Rohingya—Stateless by Design

Rohingya—the very name evokes a holocaust scenario. It’s genocide—plain and simple. This ethnic cleansing has one parallel in history—extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany. It doesn't matter whether the rulers in Yangoon have junta tag or a democratic sticker. For the Rohingyas the net result is the same—execution. Burma doesn't recognise Rohingyas as Burmese; so they are stateless. The on-going flight that has already seen over 500,000 Rohingyas enter Bangladesh last month virtually makes it impossible for any kind of repatriation any time soon. In truth Mayanmar's proposal in the face of international outcry against a deliberate policy to create a humanitarian catastrophe, to take back refugees, now languishing in Bangladesh's camps, looks too clever by half. The Rakhine state is almost half-empty. Stripping of Oxford honour granted to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1997, for stubborn fight for democracy, is unlikely to change the ground reality for the Rohingya refugees. Suu Kyi's passive role in ethnic cleansing and forced deportation of Rohingyas illustrates among other things that this darling of western democrats and liberals is not averse to Mayanmar's official theory that Rohingyas are Bengali Muslims, having no roots in Burmese nationality and culture.

Rohingya citizenship in its substantive sense was not singlehandedly revoked by the 1982 Citizenship Act, as is often claimed. A 40-year process beginning under military rule and continuing until today has slowly and tortuously severed Rohingyas’ relationship with their homeland and the state. This has laid to groundwork for the persecution of Rohingya through law and policy as well as collective violence. The Myanmar military are not about to welcome them back. Much less in safety and dignity.

The production of Rohingya statelessness by the Myanmar military and government is best understood not as the result of historical disputes, but as a deliberate attempt to purify or cleanse the nation of racial and religious 'others' through bureaucratic means. Citizenship law in Myanmar—with its 135 fixed, immutable and externally-ascribed categories of ‘national races’ or Tai Yin Tha—serves an additional, less 'bureaucratic' purpose.

As Hinton explains in his 2002 book Genocide and Anthropology, genocidal regimes 'manufacture difference by constructing essentialized categories of identity and belonging… linked to emotionally resonant notions of purity and contamination'. Killing is then motivated out of resultant 'ideologies of hate' a la the Nuremburg laws in Nazi Germany.

International efforts to address Rohingya statelessness over past decades have attempted to provide pathways to 'paper citizenship' for Rohingya in the hope that human rights somehow follow. It's a vain hope echoed in the final report of the Myanmmar government's Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by Kofi Annan.

Yet Rohingya statelessness is not a documentation issue. It's a tool of genocide that aims to destroy the Rohingya as a group, not only by removing their rights, but also by destroying their identify from the inside out. It is the statelessness that Hannah Arendt and Raphael Lemkin wrote about in the 1940s—the kind that foreshadowed and preceded the holocaust, not the kind for which UNHCR usually offers technical assistance to states to resolve. Indeed as Rohingyas know only too well, the government’s documentation processes cost them the right to self-identity as Rohingya. For this reason, most Rohingya do not seek documentation or paper citizenship, at any cost. They know the state has been destroying their identity and their collective 'belonging' to Myanmar over decades.

Rohingya that cannot be removed from Myanmmar by bureaucratic means or through the production of their statelessness are removed through military operations and pogroms that have taken over decades and have recently escalated. What people are witnessing now is the Myanmmar military attempting to prevent a repeat of the past cycles of repatriation—an attempt to remove them from the territory and sever their links to home. Forever. Shooting Rohingyas in the back as they flee, placing landmines in their flight paths across the border, targeting babies and children, burning Rohingya village after Rohingya village. By law, land, once burnt, reverts to ownership of the state. These tactics are all designed to prevent return and complete the 'unfinished business'.

Survival for Rohingya in their homeland, for the time being has become untenable. This is devastating not only for the most recent Rohingya victims, but also the many Rohingya living in diaspora. It is absolutely right that Myanmmar is internationally condemned for its genocidal project. But to break the decades-long cycle of displacement, repatriation and exploitation of Rohingya, it is also necessary to ensure Rohingya are able to live in safety and dignity ouside the country. Not contained in camps for decades, not dependent on aid or kept in limbo with irregular status, not denied access to integration and resettlement programmes. Instead, provided with opportunities for work and education, opportunities for movement and family reunification across borders, opportunities for meaningful contribution to the localities they have ended up in.

Each Rohingya exodus from Myanmar in recent years has been accompanied by a spike in the numbers of Rohingya leaving Bangladesh seeking safety and security elsewhere. As Rohingya become increasingly desperate the levels of extortion and exploitation they face on their journeys rise as well. Those unable to pay the full cost of their passage frequently become trapped by debt bondage into horrific labour condition, such as in the factories and rubbish dumps in India. They are imprisoned in jungle camps, where they are beaten and tortured to extort money from their relatives in Malaysia and Thailand. Some die on route or are killed in the camps when they become a financial liability to the smugglers.

As long as Rohingya have no options for safe migration and decent work to support their families, the prosecutions of traffickers, even the high-profile cases recently in Thailand, will not bring about the end of these forms of exploitation. There are around one and a half million Rohingya living outside Myanmar. Of these, many are in situations of protracted displacement in Bangladesh, Malaysia Thailand, India and beyond.

Some have been there for decades. Some have been tried two or three countries and have been repeatedly displaced. Some have been stuck in indefinite detention for years. In these conditions they continue to struggle for their survival. Unable to regularise their status, they eke out a living in dangerous and insecure jobs in informal economy, without security or protection from Rakhine state and that they will never lose hope of return. Their bodies, however are another matter. Approximately 50% of all Rohingya villages now stand empty. Half the population has been displaced in the space of three weeks and unknown thousands—who will remain uncounted—have been killed.

The latest exodus has displaced the very last of their family members from the homeland—now only dead bodies, ashes and memories are left. Rakhine was once their homeland but today they have only memories.


Vol. 50, No.16, Oct 22 - 28, 2017