Rohingya: The Rejected People

By Yasmeen Aftab Ali

If you wish to know how it feels to be disowned by the country of your birth and the birth of your forefathers - in the most literal sense one can be disowned - the right people to ask would be the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, once Burma.

Their status is officially that they are ?stateless?, courtesy of the 1982 Citizenship Law. According to the law the term ?citizen? means a citizen of Burma. However, clause 3 of the Act states as follows:

?Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1185 B.E., 1823 A.D. are Burma citizens.?

With the stroke of a pen, all those whose ancestors came and settled to Myanmar post 1823 have no citizenship and no claim to having rights within the country; their presence is undocumented and they are immigrants for all practical purposes. Also, the law states the ethnic races by name whose settlement is acceptable, excluding those not named even prior to 1823. Even in a western democracy like the U.S, citizenship requires patient steps - not generation after generation of denial, in spite of living in the country, on grounds of their ethnicity and because of being member of an ethnic race.

Citizenship and the law

Originally from North Rakhine in Myanmar, many Rohingyas left for Bangladesh to avoid the crackdown of 1978. Under immense pressure internationally, Burma was pushed into a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh. In a sly move, within a period of three years of having had to accept the Rohingya, the Burmese government enacted the 1982 Citizenship Law.
This poses an interesting question. Can a law have a retrospective effect so to take away the existing citizenship and the obvious advantages it offers, relegating them to ?stateless? individuals? If the government found it politically expedient to enact a law for future application, it is within its rights to do so. However, ideally it must not completely overturn the rights and duties existing, as in the case under question. This is reflected clearly in the concept of the
?Principle of Legality?. The rationale of this principle is to ensure that all actions are based on well thought out legal reasoning and are not politically motivated. This applies to administrative law as well as branches of other laws, generally speaking.
The absurdity of laws having retrospective effects is laid out in many international laws and spelled out in international treaties. For want of space, I share one only: the 1949 Geneva Convention III (Article 99, first paragraph):
?No prisoner of war may be tried or sentenced for an act which is not forbidden by the law of the Detaining Power or by international law, in force at the time the said act was committed.?
Therefore, this is a principle that does not offer a broad based permission to institute laws having retrospective effect.

