Displaced Rohingya at the Margins


This past summer marked a disturbing escalation of the persecution of the minority Muslim Rohingya population in Burma’s Arakan state. The Rohingya are commonly referred to as one of the world’s most persecuted communities – in their native Burma (now officially known as Myanmar) they have faced a slowly escalating complex of discriminations including forced labor, systematic physical and sexual abuse, and the steady erosion of their civil and human rights. The recent round of animosity was set off by the rape and murder of a woman of the Rakhaine majority by three Rohingya men in late May in the Arakan state. As news of this incident spread throughout Arakan via a provocative pamphlet publishing details of the crime, the uneasy peace between Rakhaines and Rohingya was broken and a rash of communal violence between the two groups began. On June 3rd, in retaliation for the murder of the Rakhaine woman, a Rakhaine mob stopped a bus in southern Arakan and killed 10 Muslims – though reportedly, these Muslims were not members of the Rohingya ethnic group (“Riots displace over 30,000 in Myanmar ”  2012). This was followed by a riot on June 8th instigated by the Rohingya in Maungdaw, a town on the bank of the Naf River which makes up a piece of Burma’s border with Bangladesh.

This violence led to clashes in Arakan’s capital, Sittwe, in which homes, property, and mosques were sent up in flames and an estimated 100,000 Rohingya were left homeless and displaced. On June 10th, Burmese President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Arakan and deployed martial law. According to an August 2012 report from Human Rights Watch, the army sided with the Rakhaine and assisted them in persecuting the Rohingya (“The Government Could Have Stopped This”: Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State  2012). One interview cited in this report describes collaboration between the Rakhaine and the army: “[An Arakan mob] started torching the houses. When the people tried to put out the fires, the paramilitary shot at us. And the group beat people with big sticks.” Over the last few months, an estimated 1,200 hundred have gone missing in Burma while 100,000 have been displaced into holding camps in the area surrounding Sittwe (Win 2012). Journalists from UK’s Channel 4 News recently allowed into the neighborhoods of Sittwe which were formerly home to around 10,000 Rohingya reported the area had been reduced to mere rubble in the rioting (Rohingya homes in Myanmar ‘razed’  2012). While the communalism and racism underlying this recent escalation of violence is certainly important, it is also clear that the Burmese government has played a central role in inflaming these tensions to encourage violent actions against the Rohingya.

What has been portrayed by the Burmese government as ethnically motivated tensions over spilling the bounds of law, in fact constitutes only the newest chapter of the regime’s own efforts to alienate and disenfranchise the Rohingya within Burma. The erasure of Arakan’s Rohingya population has been attempted through a variety of means over the last few decades, the basic contours of which are now well known. This goal has been laid bare by the Burmese government’s response to this violence: on July 11th, President Sein issued a statement that Burma would be glad to hand over the entirety of Burma’s Rohingya population to the UNHCR for resettlement in a third party country, an offer which was quickly rebuffed by the UNHCR. To this statement, UNHCR’s Asia spokesperson replied, “Resettlement under the UHNCR program is only for recognized refugees. And people cannot be refugees in their own country. So it is not logical to talk about resettlement for people who are in their own country” (Naing 2012). Burma’s ruling regime is eager to expel the Rohingya, and has sought for decades to rid Arakan state of this substantial minority population.

In Burma, these recent violent confrontations between the Rakhine and Rohingya have exposed the regime’s role in perpetuating the Rohingya’s protracted statelessness. Since Partition, the Rohingya have been subjected to a steadily increasing campaign of persecution by Burma’s ruling regime, clearly oriented towards entirely negating the Rohingya’s existence as an ethnic group in Burma. There are two reasons for the voracity of this campaign: the first, superficial reason involves their basic religious and linguistic difference from the majority Buddhist Burma. The Rohingya are Muslims whose minority status is constituted by their religious persuasion, ethnic heritage, and their usage of the distinct Rohingya language, which is strikingly similar to the Chittagonian dialect of Bengali (Ullah 2011). All of these attributes mark them as adversarial to the Burmese nation-building project, which has been one of unification through the rhetoric of a shared Buddhist faith and the eradication of ethnic and linguistic differences (Charney 2009). Their continued presence in the region attests to the region’s long history of cultural and linguistic diversity and fluidity. This inclusive history predates the contemporary political and academic partitioning which has come to distinguish Burma from Bangladesh and South Asia from Southeast Asia (Van Schendel 2002).

