Interview: The Stateless Rohingya


The Rohingya are one of the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities and are internationally recognized as de jure stateless. As Myanmar struggles to form a democratic state during a period of transition after decades of totalitarian military rule, the Rohingya are receiving renewed attention. Vanessa Thevathasan recently spoke with members of The Stateless Rohingya about the plight of the Rohingya and regional responsibility for their human rights.

Tell us who you are and the aims of your organization, The Stateless Rohingya. 

My name is Mohammed Rafique and I was stateless for my whole life until I was resettled in Ireland along with 78 members of the Rohingya from a Bangladesh refugee camp by the government of Ireland in 2009.

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Rohingya Community Ireland is a community organization that focuses on the development of Rohingya youngsters and interaction with the people of Ireland from the community to the national level, as well as working with Rohingya and non-Rohingya NGOs from outside of Ireland to bring changes to the Rohingya community as a whole.

The Stateless Rohingya is a blog run from Ireland, which aims to provide authentic, important and day-to-day news on the plight of Rohingya by bringing together news articles, the opinions of Rohingya and non-Rohingya authors, and other media. Its main objective is to make the world aware of the persecution of the Rohingya, who are being forced from being “Natives of Arakan” to statelessness.

How does Myanmar view the Rohingya?

Put simply, as “animals,” “non-human” or “aliens.” Many inflammatory Burmese politicians and authors refer to the Rohingya as a “virus.” Ordinary Burmese people view us as “Illegal Bengali.” There have been decades of propaganda and brainwashing of the general public against Rohingya by various government and non-government organizations. As a result, Rohingya are not accepted as an ethnic group or citizens of Burma.

The Rohingya are internationally recognized are stateless. Can you explain how Myanmar has declassified and revoked their citizenship rights?

Many people who have studied the Rohingya know that the Rohingya were an ethnic group and citizens of Burma, something that is still strongly anchored in the heart of every Rohingya. In 1962, dictator Ne Win came to power and set up plans to declassify and revoke the rights of the Rohingya. He cancelled Rohingya language programs in 1965, which had up until that point been broadcast on the Burmese Broadcasting Service as an ethnic language program. In 1974, he changed Arakan state to Rakhine, an ethnically motivated name. He then introduced the 1982 Citizenship Law that stripped Rohingya of their fundamental rights as citizens of Burma. The law was internationally condemned, but sadly it still remains in the current constitution that makes Rohingya vulnerable to discrimination and persecution.

Statelessness prevents individuals from accessing basic services and is the greatest inhibitor of individual progress. Explain the discriminations and prejudices they face as a result of not having citizenship. 

It affects every aspect of their life and makes them highly vulnerable to those who are willing to take advantage of these voiceless people.

It restricts freedom of movement even between villages. The travel restriction greatly impedes Rohingya from doing business and pursuing higher education, which is another discrimination that prevents Rohingya students from studying subjects like medicine, dentistry, history, law and engineering.

Another major discrimination is religious freedom. There are frequent demolitions, confiscations and closures of mosques and religious schools. Religious scholars are given irrational prison sentences, are humiliated by have their beards shaven, or are mutilating. In marriages, grooms with beards are required to be clean-shaven before the marriage is approved.

The two-child policy applies solely to the Rohingya. It has been widely approved by various extremist groups in Burma, despite breaking international law and having come under intense international condemnation.

Confiscation is a common practice. Houses, mosques, shops and cattle are being taken away from the Rohingya and converted to “modern villages” by the Burmese government in Rakhine to  depopulate Rohingya districts.

As they are classified as foreigners, forced labor without payment is common, as is torture. Other prevalent practices include arbitrary taxation, denial of access to healthcare, and arbitrary arrest.

Women and girls’ are being raped and attacked without any recourse to justice.

Recognized as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, have you been able to document the human rights abuses faced by the Rohingya?

Documentation has an important role in human rights abuses. Many NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Physicians Human Rights, Medicines Sans Frontier, Fortify Rights and the Irish Centre for Human Rights have documented human rights abuses over the years, especially in recent years when the world came to know the silent human rights abuses of the Rohingya.

The Stateless Rohingya blog has been reporting and documenting the human rights abuses since its launch. The latest violence was sparked in 2012 after Buddhist mobs reacted to the rumor that a Rohingya had raped a girl in a village; this rumor has never been verified. The blog has collected the names of the Rohingya massacred since 2012. It has now passed more than 900 murders, although the government reports that there were only 82 deaths. Without a doubt, there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of deaths that have not been possible to document due to the nature or location of the killing.

In short, the Burmese government and extremist groups have committed crimes and have directly violated nearly all 30 articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All violations are well documented.

How does statelessness affect Rohingya children?

Where there is discrimination and persecution, women and children always suffer most.  Every Rohingya child born after the 1982 Citizenship Law automatically becomes stateless, which has detrimentally impacted their development.

Children are unable to access proper education from primary to tertiary levels or receive essential healthcare and vaccinations to protect them from communicable diseases.

