No Home, No Citizenship: The Political Realities of the Rohingya of Myanmar

By Sanjeev Dasgupta

In a system where almost all your human rights are guaranteed and protected by states, what happens when no state recognizes you as a citizen? What happens when your human rights are subject to systematic abuse by other members of the society you live in? And what happens when your only hope of finding a better life is to leave your home by whatever means possible but other states refuse to take you in or give you enough support to rebuild your life? These are questions the Rohingya population of Myanmar has to face every single day, and sometimes, as a Human Rights Watch report on their plight is titled, “all you can do is pray.”

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority population, living primarily in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, one of 21 administrative divisions in the country. Approximately one million Rohingya live in the region, which accounts for about one-third of the population of Rakhine State. They are ethnically, linguistically and religiously distinct from the major Buddhist population groups in the country.

According to the UN, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The majority of them have been denied citizenship by a 1982 Citizenship Law passed by the Myanmar government aimed to disenfranchise specific minorities in the country. Due to the lack of sufficient legal protection, as well as their status as a minority population, they are extremely vulnerable to violence and persecution at the hands of other groups or actors. This has been the Rohingya experience since Myanmar’s independence from the British Empire in the mid 1940s. The Rakhine Buddhists oppose their recognition as citizens and tensions between the two groups have resulted in violent clashes multiple times. International NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have called the violence against the Rohingya “crimes against humanity carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.” And while the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has been capturing international attention for the past couple of years, the Rohinya have had their own ‘migration crisis;’ around 90,000 Rohingya refugees attempted to flee the region between January 2014 and May 2015. The outflow of Rohingya died down after the receiving states – Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia – cracked down on the human trafficking industry that the Rohingya were tapping into, actions that led to thousands of Rohingya refugees being abandoned at sea in mid-2015.

None of the options available to the Rohingya have particularly favorable outcomes. If they stay in Myanmar, they are subject to gross human right violations. If they attempt to leave, they have to maneuver the perils of the human trafficking industry and the dangerous journey through the Bay of Bengal. And if they somehow manage to reach their destination, there is still no guarantee that they will survive since none of the host nations have been willing to provide continued support to the refugees.

Politics in Rakhine State are not simply a Muslim-Buddhist problem or a Rohingya-Rakhine problem as may come across in cursory examination. There are complex questions of identity politics, a history of disengagement of Rakhine State from Naypyitaw – the capital – and problems of development and demography that influence political developments.

Rakhine State, traditionally known as Arakan, has only recently become a part of the state of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Arakan was a prosperous civilization of its own for many centuries, a civilization known for its tolerance and the coexistence of Buddhists and Muslims, who started arriving in the region in the 15th century from Bengal. It was not until the early 19th century that Burma annexed Rakhine State. However, the Burmese conquest of Rakhine was short lived as the British defeated Burmese forces in 1825 and made it a part of British India. The British forced large numbers of Muslims to move from Bengal to Rakhine to work as laborers. Extended migration of Muslims changed the ethnic and religious mix of the population in the state, creating tensions between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists.

Photo Credit: Mathias Eick EU/ECHO January 2013 via European Commission DG ECHO's Flickr stream

This demographic tension continues to play a role in Rakhine politics to date, and has only increased over time. The Rakhine Buddhists fear that the Muslim population will soon become the majority population in the state because of their higher birth rate and illegal immigration across the Bangladesh border. There is no reliable data that can demonstrate how these aspects may or may not be affecting population dynamics. However, even without data, the hard political reality is that the Rakhine Buddhists do perceive the threat of demographic change to be a real one. This fear is exacerbated by the fact that Rakhine is one of the most underdeveloped parts of the country. It is the second poorest state and is physically separated from the rest of Myanmar by a formidable mountain range, the Rakhine Yoma, which isolates it politically and economically from the government. From the perspective of the Rakhine Buddhists, their only hope to be able to influence policy in Naypyitaw is to retain their influence in domestic politics in Rakhine. This would make the central government listen to their demands in order to gain support in national elections. This is why they oppose formal recognition of the Rohingya. Recognizing the Rohingya as citizens and giving them a legitimate political voice would only serve to empower them, something that Rakhine Buddhists believe to be antithetical to their long term political goals.

As someone from India, I know the devastating impact that conflict-driven displacement can have on someone’s life. India was carved out of British India by one of the largest acts of forced displacement the world has seen since World War 2. My grandparents were from the generation that was forced to flee what is now Bangladesh to seek refuge in present-day India. My home in New Delhi is in a colony that was created as a refugee resettlement colony for individuals like my grandparents. These were individuals who were forced to abandon every aspect of their regular lives, witness horrible atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict, and seek refuge in an unknown environment without much community support.

The Rohingya are currently in a very similar situation. They are, in some ways, the remnants of the very same dynamics that plagued the generation of my grandparents. But there are differences too. For people like my grandparents, there was a country that was ready to take them in. There is no such place for the Rohingya. Also, the Rohingya crisis has been overshadowed by the influx of refugees into Europe. With this blog, I hope to help shine a light on it once more.