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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Human Rights Violations & Rohingyas

By Datuk Kuthubul Zaman (Proham Chairman)

On behalf of PROHAM, permit me to extend a warm welcome to all of you. Before we begin, special thanks to Dato Saifuddin Abdullah, Global Movement for Moderates, Asian Muslim Action Network and Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia for co-hosting this roundtable discussion.

 And to all of you here, thank you for your willingness to participate in today’s discussion of the human rights perils of the Rohingyas; a people fleeing the land where they were born; a people deprived of citizenship in their homeland, a people whose very existence is denied!

The Rohingyas have been described by a Burmese Historian as a ‘fabricated people’ – in fact, one of the biggest debates in the Rohingya crisis is the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ itself. Burmese historians and scholars deny the use of the term ‘Rohingyas’ in their history and prefer to call these people as Bengali Muslims.

 This is despite the evidence that in 1799 Francis Buchanan published “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” where he chronicles a language “spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga”.

 Arakan lies on Myanmar’s western coast with its northern tip bordering Bangladesh. When Britain invaded Burma [Myanmar as it was known then] in 1824, many Burmese believe that it was their Colonial Masters that brought the Muslims from what is now Bangladesh to work in Arakan. Centuries and generations later, the Rohingya’s are still believed to be illegal immigrants! The state run press perpetuates this believe by distinguishing the Arakans and the Rohingyas by referring to the Arakans as locals and the Rohingyas as Bengalis.

When Burma became independent in 1948, the constitution via article 11 guaranteed citizenship to, amongst others:-

 every person who was born in any of the territories which at the time of his birth was included within His Britannic Majesty’s dominions and who has resided in any of the territories included within the Union for a period of not less than eight years in the ten years immediately preceding the date of the commencement of this Constitution

In 1951, Resident of Burma Registration Act of 1949 was implemented through the 1951 Residents of Burma Registration Rules and the Rohingyas were issued with National Registration Cards.

The 2nd Prime Minister of Burma, U Ba Swe said the Rohingya are a race like other races in Burma and have equal rights. The Rohingyas in 1960 exercised their rights as citizens and participated in the elections.

 However, in 1962 in a coup d’etat, General Ne Win overthrew U Nu’s government and set forth the “Burmese way to Socialism” which would further adversely affect the Rohingyas till today.

Significant amongst his policies was Operation Naga Min literally Operation Dragon King which authorized a sweeping check of identity papers throughout the country in order to purge Burma of the Rohingyas deemed illegal foreigners. There were widespread cases of summary execution, rape and brutality targeted specifically at the Rohingya population. An estimated 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled into neighbouring Bangladesh.

In 1982, the Ne Win Government enacted the Burma Citizenship Law which made it nigh impossible for the Rohingyas to gain citizenship and effectively made them stateless. This is in contravention to Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states unequivocally that “Everyone has the right to a nationality”. This principle is especially important in relation to children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that every child “shall have from birth...the right to acquire a nationality”. As a party to that Convention, Burma is obliged to ensure the implementation of every child’s right to acquire a nationality. Since it is almost impossible for a Rohingya, and in particular a Rohingya child, to acquire Burmese citizenship, the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law violates the fundamental right to a nationality. The effect of this denial is profound - Rohingya are limited in their ability to vote, be elected for public office, move freely with Burma, own land or receive public services such as education.

In 1992, Burmese authorities established the border security/military force NaSaKa in North Rakhine. NaSaKa consisted of the police, immigration customs, military intelligence, and anti-riot police. From 1992 until its abolishment in July 2013, NaSaKa were the main perpetrators of human right abuses against the Rohingya in Rakhine. NaSaKa then introduced orders which restricted the marriages of the Rohingyas – requiring them to obtain permission from the NaSaKa before they marry. Failure to obey the requirement was punishable by fines, prosecution or imprisonment. After the hurdle of actually getting married, the NaSaKa imposed a limit of 2 children per Rohingya couple. NaSaKa were also known to target mosques.

When the military dictatorship ended and a new government democratically elected, the fates of the Rohingyas were sealed when the new government affirmed the exclusion and restriction policies of the Rohingyas.

In June 2012, horrific violence erupted in Arakan State between Muslim Rohingya, and the predominantly Buddhist Rakhines. The violence had been encouraged by racist organisations and individuals, and what could be described as communal violence quickly evolved into organised and systematic attacks against the Rohingya. The violence has led to the displacement more than 200,000 people, the vast majority of them Rohingya. Human rights abuses reported include “beheadings, stabbings, shootings, beatings and widespread arson”

On June 10, state of emergency was declared in Rakhine, allowing military to participate in administration of the region. The Burmese army and police were accused of targeting Rohingyas through mass arrests and arbitrary violence. A number of monks' organizations that played vital role in Burma's struggle for democracy took measures to block any humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya community.

On 17 August, two months after the violence started, President Thein Sein announced the formation of a 27-person commission to investigate the situation in Rakhine/Arakan State. The commission includes religious leaders, artists and former dissidents, but no Rohingya representative was included. Represented in the commission however was Dr Aye Maung; President of the Rakhine Nationalist Development Party described by some as a Neo-Nazi Political Party. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Commission reported no human right abuses.

At this juncture I would like to recommend, for those of you who have not already done so, watch the Al Jazeera Documentary titled The Hidden Genocide which chronicles the riots in detail. With reference to the title of the documentary, according to Prof. William Schabas, one of the foremost experts on international criminal law, Myanmar is “moving into a zone where the word can be used (in the case of the Rohingya). When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping to see that they really are eventually, that they no longer exist, denying their history, denying the legitimacy of the right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean that it’s not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide.”

Genocide is defined in Article 2 the The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Rohingya crisis does alarmingly look like it fits the bill. It is a shame then that the icon of Myanmar’s democracy Aung San Suu Kyi and winner of the nobel Peace Prize has remained quiet about the plight of the Rohingyas.

Consequently, according to the 2005 Outcome Document adopted by the General Assembly, when a State fails to protect its own population, the rest of the UN states have a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This ideal became popular with the moniker Responsibility to Protect, sometimes abbreviated as R2P.

In accordance with the norm of Responsibility to Protect, in December of 2013, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 68/242 which called upon the Government of Myanmar to protect the civilian population from ongoing violence, to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms including full access to humanitarian assistance without discrimination, unhindered access across Rakhine State and the voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their communities of origin, to allow freedom of movement, equal access to full citizenship for the Rohingya minority and to address issues of land ownership and restitution of Property.

What then of Malaysia’s and ASEAN’s R2P - PROHAM therefore urges Malaysia and the rest of the ASEAN nations to undertake this responsibility to protect a people whose human rights violation frankly borders on the most serious international crime of genocide!
Here to address this issue and to further elaborate on the horrors facing the Rohingyas is this panel of esteemed speakers whose personal experience and wealth of knowledge make them experts in their own right. I myself am rather enthused to hear them today like I’m sure most of you are.

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