QUITE predictably, the 2014 national census of Myanmar has come back to haunt the ethnic Rohingyas. Media reports inform that the Myanmarese government has devised a new plan under which members of the Rohingya community would be given the thorny choice: accept ethnic reclassification and the prospect of citizenship or be detained. Under the new arrangement the community members would be required to identify themselves as ‘Bengalis’ (and not as ‘Rohingyas’) or face detention. Plans are underway to “construct temporary camps in required numbers for those who refuse to be registered and those without adequate documents.”
The new decree is being proposed at a time when most of Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya population, particularly those in western Arakan, has been living in what has been described as “apartheid-like” condition. In 2012, the community experienced serious clashes with the Rakhine Buddhists that led to death of 280 people and displacement of 140,000. It is only in early September this year that the two-year old curfew was lifted.
In most likelihood the plan has been mooted to offset international pressure “to promote peaceful co-existence and prevent sectarian tension and conflict” and to address the situation of statelessness through a citizenship verification programme and promote economic development. But these lofty goals do not appear to have takers in the Rohingya community nor among the rights activists. They feel that it could place thousands of Rohingyas, including those living in long-settled villages, at risk of “indefinite detention.”
Although the bait of citizenship has been tagged with the offer of reclassification as Bengalis, the Rakhine state officials are already on record clarifying that restriction on many of their freedoms, including that on movement, would persist. There is widespread apprehension that registration “as Bengali” would make them vulnerable should the Myamarese authorities decide to send them to Bangladesh as being illegal immigrants.
During the last census most of the community members refused to register as “Bengalis” as the term was synonymous with illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. International agencies such as the UNFPA and bilateral donors provided support in conducting the 2014 census. Despite prior warnings from various quarters that incorporation of ethnic and religious issues in the exercise was likely to exacerbate existing communal tensions, the agencies went ahead with the census as they were convinced of the need for such information.
The census based the counting of population on 135 officially recognised ethnic groups that has been deemed by critics as “outdated and inaccurate.” The Rohingya community, dubbed by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities of the world, was not included in the list. The government promised the international sponsors that everyone would be allowed to self-identify their ethnicity. But only a day before the census, not surprisingly, the Myanmarese government prohibited respondents from identifying themselves as Rohingyas. Those who did were excluded from the count.
The situation warranted the UN to issue a statement. The statement noted that “in its agreement with the United Nations … the (Myanmarese) government made a commitment to conduct the exercise in accordance with international census standards and human rights principles… It explicitly agreed with the condition that each person would be able to declare what ethnicity they belong to. …Those not identifying with one of the listed ethnic categories would be able to declare their ethnicity and have their response recorded by enumerators.” In a rare move, the UN agency expressed its concern about the government reneging on its pledge, saying it could heighten tensions in Arakan state and undermine the credibility of the data collected.
The Myanmarese government’s latest plan needs to be viewed in the situation now prevailing in Arakan. The Rakhine Social Network (RSN), a coalition of Rakhine activist organisations and the newly formed Arakan National Party (ANP), are currently engaged in a virulent anti-Rohingya campaign. Implicit in their agenda is “to isolate the Rohingya population and drive them out from what the Rakhines regard as their homeland.” Even moderate Rakhine leaders endorse the “apartheid-like conditions” that the Rohingyas have been subjected to and the “continuation of abuses” that, according to Arakan watchers, “amount to crimes against humanity.” While independent monitors and UN officials have raised alarm about the treatment meted out to the Rohingyas, the Myanmarese and the Rakhine state governments claim that the displaced Rohingyas live more comfortable lives in the camps than before the violence.
The Rakhine chauvinist leaders are on record that they favour giving citizenship rights to about 200,000 Rohingyas (less than 20% of the current Rohingya population in Arakan) and forcibly removing the rest to the proposed “detention camps” where they would be held in perpetuity pending settlement in third countries. The goal of such an exercise is to check the “demographic invasion” of the Rohingyas in Arakan, they reason.
In a situation where the state has abdicated its responsibility to protect the ethnic Rohingyas it is the international NGOs (INGO) such as the Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF-H) who are playing a critical role in providing basic services to the members of the community in Arakan. These INGOs have also been targeted by the Rakhine organisations. Since last year the aid workers began receiving anonymous death threats and landlords began turning away humanitarian agencies. In February 2013, the MSF-H office was closed down in view of mass protests for being biased against the Rakhines. In reality, the organisation was penalised for treating those who were wounded during the communal riots in January, an event that the government denied ever occurred.
In March that year another organisation Malteser International’s office premises and UN warehouses in the state capital Sittwe were attacked and ransacked over a rumour that a Buddhist flag was desecrated. The situation forced aid workers to evacuate the region. It resulted in denial of access to crucial health care services to more than half a million Rohingyas in camps and villages in the vicinity.
In March 2014 a new body, the Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC), was created to oversee the work of the foreign aid agencies. Members of the RSN dominate the committee. The Rakhine leaders who agitated against the foreign aid agencies in the aftermath of the March 2012 violence have now been given the responsibility to monitor the work of INGOs so that they did not favour the Rohingyas. The level of Rakhine contempt against the aid agencies is reflected in the following statement by Than Tun, a state ECC member and RSN patron: “Speaking as a Rakhine, if I were to put bluntly, if all UN agencies and international NGOs were to leave Rakhine, it would go half way to resolving the conflict in Rakhine state” (Reuters: June 18, 2014). According to UNHCR, 86,000 Rohingyas have fled Burma since 2012 to escape persecution.
Thus, one may conclude that while western countries and corporations are competing with China and each other in carving out their own niches in the vast reservoir of Myanmarese resources and when Myanmar is being embraced in the comity of nations for its incremental advances in restoration of democracy, the Myanmarese state has remained on course to cleanse the Rohingyas from Arakan. This move of the Myanmarese authorities is not only an abdication of their responsibility to protect, but constitutes crime against humanity. History will not absolve the perpetrators and the abettors of this heinous crime.
The writer teaches International Relations and co-ordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) at the University of Dhaka.