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Between a Crocodile and a Snake: Myanmar’s Stateless Rohingya

It was not until 1865 that slaves in the U.S were granted citizenship. A hundred years later, the South African Citizenship Act purged ethnic categories from its criteria for citizenship. If broad and equal citizenship is a benchmark of a democratic state, where does this leave Myanmar?

Despite Myanmar’s slow but valiant steps towards democracy spearheaded by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, many are asking how Aung San will defend the stateless Rohingya of Rakhine. “One of the world’s most persecuted minority groups,” the Rohingya are a linguistic, ethnic and religious minority that have been the subject of unabating discrimination and forced displacement. Stripped of citizenship, the Rohingya have been stripped of basic human rights. The case of Myanmar epitomizes the grievous impact that the formal categorization of people can make on a group’s lives. But why is citizenship so essential to human well-being?

The Right to Rights

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out that “[e]everyone has the right to a nationality,” and that no one is to be “arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” Analogous provisions are written into other human rights treaties such a the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child [“the right to acquire a nationality”], the Convention the Reduction of Statelessness, the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and so forth.

These treaties and clauses aim to protect those deprived of their right to citizenship: those who are ‘stateless.’ Such protection is crucial, as citizenship is often the pass key to meaningful social, political, civil and economic rights. Without citizenship rights, the Rohingya have been deprived of the right to own property, are prohibited from travel outside of their villages, are not allowed to repair places of worship, are barred from receiving an education, and are unable to marry or have children without the fickle permission of government authorities. Crucially, citizenship rights also ensure protection abroad. In light of these conditions, the right of citizenship is said to be “man’s basic right for it is nothing less than the right to have rights.”

Construction of ‘The Stateless’

Comprising an estimated 800,000 of the Rakhine state’s population, the Muslim Rohingya have been deprived of their citizenship and have been deemed “illegal Bengali immigrants” by Myanmar’s largely Buddhist population while facing similar denial in Bangladesh and Thailand. Such claims, however, are ill-founded. The history of the Rohingya people in Rakhine dates back to the medieval Kingdom of Arakan, marked by its Buddhist-Muslim harmony. Reports of slavery, torture and displacement only emerged after Burmese King Bodawpaya conquered the kingdom in 1784.

The Rohingya have been thrown into a gyre of exile and attempts to return home. Starting with the initial forced displacement of the Arkanese, the cycle has been followed by attempts to return during the colonial era, and expulsion and repatriation post-independence. Samuel Cheung of the UNHCR argues that the back-and-forth pattern of displacement and return fostered grounds for the government to label the Rohingya as ‘illegal immigrants.’ The Rohingya formally lost their right to a nationality in 1982 under the enactment of the Citizenship Law, which robbed them of their citizenship, excluding them from the list of 135 recognized ethnic groups and officially prohibited them from basic human rights.

Between a Crocodile and a Snake

Such is a product of the policy of “Myanmarisation” implemented by General Ne Win’s junta, which was based in ideologies of racial and religious purity. Similar policies such as that of ‘Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation’ in the 1990s have resulted in an onslaught of Rohingya refugees fleeing  primarily to Bangladesh, with smaller factions seeking asylum in Malaysia and Thailand. These refugees have, for the past two decades, been trapped in the purgatory of statelessness, hemmed into displacement in camps are held at the helm of migration control policies. This situation, they describe, is not unlike being “caught between a crocodile and a snake”: the Rohingya cannot return home, but are also denied the recognition of a refugee status in their country of asylum. Denied citizenship rights in Myanmar, the consequences of statelessness have followed those displaced far beyond the border.

Most recently, authorities in Thailand reported to have rescued almost 700 Rohingya being held by alleged human traffickers, and shook down stopgap shelters housing 397 migrants in the South of the country. Despite appeals from human rights activists, Thailand is refusing to grant the Rohingya refugee status and has chosen to deport them to Myanmar, where they will face sure discrimination, or to Malaysia, where they may seek sanctuary.

The Rohingya, then, are caught within a stateless limbo, unrecognized and deprived of their “right to have rights.” While intergovernmental treaties such as the 1951 Convention were designed to protect the stateless, neither Myanmar, Bangladesh, nor Malaysia are signatories. Thus refugee policies are generally determined on an ad hoc basis and are swayed by domestic opinion, rather being cemented under formalized national policies. For example, despite hosting a massive influx of refugees, Bangladesh lacks laws that make explicit reference to refugees and those seeking asylum. Although Article 31 of the Constitution, as well as Article 25 of the Fundamental Principles of State Policy enable measures of protection for those seeking refuge from oppression on Bengali territory, a lack of formal reference to refugees and asylum engenders protection policies that are precarious and subject to change based on the whims of host countries. Thus, the statelessness of the Rohingya not only precludes them from rights within their own country. A lack of citizenship, in combination with fluid refugee laws in neighboring states, prevents consistent refugee protection abroad.

A Change in Category

As of this year, Myanmar’s government announced that the Rohingya must be screened in order to determine whether they are legal or illegal. If ineligible for citizenship, they will be held back in camps and then sent to another country. Reported criteria for citizenship involve the jus soli qualifier of having been born in Myanmar, as well has the jus sanguinis hurdle of having at minimum two generations of family who have lived in the country—a great feat considering the back-and-forth migration patterns of forced displacement and fleeing refugees.

This has, however, been at least a move away from deeming the entire minority as a clan of ‘illegal immigrants.’ Nevertheless, the appropriation of provisions put forward by the 1961 Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child forbidding member states from rendering persons stateless would be a pivotal step forward in Myanmar’s process of democratization. Even “minimization” strategies inscribed in the 1954 and 1961 Conventions proposing an extension of “rights generally associated with nationality” such as voting and the right to own property could ensure a at least a minimal quality of life for the Rohingya. But as things stand, Myanmar is not a signatory to such treaties.

But de jure changes in citizenship may produce little immediate change in the dynamics of a country long marred by ethnic strife. Thus we may look to host countries to sign off on the 1954 and 1961 Conventions, and formalize corollary laws with respect to them. If the Rohingya will not be able to find protection in their own country, the possession of citizenship may at the very least improve chances of asylum elsewhere.

– M. Polar


(Featured photo & photo 2:AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike digital.democracy, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 1: LicenseAttributionShare Alike AK Rockefeller, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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  1. The statelessness of the Rohingya is a great tragedy considering the strides made this century in the advancement of human rights internationally. That such a state of affairs can occur in this day and age is a sharp reminder on the sometimes ephemeral nature of our basic human rights. We should remain cognizant that we are truly fortunate to have ours protected.

  2. Although the case of Myanmar and its neighboring countries serves as an extreme example of
    refugee disenfranchisement, I would be careful about feeling too
    ‘fortunate’ for refugee rights protection in Canada. Consider the recent
    passing of Bill C-31, which includes a ‘Designated Country of Origin
    List’ numbering countries deemed ‘safe,’ thus unlikely to yield
    legitimate refugees. Hence claims made by asylum seekers from the listed
    countries are deemed “bogus” and are given less time to prepare their
    refugee claims, are denied emergency healthcare, and are subject to
    faster removal time upon rejection, etc. It’s important not to let
    rights violations “over there” distract us from our own local issues.

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