Secondly, the Rohingya have been tarnished with an unsavory political identity as historical dissenters from the Burmese national project. Politically, the Rohingya’s reputation was indelibly stained by an early separatist movement that petitioned for the inclusion of Arakan state within the fledgling Bangladesh. Popular narrative holds that in 1946, some Rohingya, claiming a shared Muslim identity, made a political appeal to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to incorporate Arakan into the emerging nation at the time of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. In retaliation for this reported treason against the Burmese state, hundreds of villages were burned and thousands of Rohingya were killed by the Burmese government (Van Schendel 2006). After the violence of 1948 drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into East Pakistan, thousands continued to emigrate annually, fluctuating according to the geopolitical climate in Burma (Kabir 2003).

The challenge of forging a unified postcolonial nation-state out of the mutually antagonized patchwork of ethnicities left behind by the British colonial state has pitted ethnic groups against one another in a zero-sum game of ethnic superiority. After Ne Win took control of Burma in a coup d’etat in 1962 and Burma was cast under military rule, the civil rights the Rohingya had previously begun to accumulate under democratic rule from 1948-1962 were withdrawn. Under Ne Win’s 1977 Operation Dragon King, identity cards were issued to all authorized residents of Burma, each prominently displaying their ethnic identity and color-coded to indicate their position within a three-tiered citizenship system (Rezwan 2012). This new citizenship system held three categories depending on the historicity of the territorial claims of their particular ethnic group – a hierarchy from which the Rohingya were completely excluded as they were denied the issuance of any cards. This new identity system was accompanied by a major campaign of destruction of mosques and the mass torture, rape and murder of the Rohingya population; human rights violations the Rohingya had no standing to protest within the Burmese legal system (Bhaumik 2012; Ahmed 2001).

In 1982 the exclusion of the Rohingya from Burmese citizenship was made official, with a revision of the Myanmar Citizenship Law that excluded them from the list of 135 ethnicities that officially constitute Burma. Dragon King also marked the beginning of army activities that were specifically targeted to destroy homes and property of Arakan’s Rohingya population, and started a major wave of relocation across the border into Bangladesh. After the Rohingya were rendered formally stateless by Ne Win’s regime came the first large-scale exodus of Rohingya from Burma into Bangladesh (Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution  2000). In the period immediately following the institution of these policies, an estimated 200,000 Rohingya flooded across the border to Bangladesh’s Chittagong district, which includes the border outpost Teknaf and the beach town Cox’s Bazar.

In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the popular vote in Burma. Refusing to cede power to the NLD, the Burmese military regime began the Pyi Thaya (Prosperous Country) campaign to consolidate their power, responding to this call for democratization with an intensification of their totalitarian control (Caryl 2012). This campaign increased the pressure on ethnic minorities including the Rohingya, sending another wave of undocumented migrants into Bangladesh. The support that Bangladesh had previously provided to the fleeing Rohingya in the 1970’s and 1980’s on a pan-Islamic humanitarian basis expired as it became clear that this influx could potentially number in the millions. With an estimated 250,000 Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh’s southeast, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees assumed responsibility for administering two of the camps that had previously been established by the government of Bangladesh, which the UNHCR continues to administer to this date. These two camps, Kutupalong and Nayapara, are home to a combined population of only 28,000 refugees, all of whom arrived and were registered in Bangladesh before a 1992 cut-off date set by the Bangladesh government. Another 40,000 Rohingya refugees live in two unofficial camps near the two official camps. These unofficial camps are outside the jurisdiction of the UNHCR but until early August 2012 were minimally served by three NGOs (Muslim Aid, Action Against Hunger and Doctors Without Borders), which had defied Bangladesh’s injunction against aid to add

itional refugees outside of Kutupalong and Nayapara. On humanitarian grounds, these three NGOs had been providing basic water, sanitation, and emergency health care services to the undocumented refugees in these unofficial camps. Without education, law enforcement, or economic opportunities for the refugees living in these camps for decades, they had gained a reputation of criminality, thought to be regional hubs for the illicit cross-border drug smuggling which traverses the area (Van Schendel 2006). However, on August 3rd, Bangladesh formally banned all three NGOs from continuing to work with these populations, forcing them to discontinue these services and abandoning these camps to decay into further lawlessness and squalor (“Bangladesh: Refugee Aid Discouraged”  2012).