Since 2012, countless Rohingya children have died in the internally displaced camps from malnutrition and diseases due to the blockade against aid and aid groups by the government and extremist groups.

What challenges have aid agencies faced when trying to reach displaced Rohingya?

To understand the challenges that aid organizations face, you have to understand the situation in the internally displaced camps. The camps are literally open prisons heavily guarded by soldiers and various Burmese law enforcement agencies working within and around the camps, and a number of extremist monk groups, for instance, the notorious 969 terrorist organization and Rakhine extremist groups who decide what aid group or what aid should be allowed into the Rohingya. These extremist groups threaten aid organizations helping the Rohingya, and the government allows this to take place.

When an aid agency wants to provide services to the Rohingya they are told they must first provide services to ethnic residents in Rakhine, people who have committed and are continuing to commit crimes against the Rohingya. Early this year, Medicines Sans Frontier was kicked out of Arakan by the government, backed by extremist groups, who accused the organization of being sympathetic towards the Rohingya.  As a result, the camps suffered starvation, malnutrition and disease, with severe loss of life.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has expressed concern that Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have been excluded from the latest census that the UN Population Fund helped conduct. Are you optimistic that the Rohingya will be included by the next census?

The Burmese government has made promises after promises, breaking them one after another. The UN Population Fund is also responsible for the exclusion of Rohingya from the recent census, firstly providing funds, secondly trusting [the government], and finally not taking action against the government for breaking its promise to include the Rohingya in the census.

There is so much pessimism regarding the next census, and we do not know when it will be held. It is unlikely to happen in this generation. When it takes place, many Rohingya will then be forcibly reclassified, detained in permanent prisons, or forced to flee.

In the latest debate about citizenship cards for the Rohingya, Burmese officials are now saying they will offer citizenship if they agree to be reclassified as “Bengali.” Alternatively they will face detention as illegal migrants. What further obstacles would the Rohingya face is this was to take place? 

The debate on the Rohingya citizenship cards has been ongoing for many decades. Until the recent debate, the government warmly welcomed any Rohingya who wanted the citizenship cards by doing a simple trade: “Accept Buddhism, and we will accept you as brothers in a fraction of second.” Now, the trade is at another level.

Indeed, the situation is different now given that a tenth of the Rohingya population is in heavily guarded camps and the rest in the enclosed Rakhine state. The abuses by the government and the extremist groups are escalating since no international action has taken place against them for what they committed in 2012. Unless the international community breaks its silence, the government will force Rohingya to either declassify or be detained as illegal immigrants.

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to visit Burma in November 2014. What are your hopes and expectations from this visit in mobilizing greater international effort to address persecution facing the Rohingya?

President Obama’s previous trip did little to help solve the plight of Rohingya, despite his call for the restoration of equal rights. It is not the time for superficial words or “concerns”; only real pressure and action will compel the Burmese government to [change].

Since you express this as a case of “silent genocide,” what response would you expect from the international community?

The international community should not let the government go unpunished. Their lack of action has not only motivated the government to commit more crimes against Rohingya and other communities but will also encourage other governments to commit similar crimes elsewhere in the world. We do not want another Rwanda. Yet we are letting it happen again.

Perpetrators must be brought to justice, the best way would be to go through the route of the International Criminal Court, to initiate an investigation and obtain prosecutions.

What impact, if at all, have the economic sanctions had in changing the situation for the Rohingya? Are they worth keeping and why?

It is absolutely worth keeping the sanctions. [But] the sanctions should be targeted at the government, it agencies, elites and organizations and companies that all support and enforce discriminatory policies against the Rohingya.

With China as Myanmar’s neighbor and regional economic powerhouse, what has its impact been internally in Burma and how has this affected the Rohingya?

China has tremendous influence in Burma politically and economically, although the West has gained influence in the past few years. China has invested heavily in Arakan, the home of the Rohingya. Chinese state companies have invested billions of dollars in a gas project carrying gas from Kyaukpyu in Arakan to Kunming in southwestern China. This project will further unbalance Rakhine for the Rohingya.

Public attention has been diverted towards the controversial project and the benefits it will bestow on the population, thereby allowing the state and its actors to continue its genocidal acts.

ASEAN has not taken action against Myanmar for its continuing persecution of the Rohingya. What role should ASEAN be playing?

ASEAN is purely a business and developmental platform, although its charter calls for it to promote and protect human rights, and to uphold the United Nations Charter and international laws. Its leaders avoid mingling in members’ internal affairs.

ASEAN should play an active role in providing humanitarian aid to the displaced Rohingya as well as pressuring the Burmese government. It should also apply economic sanctions, which might be more effective than the sanctions applied by the West since ASEAN is Burma’s bread-and-butter.

The worst part of ASEAN is that the leader of the Rohingya genocide, President Thein Sein is now heading the organization.

Follow Vanessa Thevathasan on Twitter @VThevathasan.

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