Emergence of a Stateless Population: Fleeing Rohingyas of Myanmar


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Almost four decades back, the stories of Vietnamese boat people looking for shelter hit the news headlines. Of late, the migrants/refugees/asylum-seekers/stateless persons have been paying high prices for space aboard unseaworthy ships with small food supplies and terrible sanitary conditions, to flee their respective home countries. Asia has seen, in particular, thousands of Rohingyas, a persecuted ethnic minority from Myanmar, cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in recent times towards treacherous, precarious and uncertain futures. However we brand them – refugees, migrants, asylum-seekers – they remain stateless in the world of nation-states.

The Rohingyas are now the world’s most persecuted minority without citizenship. Currently around 32,000 Rohingyas are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh, living in two camps near the Myanmar border: in Cox’s Bazar and the Kutupalong refugee camp in the vicinity of Teknaf. It is quite difficult to enumerate the Rohingyas in India, given the large number of unregistered refugees and stateless persons in the Indian sea of humanity. Thus, there are many guesstimates. The number of families settled in different states of India is roughly 10,565. According to a variety of available figures, the number of Rohingyas in India could be somewhere between forty and fifty thousand, assuming that each family on an average has four or five members. However, if we take into account non-enumerated refugees and asylum-seekers (calculated based on estimated ratios for other unregistered groups of foreigners to their registered counterparts), the total number of Rohingyas may be as high as one hundred thousand or more.

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Background history


The word Rohingya is derived from Rohang, the ancient name for the kingdom of Arakan. Historically, Rohingyas belong to a community that developed from people of various lines of descent, including Myanmarese, Arabs, Moors, Persians, Bengalis and others – all adhering to Islam. Though the naming of Rohingya seems to have come about only recently around the beginning of 1950s, the Muslims in Arakan have a long history dating back to the beginning of the Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1785) of Arakan. Burma, after its defeat by the British, was forced it to sign the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826, which resulted in the absorption of Arakan (to the west) and Tenasserim (Burma’s southern coastal strip) into the British Empire. Eventually, Burma became a province of British India, and the almost open border between Bengal and Arakan facilitated a variety of cross-border contacts. Over time, numerous Bengali Muslims, some of whom were Chittagongs, moved into northern Arakan and began to merge with the Rohingya community. In this way, the distinction between these ethnic groups became blurred due to the ease of cross-border and inter-community interactions.

Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the political demands of both Muslim and Buddhist communities in Arakan were entirely overlooked by the central government in Rangoon. Arakan was not even granted provincial autonomy. In 1962, General Ne Win seized power in a military coup and imposed his Burmese Way to Socialism, which set off a new wave of social unrest and insurgencies in the country. Under the 1974 constitution, Arakan was granted statehood and was officially named the state of Rakhine. The state capital, Akyab, was renamed Sittwe. Many Muslims in the Rakhine State feel that this was the beginning of a long-term policy to exclude their culture and people from Arakan, as in both governmental and Rakhine terminology, a Rakhine was necessarily a Buddhist. The attempt to eliminate the Muslim voice from the everyday business and political affairs of Arakan after 1962 was backed by intense military pressures. Under the government of Ne Win, a draconian military operation known as the Four Cuts policy was introduced.

In 1978, a military operation code named “Ye The Ha” was launched in the mountains of north Arakan around the Sittwe plains, together with an unusual census operation, known as Nagamin or King Dragon, to check identity papers in the border region for the first time. The Nagamin census operation generated controversy amidst widespread reports of army brutality, including rape, murder and the destruction of mosques. As a result, about 200,000 Muslims took refuge elsewhere in fear of their lives. The state-controlled media of Burma blamed the “armed bands of Bengalis” or “Muslim extremists” for attacking indigenous Buddhist villages. Moreover, it was also argued by the military junta that many of those who fled in 1978 were in fact illegal Bengali immigrants who had entered Burma as part of a general expansion in the Bengali population in this region of Asia. The counter-argument was that many displaced persons had either never had national registration cards, or their cards had been confiscated by the immigration authorities during the 1978 operation. This argument that the Rohingyas were deliberately being discriminated against was further strengthened after a tough Citizenship Act was passed by the Ne Win government in 1982. Under this act, three categories of citizens – national, associate and naturalized – were created. Full citizenship in Burma was only for national ethnic groups, such as the Burmans, Mons or Rakhines, or those who could prove that their ancestors had resided in Burma before the first Anglo-Burmese war.

For many Muslim residents, this was a near-impossible task. There were no such records to be found and, in fact, such a law was discriminatory according to international law and covenants. In any case, many Muslims have since been forced to apply for naturalized citizenship, if they had not already applied for citizenship under the earlier 1948 Citizenship Law (in which case they now found themselves reclassified as associate citizens). Since the early 1980s, there have been continuing reports of anti-Muslim persecution throughout the country. After 1982, the continuing destruction or uprooting of Muslim villages and mosques were reported in several parts of Arakan, from Sandoway to Tongup. This was the backdrop to the mass exodus of 1991-92.