With new Rohingya arriving in Bangladesh every year, the camp infrastructure has been perpetually insufficient to accommodate the full population of Rohingya refugees. One of the conditions of accepting support from UNHCR in the official camps has been subjection to periodic efforts to dismantle the camps by repatriating their inhabitants back to Burma, many of whom have ended up returning to Bangladesh as undocumented refugees (Ahmed 2010). Samuel Cheung, working with UNHCR’s host communities programs in the late 2000’s in and around Cox’s Bazar, criticized the efficacy of the camp resettlement approach that rendered the UNHCR beholden to the whims of the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments. Cheung provocatively argued that the UNHCR’s resources would be better spent supporting the estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees who have been able to achieve de facto integration outside the camps into the general community surrounding Cox’s Bazar (Cheung 2012). UNHCR’s efforts to develop programs along these lines (known by the UNHCR as “host community” programs) have been stymied by the government of Bangladesh, however, which has ultimately put a stop to all their efforts aimed at assisting the integration of the Rohingya into communities in Bangladesh, claiming that the jurisdiction of the UNHCR extends only to the 28,000 Rohingya whom Bangladesh officially recognizes as refugees (Kiragu, Li Rosi, and Morris 2011).

Within Bangladesh, the provision of assistance to the Rohingya fleeing Burma has been highly contested and the events of this summer have brought these debates to a head.  The primary goal of the Bangladesh government has appeared to be systemically eliminating all potential pull factors for further Rohingya migration. Centrally important to these efforts was the crackdown on the unofficial camps, in addition to a dramatic increase in border enforcement. As the recent violence in Arakan state sent many Rohingya running for the border to take shelter in Bangladesh, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) responded by radically increased their patrols on the border with Burma, intercepting and delivering to the Burmese military untold numbers of Rohingya (Juberee 2012).

Bangladesh has justified its own rejection of further Rohingya migration with the fact that Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol that established the baseline for humane treatment of refugees. The government has argued that refusing aid to the Rohingya has been Bangladesh’s own sovereign right, as well as its economic imperative, as the country has not been able to provide support to the Rohingya financially, developmentally, or otherwise. In June 2012, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni remarked that “Dhaka is not bound under any internal laws to allow Rohingya refugees to enter Bangladesh. Some are trying to say that Bangladesh should open the border in line with the international customary law. But I want to say that Bangladesh does not fall under the purview of the law… Bangladesh is not a signatory of [the 1951 Convention]” (“Dhaka not bound to open border, says Dipu”  2012). This policy of refusal instigated a rich discussion within Bangladeshi civil society on whether these claims hold true or were justifiable. One cluster of arguments for providing assistance to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh looked back to Bangladeshis’ own history of displacement at Partition and during the Liberation War. A joint statement signed on June 15th, 2012 by 32 leading civil society figures invoked Bangladesh’s Liberation War as a massive refugee crisis. Their statement read: “We recall that as a nation we were beneficiaries of similar assistance in 1971 during our war of liberation, which saw one of the world’s largest influx of refugees to a neighboring country” (“PM urged to let Myanmar refugees in ”  2012).

These actions by the Bangladeshi government have been clearly in violation of the internationally established principle of non-refoulement, by which individuals claiming to be in danger of imminent physical harm in their home country must be able to access asylum protections. In a June 20th, 2012 editorial in the Bangladeshi English daily New Age, Dhaka University Professor CR Abrar argued that the right to have one’s claims for asylum fairly evaluated before being forced to return to a country where one would be subject to prosecution is a right to which Bangladesh has indirectly committed through its participation in other binding conventions. The right to seek asylum, he argued, is the cornerstone of not only the 1951 Refugee Convention, but also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document from which no nation can be sovereign, but also other documents to which Bangladesh is a signatory, including the UN Declaration on Territorial Asylum, the 1984 Convention Against Torture, as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Abrar 2012).

The prospects for Bangladesh and Burma’s mutually constituted economic development through the emerging Asian Highway Project and increased formalized trade relations between the two nations have played a large role in the eagerness of each to make the problem of the Rohingya disappear. Both Bangladesh and Burma have a tremendous stake in establishing their reputations as democratizing, stable, and ready for foreign investment. The Rohingya, however, disrupt the tidy nationalist narratives of control, unity and stability propagated by the countries’ respective governments. The protracted displacement of this minority group reminds us of the discomforting legacies of colonial methods of rule entrenching ethnic divisions and the violent Partition of the region, legacies which both countries are eager to leave behind in their struggles toward modernity.

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