Myanmar election: what about the Rohingya?

By Roselina Press
Rohingya children.

Elections took place in Myanmar over the weekend, marking the country’s first free nationwide poll in 25 years. Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has described the elections as “a watershed moment in the democratic transition of Myanmar”, capturing the hopes of many that these elections will be an important step toward building a democratic state.

But there is one group in Myanmar that stands to gain little from these elections. The Rohingya, a predominately Muslim ethnic minority, were not able to vote. Their disenfranchisement during this historic moment for Myanmar is a reminder of the continued discrimination and persecution that Rohingya peoples face.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya reside in Rakhine State, situated on Myanmar’s western coast. According to data provided by the Myanmar government, the total population of Rakhine State is approximately 3.33 million. The largest ethnic group in Rakhine State is the Rakhine Buddhists who comprise between 60-70 per cent of the population. Rakhine State is home to numerous ethnic minorities, but its Muslim communities, including the Rohingya, are estimated to make up 30 per cent of the total population, making them the second largest ethnic and religious group after the Rakhine.

There is a long history of conflict and discord between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya in Rakhine State – a state of affairs which has resulted in Rohingya being subject to decades of discrimination, exclusion and human rights abuse. While both the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya have long-established roots in Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State), the Rakhine regard Rohingyas as foreigners who do not have a rightful claim to reside on the land the Rakhine believe is their ancestral home. Tensions have persisted between the two ethnic groups for generations, dating as far back as the end of British Colonial rule in Myanmar (then known as Burma) and the formation of the central government in 1948. Cycles of inter-communal violence have uprooted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, who have repeatedly had to flee violence and persecution through the years, effectively making them “a community in flight”.

A stateless population

For more than 30 years, Rohingya have also been stateless. The Myanmar government revoked their citizenship with the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Law, depriving them of many rights associated with citizenship, including the right to vote. Today only approximately 40,000 Rohingya – of an estimated 1.33 million in Myanmar – have citizenship.

In addition to their nationality, attempts are being made to wipe away their identity. The Myanmar government does not recognise “Rohingya” as an ethnicity, and insists that Rohingya peoples are actually “Bengali” illegal immigrants who have come from neighbouring Bangladesh – even though Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations. In Myanmar’s national census that was conducted over March-April in 2014, Rohingya were prevented from self-identifying and were instead required to ethnically register as “Bengali” in order to be counted. Very few Rohingya in Rakhine State agreed to this proposal and as a result, “more than one million Rohingya were not counted during the census.”

Conditions for Rohingya in Rakhine State are dire. In 2012, inter-communal violence erupted between the Rakhine and Rohingya, resulting in the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. By the end of that year, approximately 140,000, mostly Rohingya, moved into displacement camps after fleeing their homes. Today inter-communal tensions and anti-Rohingya sentiment continue to swell, and the majority of Rohingya who were uprooted by the 2012 violence remain internally displaced. They subsist in slum-like camps and are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. Even for Rohingya who are not internally displaced, life in Myanmar is difficult. Rohingya are victimised by a host of discriminatory laws, policies and practices, which place restrictions on most aspects of their everyday life.

For example, Rohingya are subject to population-control measures that restrict their ability to marry and raise a family. Rohingya couples are required to seek government approval in order to marry and “unauthorised marriages” are a criminal offence. A two-child policy has also been implemented in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, where there are concerns among ethnic Rakhine and government officials about a perceived “overpopulation” of Rohingya which threatens to undermine Buddhist culture. The two-child policy restricts the number of children married couples can legally have, and also prevents children from being born to non-married couples.

Rohingya also face restrictions on their freedom of movement. As Fortify Rights reports, “Rohingya in Rakhine State cannot travel within or between townships without authorization and can only travel outside the state in rare circumstances and with additional, difficult-to-obtain authorizations.” Restrictions on freedom of movement also impair Rohingyas’ access to other rights, such as the right to health due to the difficulties experienced in travelling between townships to access healthcare facilities.

Rohingya refugee crisis

The deteriorating situation for Rohingya in Rakhine State has meant that increasing numbers are fleeing by boat to seek asylum as refugees. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar “rose dramatically in 2014, with estimates suggesting that 50-100,000 have fled since the start of 2013, mostly for Malaysia.” In the first three months of this year alone, according to the UNHCR, an estimated 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers’ boats – a figure which is “almost double the number over the same period in 2014.”

We saw the devastating consequences of this earlier in the year when boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers, along with Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants, were abandoned in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, two bodies of water bordered by India and Sri Lanka to the west, and Myanmar and Thailand to the east. Carrying approximately 100 passengers each in squalid, overcrowded conditions, these boats were abandoned by the smugglers and traffickers that had set them at sail, leaving thousands of men, women and children stranded at sea. Responding to calls for Australia to resettle some of the stranded refugees, Tony Abbott, who was then Prime Minister, blithely stated: “nope, nope, nope.”

This crisis drew much-needed international attention to the plight of the Rohingya, who have been subjected to discrimination and rights abuse for decades. While Myanmar’s first open election in 25 years is a welcome development, the international community – including Australia – must put pressure on the new Myanmar government to find durable solutions for the Rohingya peoples, which includes restoring their full citizenship rights.

We cannot look away. The Rohingya have suffered injustice for far too long.