The Rohingyas become a stateless population in 1982 with the revised Myanmar Citizenship Law that excluded them from the list of 135 national ethnic groups. The category of non-state persons has come into existence with the concept of citizenship, which on the one hand indicates certain rights, and on the other hand intensifies the miseries of those who are deprived of citizenship rights. In 1989, colour-coded citizens’ scrutiny cards (CRCs) were introduced: pink cards for full citizens, blue for associate citizens and green for naturalized citizens. The Rohingyas were not issued any cards. In 1995, in response to the UNHCR’s intensive advocacy efforts to document the Rohingyas, the Burmese authorities started issuing them temporary registration cards (TRCs), a white card, pursuant to the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act. The TRC does not mention the bearer’s place of birth and cannot be used to claim citizenship.


Regional initiative


Regional and bilateral initiatives have mostly failed to protect the Rohingyas. For instance, in the wake of the growing international focus on the issue, the Thai government hosted a regional meeting to address the migrant crisis on May 29, 2015, involving 15 nations. These included Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the United States. Several countries wanted the root causes of the flow of migrants to be discussed in the meeting. However, the Myanmar government threatened to boycott the meeting and accused others of being soft on human trafficking. Before this initiative, there was another regional initiative taken in 2002, known as the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. In 2009, a few Southeast Asian countries agreed to use the Bali Process to solve the Rohingya issue. In fact, all the countries of the region that are affected by the Rohingya issue are members of both the Bali Process and the latter’s Ad Hoc Group.

However, during the 2014 ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw – the first one to be held in the new capital of Myanmar – the plight of the Rohingya Muslims was left off the agenda. The Government of Myanmar’s decision in March 2014 to expel humanitarian groups and prevent them from providing health care and aid has increased the number of the Rohingyas moving to the other countries.

When the rickety boats carrying Rohingyas, with diminishing food and drinking water, hit the newspaper headlines in May 2015, Malaysia and Indonesia bowed to international pressure and said they would no longer turn away migrant boats. But Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comments were a massive blow to efforts to ensure an effective regional response to the worsening humanitarian crisis on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Tony Abbott categorically stated that the Australian government wanted other countries to help with resettlement, but Abbott said those seeking a better life in Australia needed only to come through the “front door.” The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has expressed its deep dismay at the Australian Prime Minister’s stand.


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Concluding remarks


There are four dimensions to the Rohingya crisis: the root factors pushing a vulnerable community to undertake dangerous sea voyages and long marches across lands to gain protection and security of life; the economy of human trafficking in the Bay of Bengal; inadequate policies of protection, asylum and hospitality of the respective countries in this region, which fall short of the requirements of human rights protection and humanitarian care; and both the lack of proper international and regional policies toward migration and refugee flows, and the inability of the global protection regime to respond to the crisis. All these elements are present in the humanitarian tragedy that is under way in the Bay of Bengal.

Even a cursory reading of reportage, commentary, essays and articles on the precarious condition of the Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers will tell us of the growing statelessness of people in protracted conditions of displacement and refugee camps. As nationality issues get more ethnicized and securitized, we shall increasingly witness the phenomenon of growing statelessness – perhaps de jure, but more often de facto. The question is: when will international law recognize this? When will the UNHCR and the international community in general become sufficiently active to raise their response to the level the problem requires? Why don’t the UNHCR and the international community prevail upon Australia so that the latter does not follow practices of warehousing, offshore detention and interception in mid-sea to prevent the boat people from seeking shelter, and then clamping security restrictions on people engaged in protection of the asylum-seekers? And, finally, when will the states of South and Southeast Asia, at very least, move beyond humanitarianism and attempt a regional or at least bilateral solution? Because more often than not, redressing the injustice suffered by the displaced that is caused by statelessness requires the cooperation of several states involved.

Why doesn’t all this happen? This is where we must recognize the unequal nature of power, influence, and responsibility in the global protection regime. In the light of this report and on the basis of the experiences of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, which is reflective of worldwide post-colonial experiences, we have to ask: what is the nature of this power, influence and responsibility? To ask this is important because through all these years following the convention on statelessness, the global protection regime has never questioned the dissociation between power and responsibility – primarily for two reasons: first, in the age of majoritarian democracy, it is assumed that responsibility lies primarily with the minority groups to conduct themselves responsibly so that they become acceptable to the majority and the majoritarian state; and second, international responsibility is formally exercised by nation-states, while power is vested with transnational agencies and empires that will exercise power without responsibility and will therefore exercise it discriminatingly.

We evaluate people and groups as responsible or not, depending on how they exercise their power. Often, we exercise moral judgment. Sometimes we do this formally, for instance via legal judgement. The question will be: how do we relate moral responsibility and legal responsibility – not only of individuals but of empires, global powers and other collectives? The current protection regime has no particular idea of what we may term (a) responsible agency, whereby an institution like the state is regarded as a moral agent;  (b) retrospective responsibility, when a state is judged for its actions and is blamed or punished; or (c) responsibility as a virtue, when we praise a state as being responsible. Philosophical discussions of responsibility abound. However, in the context of postcolonial experiences, we need a wider view of responsibility in order to explore connections between moral and legal responsibility, and between global and national responsibilities. After all, was it not the original philosophical invocation of the dual notions of power and responsibility that informed political thought?


Ranabir Samaddar is the Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies at the Calcutta Research Group.