriated and their suffering is colonized, just like their existence. Just like their place in history—a history that is simultaneously being erased and rewritten.
To navigate within an unjust system, we must first recognize that the political system and the law will never be enough. We must raise our consciousness on an individual level and in community with one another. We must identify shared struggles when we try and support groups in elevating their voices. When we talk about Palestine, we must talk about the Rohingya. When we talk about Standing Rock, we must talk about the Rohingya. When we speak for Syria we must speak for the Rohingya, whose decades long struggle has so often been silenced. We must not be selective in our outrage or condemnation.
We must universally stand with all oppressed people, if we are truly committed to every individual’s right to live in their full humanity, in dignity and with freedom.
Zeenat Islam is a London based barrister specializing in criminal defence with a background in international law and human rights. She was the 2016 Pegasus Fellow at the CCR. Follow @zeenat_islam