Amidst commendable progress in Burma’s democratization, one voice in the country has been consistently silenced. The Rohingya people are quickly becoming the ethnic minority whose fate will likely be remembered as a “casualty” of democracy – a type of collateral damage symptomatic of states that make the transition from military regimes to full-fledged democracies. In the shadow of Burma’s democratic parading, the fact remains: the Rohingya, a 500,000 Muslim-minority group based in the Arakan region, remain amongst the most persecuted people on the planet — having suffered extreme persecution and discrimination throughout history.
The persecution of the Rohingya is not a novel phenomenon. The Hmannan Yazawin – known in English as the Glass Palace Chronicle – is the standard account of Burma’s pre-colonial Konbaung Dynasty; it boasts the first reported execution of a Muslim man in Burma in 1050 AD. His name was Byat Wi, and legend has it that he was killed because the king feared his “elephant-like” strength. Byat Wi’s nephews also perished under the reign of Mo, Burma’s king.
The Muslim population has been persecuted by successive Burmese governments ever since.
The Rohingya were citizens of Myanmar until the late dictator Ne Win promulgated the restrictive Citizenship Law of 1982. This law declared the Rohingya “non-nationals” or “foreign residents” and excluded them from one of the 135 “national races” recognized by the Burmese government. Expelled from the army and precluded from practicing certain religious practices – for example halal slaughtering – the Rohingya’s political rights have been severely constrained.
Despite settlements in Burma since the 15th century, the Rohingya are effectively stateless.
In June, sectarian violence erupted between Buddhists and Rohingya groups, resulting in 80 deaths, and the displacement of approximately 100,000 people, most of them Rohingya. This includes an incident in which a bus was attacked by Buddhist villagers who killed 10 Muslim passengers. Human Rights Watch has criticized the government for failing to prevent the conflict, and has presented evidence demonstrating government involvement in violence against the Rohingya. As such, the Burmese government may be in violation of basic international law, known as jus cogens, which includes a prohibition on crimes against humanity. It may be argued that the government may be in breach of international human rights law, as well as other international law obligations, such as the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which provides that law enforcement officials shall apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force.
Despite the government touting its political reforms, and releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, from detention, the tide of anti-Rohingya sentiment is clearly mounting. Thein Sein, Burma’s President, proposed a resettlement plan to relocate Rohingya to a third country – effectively engineering the mass deportation of an unwanted ethnic minority. Unsurprisingly, the UNCHR rejected the proposal. Nonetheless, Buddhist protesters led demonstrations supporting the mass deportation of the Rohingya from Burma.
The world’s response to these events has been disappointingly weak. For a group that has been labeled the "most" persecuted in the world, the Rohingyas have also been one of the most ignored by the international community. As one Harvard Law School report has noted, “the UN Security Council has not moved the process forward as it should and has in similar situations such as those in the former Yugoslavia and Darfur.”
Burma’s recent economic liberalization must be welcomed with skepticism. Despite the much anticipated new Foreign Investment Law, due for further debate in the National Assembly this month, what comfort can investors have if they know that the country selectively enforces the rights of its own people? In other words, Burma’s commitment to the rule of law has yet to be tested.
Not only have the Rohingyas been severely persecuted at home. They also find themselves increasingly isolated in and ostracized by the global community. Having no safe haven in Burma, the Rohingya have fled the country in the thousands, primarily to Bangladesh. However, potentially in contravention of its international legal obligations, Bangladesh closed its border and pushed many Rohingya back across the border. Bangladesh sought to defend its actions by stating that it has no obligation to provide refuge since it was not a party to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and its Protocol of 1968. But under customary international law, the Rohingya deserve international protection following the targeted death of hundreds, according to Human Rights Watch.
Recent events in the Arab world have raised many people’s hopes that this will be the decade democracy triumphed. Burma, with its own recent democratic political reforms, would at first glance seem to share in some of this democratic excitement. Indeed, Burma has skillfully crafted a compelling public relations campaign showcasing reforms highly valued in the West: the freedom of the press, the release of political prisoners, and the liberalization of its economy. But the international community should hold its applause until Burma faces up to its responsibilities to the Rohingya. If the democratic project is to be complete, the voices of the weakest and most discriminated cannot be ignored.
Lucas Bento is an attorney in New York specializing in complex litigation and international arbitration. Guled Yusuf is a lawyer in London specializing in international law and arbitration.