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The Rohingya crisis, an introduction
Introducing the new case study
Hello, Jobair. Thank you so much for being here today with us. Thank you. Thanks so much. So we’re going to jump right in with the questions. And the first one we would like to pose for you is if you could please give us a short overview of who are the Rohingya. Thank you again. And the Rohingya, basically they are an ethnic minority group, and the majority of whom are Muslims, and have been living in Myanmar for a long time. As you know that Myanmar is a multi-ethnic state, and it has a population of roughly 54 million. And it officially recognizes a dozen sub-ethnic groups, but not the Rohingya.
Myanmar authorities, including its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, they also refuses to even use the term “Rohingya.” The reason being that the etymology and date of origin of the term Rohingya itself is highly contested. And the Rohingya claim themselves as a distinct group with a long history in Myanmar that dates back to ninth century. And there are reports from at least 13th century onwards that demonstrates their presence in the region.
And there are also records, and many argue that the Rohingya are descendants of the people who the British colonial authorities, searching for cheap labor, encourage to emigrate from the Eastern Bangalore, contemporary Bangladesh, to the sparsely populated western regions of Burma in the first half of the 19th century– that’s beginning in 1824– and up until the end of the colonial rule. But the advocates for a distinct Rohingya identity, they insist that their ancestors have been native to the Rakhine, and they got distinct history, language, religion, and culture. Consequently, they marriage the recognition as an ethnic group of Myanmar and the full citizenship, but the successive Myanmar government denied their claim and said that they’re rather recent arrivals.
But actually, the problem started in 1962 when General Ne Win defined 135 distinct indigenous ethnic groups that excludes the Rohingya within its list. And in 1982, when the Myanmar government adopted the citizenship law, it actually officially excluded the Rohingya from any claim of citizenship, and that made them from de facto stateless. You see, within the territory of Myanmar, currently the Rohingya, they do not have status of citizenship or nationality. Rather they are stateless. And according to the United Nations report, they are the most persecuted populations in the world. That is fascinating to have a historical background.
I can absolutely see how the failure to have a recognition as an ethnic group would set, at the very least, the foundations for a huge friction. Was that the starting point, or is there something else that eventually led to the crisis of 2015? History says that 2015 is not the starting year for when the crisis actually started. If you look back in 1978, or even in 1992, Rohingya people faced similar persecutions from the Myanmar authorities, maybe comparatively in a small scale. And again, coming on October, 2016, when some of the insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts, and that caused the deaths of around nine border officers, the Myanmar government condemned the Rohingya Solidarity Organizations, or RSO, for that attack.
And following that, Myanmar Army started clearance operations against the Rohingya, and that resulted into arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, looting, and so many things. So, if you do consider the events of these persecutions in 1978, 1992, 2015, 2016, and these episodic human rights violations, unsurprisingly you might get a pattern of abuses of human rights violations which are being directed against the Rohingya people. So, a possible reason that I got in my research that might be to exclude the Rohingya or other groups who do not resemble to the majority Burmans in Myanmar– or in other words, the pattern shows that they really want to exclude a group of people who are unlike the majority Burmans.
And if you do then connect this first reason or the policy of exclusions of unlike or the others, to the second reason, you will see that probably the major reason is to uphold the Burmese nationalism to ensure a homogeneous sovereign state, which is unlike the civic nationalism which is unable to accommodate a plural society. Although I said at the very first that Myanmar is a multi-ethnic state. But if you do promote ethnic nationalism, not civic nationalism, then it becomes very difficult to accommodate, in particular, those who are different in traits in terms of their culture, religion, and so forth. And that is what happened. So 2015 crisis is not something like a one-time event.
It’s a kind of episodic event that is happening from a pretty long period of time. Wow. No. I think especially for Western audiences, it is very important to contextualize the situation not as sporadic, as you mentioned, like it happened randomly. This has been happening almost for centuries now. And so thank you for making that clear. The situation that you have presented is that of an endemic problem. And that still would be a euphemism. So, probably this is an impossible question, but would you think that there’s any way that a peaceful solution or accommodation could be reached? And what would be the main factors that are preventing us to get there?
What I think a starting point for the solutions of the Rohingya crisis might be for the Myanmar government to accept the historical fact about the Rohingya and their existence and the long-term presence in its territory. So that might be starting point. Myanmar government needs to acknowledge that they are here really for a pretty long period of time. And also, you know, that from the British colonial period to current period– since because of the strong Burmese nationalism there is a conflicting situation between the Rohingya and the other ethnic communities, including the Burman. So, that’s why a very long-term conflict resolution approaches is pretty important to develop a mutual trust and respect between the Rohingya and the other communities, including the Burmans.
And third one, I also think that Myanmar needs to acknowledge the tools of International Human Rights Law, including some of the basic principles of International Law. In contradiction to the insular national politics of Myanmar, who has often denied the basic human rights of the Rohingyan community, or any other persecuted communities, including their right to nationality. And thirdly, I would say, and lastly, probably, since the crisis basically lies in stripping of the citizenship of the Rohingya, the assumption is that granting them citizenship would offer a permanent solution. The international human rights community also exercises to repeal or to amend the citizenship law that’s adopted in 1982, including the provisions of its largest constitutions of 2008, corresponding provisions of 2008 constitution.
Alarmingly, there is also a push-back within the Myanmar in recent years. And some argue that citizenship law is necessary for checking the illegal immigration and for preserving the purity of the Burmese nationality. So it’s a very, very difficult situation. How do you make a compromise between two? It’s very difficult. Even I do not know. But in the wake of this controversy, I think, and I would like to conclude, that legal reform alone would not substantially improve the situation, but is nevertheless fundamental as a non-setting device.
And probably Myanmar government would think about it from recognizing or from acknowledging their presence, then to ensure some of their human rights, then to building up the trust and relationships between and among the communities, different groups, and finally to return back their citizenship. That might help to prevent the crisis. Absolutely. Those are very significant policy changes. And for as idealistic it might be, it would be great to see any of those implemented in the next coming years. Jobair, thank you so much for your time. And thank you for shedding a light on a very complex but very timely issue. Thank you so much.
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Introducing the topic of the Rohingya crisis with Dr. Jobair Alam
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