Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Roaming Rohingya: Stateless and Suffering in Myanmar

Foreign Policy Digest
Asia Pacific - June 2010

Written by Niki Shah
After meeting this May with Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel laureate Burmese democracy icon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell said that Myanmar's upcoming elections, if held under the 2008 constitution, would lack international legitimacy. Under this revised constitution, the military junta in Myanmar would be replaced by a civilian government, including a 440-member legislature of which 25 percent of seats will be reserved for the military. The constitutional revisions prompted some cabinet members in the junta to resign from the military and transform themselves into civilians in order to qualify for a larger proportion of seats.

The junta's control has systematically disallowed social reforms to take place, continuously denying minority communities the basic civil liberties and rights necessary to sustain their daily lives. Political struggles and armed conflicts between the military regime and political opponents such as the National League for Democracy have left nearly 3.5 million people in Myanmar stateless without access to public services or a legal claim to basic freedoms and civil and political rights.

One of the world's most persecuted minorities according to the U.N., the Rohingya people comprise an Islamic community in the North Arakan region of Myanmar that has been subject to discriminatory practices and denied basic rights, such as the rights to free movement or marriage, as well as the rights to access to medical services, food or housing.

Two hundred thousand Rohingyas live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and others have fled to nearby countries such as India, China, Malaysia and Thailand. Thousands of Rohingyas have risked their lives in search of job opportunities in the Middle East and Bangladesh. Although some of the population has fled to neighboring countries, Rohingyas have been systematically denied the right to return to Myanmmar and face either deportation from Thailand and Malaysia into areas controlled by insurgent groups along the Burmese border. Reports from Thailand state that refugees are often arrested and subject to harsh treatment while in detention. In 2008, several refugees were directly transferred to the custody of the Thai Army at Koh Sai Daeng despite their weak conditions, while others were forced to board boats that were not seaworthy.

The 1982 Citizenship Law denied citizenship to the Rohingyas, restricted their ability to travel and made them ineligible for any government jobs, such as those in public schools or public health facilities. Women and girls are deprived of basic education and economic opportunities while forced marriages and sex trafficking are not uncommon. According to the Forced Migration Review, humanitarian agencies are prevented from training Rohingya health workers and auxiliary midwives are often subject to forced labor, arbitrary taxation and confiscation of land.

The current administration has pursued diplomatic engagement, as well as economic and diplomatic sanctions, to persuade the military leadership to heed international norms and to castigate Myanmar's military regime for depriving its people of human rights and political freedoms. In response to the military junta's March 2010 elections law that prohibits any pro-democracy party from participating in elections, the U.S. has twice attempted to hold talks with the military leadership to press for political and social reforms. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Congress assessed the implications of the new U.S. policy toward Burma, which was announced in October 2009. According to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing transcript, the Obama administration conducted the policy review due to some troubling developments, which included the crackdown on the Saffron Revolution, the national referendum held after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, human rights violations along the Sino-Burmese border, and the sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the pro-independence leader Aung San.

Despite international engagement by the U.S., various NGOs and the international community, the humanitarian situation in Burma is improving, at best, a glacial pace.
Donor governments should continue to assess the impact of the UNHCR's work in Burma and in neighboring countries like India and Thailand, where significant numbers of Burmese have fled. Based on these evaluations, governments should maintain aid flexibility to coordinate efforts with humanitarian organizations that provide services in conflict zones, especially in Burma. Furthermore, the U.S. should consider increasing foreign aid for democracy and governance related programs. Although impact evaluations for such programs can be expensive and inaccurate, it is important to demonstrate accountability and transparency for effective aid to be channeled to multilateral institutions that work with the refugee population in and around Burma.

The U.S. should continue its negotiations with the military regime to create and maintain a protected environment, which include the right to self-determination, freedom of movement and free access to basic services. This is particularly urgent in the northern state of Rakhine, where language barriers prevent Rohingyas from accessing medical services and education. Rohingyas face challenges in receiving care from non-state sources because international humanitarian agencies are prevented from training Muslim health workers.

Regional stakeholders like Thailand, Bangladesh, China and India should confer some form of legal status to Rohingyas in order to prevent human right abuses and make them eligible for basic services. It is in the national interests of China and India, in particular, to work closely with these Burmese refugees and convince the Burmese military leadership to follow customary international norms of human rights, given their trilateral trade and military ties. More importantly, it is equally important for the international community, particular the regional stakeholders, to coordinate with humanitarian organizations to prevent human rights violations and provide access to services that can save lives and provide suitable living conditions.

Niki Shah has worked at the United Nations and Capitol Hill and periodically contributes op-eds for South Asian news outlets. Niki received a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Media and Economics from and M.S. in Global Affairs and minor in International Business from Rutgers University.

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