The Rohingya problem in Myanmar stems from the systematic discrimination against this ethnic and religious minority.
has been written lately, either empathetically or as a challenge, of
Myanmar’s “Rohingya problem”. Since early June, the Rohingya have borne
the brunt of communal violence, human rights violations, and an urgent
humanitarian situation in Rakhine State, and face an uncertain future.
But when considered more closely, is that all? What really is the
The events of this year, as well as the violent events
of 1978, 1992, 2001, and 2009, are attributable to systemic
discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar. That is, to a political,
social, and economic system – manifested in law, policy, and practices –
designed to discriminate against this ethnic and religious minority.
system makes such direct violence against the Rohingya far more
possible and likely than it would otherwise be. Further, in the eyes of
the Myanmar authorities at least – as evidenced by the lack of
accountability for the civilians and officials alike – discrimination
also makes the violence and violations somehow justifiable. That is the
In 1978’s “Dragon King” operation, the Myanmar army
committed widespread killings and rape of Rohingya civilians and carried
out the destruction of mosques and other religious persecution. That
resulted in the exodus of an estimated 200,000 Rohingya to neighbouring
A similar campaign of forced labour, summary
executions, torture and rape in 1992 led to a similar number of
Rohingyas again fleeing across the border.
In February 2001,
communal violence between the Muslim and Buddhist populations in Sittwe
resulted in an unknown number of people killed and Muslim property
Late 2009 featured the pushing back by Thai
authorities onto the high seas of several boats – lacking adequate food,
water, and fuel – of Rohingyas in the Andaman Sea.
It is true
that all of these events have similar, separate equivalents in countries
in which systemic discrimination does not take place.
Myanmar such discrimination provides the violence with a ready-made
antecedent, expressly approved by the state. Indeed, to varying degrees,
the five seminal events noted above were simply exacerbations of this
It would overstate the causality to
assert that if Myanmar had never put its system of discrimination
against the Rohingya into place, these events would not have occurred.
Eliminating it now, however, is urgently required for a sustainable
future peace in Rakhine State and, equally important, is a human rights
The system’s anchor is the 1982 Citizenship Law,
which in both design and implementation effectively denies the right to a
nationality to the Rohingya population. It supercedes all previous
citizenship regimes in Myanmar of 1947, 1948, and 1974.
Citizenship Law creates three classes of citizens – full, associate, and
naturalised – none of which has been conferred on the Rohingya. Full
citizenship is reserved for those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar
before the year 1823 or are among Myanmar’s more than 130 recognised
national ethnic groups, of which the Rohingya is not one.
citizens are those who were both eligible and applied for citizenship
under the 1948 Union Citizenship Act. Requiring an awareness of the law
that few Rohingya had and a level of proof that even fewer were able to
provide, this included few Rohingya.
Likewise with naturalised
citizenship, eligible for those who resided in Myanmar for five
continuous years on or before 1948. Moreover, with all three classes, a
Central Body has the discretion to deny citizenship even where the
criteria are met.
The 1982 Citizenship Law’s discriminatory
effects are also extremely consequential. The main one is that the
Rohingya, lacking citizenship in Myanmar, have been rendered stateless,
both unable to avail themselves of the protection of the state and – as
has been the case for decades – subject to policies and practices which
constitute violations of their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
not limited to Rohingyas, they are not imposed in the same manner and
to the same degree on Buddhists or other Muslims in Rakhine State.
is systemic discrimination. Laws, policies, and practices, though
designed and carried out by people, are ultimately part of or
attributable to a system that ensures discrimination even in the absence
of discriminatory individuals.
And it is patently unlawful.
a member of the United Nations, Myanmar is legally obliged to promote
“universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental
freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or
religion”, as written in Articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights – though admittedly not a binding
document – provides in Article 2 that everyone is entitled to all the
rights in the Declaration “without distinction of any kind, such as
race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion,
national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
is clear that Myanmar, as a state party to this Convention, is in
violation of its international legal obligations pertaining to the right
of Rohingya children to a nationality.
Solutions? Myanmar should
substantially amend the 1982 Citizenship Law or repeal and redraft it,
such that the Rohingya are indisputably made citizens.
born in Myanmar who would otherwise be stateless should be granted
citizenship, as should those who are not born there but are able to
establish a genuine and effective link to the country.
should also eliminate its policies and practices that discriminate
against the Rohingya on the grounds of ethnicity and/or religion.
“Rohingya problem” is almost entirely of its own making. More than any
other single step, dismantling its system of discrimination would bring
it closer to a solution.
Benjamin Zawacki is the South-East
Asia Regional Representative of the International Development Law
Organisation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views
expressed here are his own, adapted from remarks given earlier last
week at “Plight of the Rohingya: Solutions?”, a conference organised by
the Perdana Global Peace Foundation in Kuala Lumpur.