Stifling Voices, Curbing Power: Consequences of the Systematic Suppression of Rohingya Voices

By Sanjeev Dasgupta

Yanghee Lee, UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur to Myanmar, talks to journalists during a press briefing at a hotel Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Yangon, Myanmar. Lee visited conflict areas including Kachin and Rakhine State and met with government officials during her trip to Myanmar. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)
The October 9 attacks in Rakhine brought renewed attention to the plight of the Rohingya. While presenting her findings at the March 2017 session of UN Human Rights Council, Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, demanded that the international community institute a Commission of Inquiry to look into the human rights violations in Myanmar. The international community fell short of initiating such a high-level investigate tool. However, the Council passed a resolution creating an independent fact-finding mission to look into the situation, a proposal that Myanmar rejected. The widespread coverage of the recent attacks, however, reveals one stark aspect of the discourse around the Rohingya: most political discussions do not include any Rohingya. The Myanmar government has systematically prevented the community from having a voice inside the State. This has had widespread repercussions, leading to the Rohingya lacking a voice not only in Myanmar but also globally.

The Myanmar government uses two key mechanisms to suppress Rohingya voices: (i) deprivation of citizenship or statelessness; and (ii) heavily controlled media and IGO/NGO access to Rohingya areas. Even though Myanmar transitioned to a democracy, the Rohingya have not benefited much because they are still stateless and do not have a political voice. There is no major Rohingya political movement to champion their cause. There is a history of minor Rohingya-led insurgency movements in Rakhine, but the army has always dissolved them in the past. Disappointment with 2015 election results led to the creation of a new insurgency movement, which was responsible for the border post attacks that led to the October 9 incident. There already are indications that the new insurgency is different from its predecessors. It is more widely supported in Rakhine, and has struck a fairly pragmatic note by extending a detailed list of demands. However, it is far too early to say whether or not the new insurgency can survive the Myanmar military’s attempts to shut it down.

FILE – In this Friday, Oct. 14, 2016 file photo, Myanmar police officers patrol along the border fence between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Maungdaw, Rakhine State, Myanmar. Myanmar’s government on Sunday, Nov. 13, reported fierce fighting in the western state of Rakhine, where the army has been conducting counterinsurgency operations since nine police officers were killed in attacks on posts along the border with Bangladesh last month. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw, File)

The Myanmar government has augmented the suppression of the Rohingya’s political voice by carefully controlling access for independent actors like the media and international NGOs to the community. The days following the October 9 attacks provide a stark example of this policy. The government denied humanitarian agencies access to the “lockdown” areas and prevented journalists from accessing sections of northern Rakhine. By January 2017, only the World Food Program and UNHCR were allowed access to a few select villages. The government then allowed some local news agencies access to the area, although under significant supervision. The government also prevented Lee, the Special Rapporteur, from accessing parts of Rakhine during her January 2017 visit, citing “security reasons.”

The Myanmar government has attempted to create the illusion that the Rohingya do have a voice by creating multiple commissions to “investigate” events in Rakhine. Following the October 9 attacks, the government set up inquiry commissions at multiple levels to look into the events after calls from the international community. However, many actors, including Amnesty International, argued that the commissions are not truly independent because they all have members of the military on the panels, the very same military that is accused of perpetrating the crimes. Similarly, while the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Commission continues to receive international attention, most people forget that the commission does not have an investigative mandate, and so cannot look into human rights violations in Rakhine.

Human rights struggles around the world show us the importance of having a political movement, especially one that is grounded in the region where most of the population is geographically present. This is particularly true for stateless populations. Without citizenship and other forms of national documentation, historical geographic ties are often the only source of legitimacy for their claims to human rights. The examples of Palestine and the Kurds demonstrate this importance. In both cases, the groups continue to be persecuted. However, after decades of struggle, the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization allowed Palestine to become an observer State at the UN. And after many years fighting the Saddam regime, Kurds in northern Iraq established autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan under the 2005 Constitution. They also have a significant political presence in Turkey and Syria, although they continue to struggle for rights in both States.

The same cannot be said about the Rohingya. While there are many independent Rohingya activists who are advocating for their case around the world, there is no integrated Rohingya-led movement, especially one that has roots in Rakhine. Many of the past insurgencies failed due to this reason. They were active from across the border in Bangladesh but failed to establish political activity inside Rakhine. This is in large part due to the activities of the Myanmar government, which – along with tight military control – has systematically controlled the circulation of information in Rakhine. The lack of a significant Rohingya voice in international political discourse means that any and all actions taken by the international community are directed by independent actors. They may base their actions on information gained from the Rohingya, but are subject to different motivations that may not always align with the interests of the Rohingya. What the Rohingya need is a potent political voice, both domestically and internationally, and yet that is the most significant thing that they do not have.