The law in practice

Not being awarded citizenship status has other serious ramifications. As a Muslim ethnic minority, without a ?Citizen Certificate? awarded to legal citizens under the law, these non-citizens of Myanmar must possess special permits from the authorities to marry, according to IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis ( And this is not all: Rohingya couples are not permitted under law to have more than two children; this restriction is apparently exclusively for them and does not apply to any other ethnic race residing in Myanmar. They must also inform the authorities if they wish to go out of their village.
Effectively this has created a permanent class of people who are under-privileged, without any legal rights and open to persecution owing to their stature. By so applying a law against one particular race, does the given law enter the parameters of ethnic discrimination? Hate speech against racial and ethnic groups is a well-established and recognized limitation on the right to freedom of expression and speech. What then is a law based on ethnic discrimination if not a manifestation of the same?
All civilized nations should form their laws to envelop all its citizens - not to victimize a group within. An example of this is the text of Executive Order No 11246 of the United States Labor Department, which states as follows:
?Executive Order 11246 prohibits covered federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and requires affirmative action to ensure equal employment opportunity without regard to those factors.?
Luke Hunt, South East Asia Correspondent for The Diplomat reporting on 23 November 2013, observes that:
?The Myanmar government has lived up to expectations and rejected an appeal by the United Nations to grant citizenship to its stateless Muslim Rohingya population, who the government insists are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.?
There are, by a rough estimate, more than 200,000 Rohingya who have been displaced mainly due to discrimination. An IRIN report from 16 November 2012 states this number is excluding those displaced in the June 2012 violence against them.
These clashes led to the complete destruction of Rohingya homes:
?Five months after communal violence erupted in Myanmar's Rakhine State, the plight of the 800,000 Muslim Rohingya there has worsened: Renewed violence in late October left more than 100,000 displaced, according to the government.?
The violence that erupted was the result of tensions between the Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhine. This was followed by an allegation leveled against some Rohingya men of having raped a Rakhine woman. This allegation led to a further displacement of 75,000, most of whom are Rohingya, says IRIN. These people still languish in Sittwe Township housing refugee camps.
The camp life in Myanmar is miserable - and this is an understatement. Reports claim it?s extremely difficult to get aid to the Internally Displaced Persons in the Sittwe
Township refugee camps. Medical services are almost non-existent, the medical workers having received death threats. The government is making some effort with international agencies to provide food and basic need items; however, weather changes have caused major disruptions.
Senior Editor of Special Reports at GlobalPost, Kevin Douglas Grant, quotes Myo Win, founder of an organization in
2007 in Yangon to promote peace between Buddhist and Muslims, in a recent article:
?There has been violence and discrimination against Muslims since independence. And not only the Muslims, but the non-Buddhist people.?
In Grant?s unnerving piece in The Huffington Post a picture emerges of discrimination against a race and a denial to grant basic fundamental rights to an ethnic group. Rohingya Muslims are forced to live in sub-human conditions yet ?a group of red-robed Buddhist leaders gathered here in Yangon last week, dismissing what human rights groups have called genocide as ?illusions created by the Arab media.??
According to a Human Rights Watch report, published in April 2013, ?Burmese authorities and members of Arakanese groups have committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State since June 2012.? This 153-page report tells anyone interested in knowing more of the ?role of the Burmese government and local authorities in the forcible displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims and the ongoing humanitarian crisis.?
Rohingya have been doubly discriminated against, if such a term exists; first by denial of citizenship, second by the current surge of violence against them.

Comment from the author

A question emerges here as to why the Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi silent on this humanitarian issue. Her party won seats in elections 2012, bagging majority seats in lower parliament. Sources say she plans to run for President come 2015. Winner of many other prizes too, Aung San Suu Kyi?s silence is unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a leading politician from Myanmar.
This silence is also seen by some political pundits as a tactic to win support of the dominant Buddhist majority who comprise a major chunk of the ?citizens? in Myanmar. It is an effort to garner political support for an ambitious future and speaking up for ?non-citizen? Rohingya may result in damage to her popularity with the local Buddhists and Buddhists monks who seem to have been sucked into this vortex of hatred.
Was this what Barack Obama undertook the six hour trip to Myanmar for? The visit was hailed as the country's step towards democratic change. To Ms Aung San Suu Kyi I want to say: history will judge you. Judge you it will. You have a choice. You can either turn your back on the plight of those deserving of the attention of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Or, you can go ahead and win the Presidential elections in 2015.
But if you win the Rohingyas their citizenship, you will still go on to become the President since you will return to them their honour. And with this you will win the respect of every person in the world. This is a genre of respect that does not come with winning of awards. The choice is yours. The choice is world respect or self-interest.
To Buddhists around the world, followers of a religion of peace, love and meditation, I say: do not let the image of your religion be tarnished because of petty local politics in one country. There is a need for all of you to join hands and bring an end to this madness against the Rohingya Muslims; let the world see that fairness and love has the power to be above local politics.
And to the UN, I beseech through this article: pass a resolution against these atrocities and ensure citizenship for the Rohingya, to see that the bloody atrocities against a given group, which is a clear case of ethnic discrimination, ends. This hatred and violence must end. The world must be brought to pay attention to issues of the down-trodden.
I hope someone out there is listening.
An abridged version of this article appeared in The Nation newspaper in Pakistan.


About the author

Yasmeen Aftab Ali is a lawyer based in Lahore who teaches at a private university. She is a weekly Op-Ed Columnist for The Nation newspaper in Pakistan.

She has also authored a book A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.

She has written for many newspapers, blogs at and tweets as @yasmeen_9 on Twitter.

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