By Yasmeen Aftab Ali
December 03, 2013
If you wish to know how it feels to be disowned by the country of your birth and the birth of your forefathers in the most literal sense one can be disowned; the right people to ask would be the Rohingya of Myanmar, once Burma.
Their status is officially of being “stateless” courtesy the 1982 (Citizenship) Law. The term “citizen” used within means a Burma citizen. Clause 3 of the Act states as follows: “Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1185 B.E., 1823 A.D. are Burma citizens.” With the stroke of a pen, all those whose ancestors settled to Myanmar post 1823 have no citizenship, no claim to any rights, their presence is undocumented and they are immigrants for all practical purposes. The law states the ethnic races by name whose settlement is ‘legal’, excluding those not named even anterior to 1823. In educated western democracies like U.S, citizenship requires patient steps - not a generation after generation of denial in spite on grounds of ethnicity. Originally from North Rakhine in Myanmar, many Rohingyas left for Bangladesh to avoid the crackdown of 1978. Under pressure internationally; Burma was pushed into a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh. In a sly move, within a period of three years of this acceptance, the Burmese government enacted the 1982 citizenship law.
This poses an interesting question: can a law have a retrospective effect so to take away the existing citizenship, relegating them to “stateless” individuals? If the government found it imperative to enact a law, it must not completely overturn the rights and duties existing as in the case under question. This is reflected clearly in the concept of ‘Principle of Legality.’ The rationale is to ensure that all actions are based on well thought out legal reasoning and are not politically motivated. The absurdity of laws having retrospective effects is laid out in many international laws and spelled out in international treatiesie1949 Geneva Convention III (Article 99, first paragraph): “No prisoner of war may be tried or sentenced for an act which is not forbidden by the law of the Detaining Power or by international law, in force at the time the said act was committed.” Therefore, there is an estoppels that does not offer a carte blanche to institute laws having retrospective effect.
Not being awarded a citizenship status has other serious ramifications. A Muslim ethnic minority, without a “Citizen Certificate” awarded to legal citizens under the law; these ‘non-citizens’ must possess special permits from the authorities according to “IRIN humanitarian news and analysis,” (applicable since 1994) to marry. Rohingya couples are not permitted under law to have more than two off springs, this restriction apparently does not apply to any other ethnic race residing in Myanmar, and they must also inform the authorities if leaving their village. Effectively what this law has done is to create a permanent class of people without any legal rights and open to persecution of sorts. By so doing, does not the given law ethnically discriminate? Hate speech against racial and ethnic groups is a well-established and recognized limitation on right to freedom of expression and speech. What then is this law if not a manifestation of the same?
All civilized nations form laws for all its citizens - not to victimize a group within. An example of this is the text of Executive Order No 11246 of the United States Labour Department that deals with Ethnic/National origin, Colour, Race, Religion & Sex Discrimination. It states, “Executive Order 11246 prohibits covered federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin, and requires affirmative action to ensure equal employment opportunity without regard to those factors.”
Luke Hunt reporting on November 23, 2013 for The Diplomat states that the Myanmar government rejected an appeal by the United Nations to grant citizenship to its Muslim Rohingya, “Who the government insists are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”There are by a rough estimate more than 200,000 Rohingya who have been displaced mainly due to discrimination. IRIN report shares this number is excluding those displaced in June 2012 violence against them. These clashes led to complete destruction of Rohingya homes. (Published November 16, 2012) The violence that erupted was the result of tensions between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine. This was followed by an allegation levelled against some Rohingya men of having raped a Rakhine woman. This led to a further displacement of 75,000, most of whom are Rohingya, says IRIN. These ill-fated people still languish in Sittwe Township housing refugee camps. The camp life in Myanmar is miserable. Reports claim it’s extremely difficult to get aid to the IDPs in the Sittwe Township refugee camps. Medical services are almost non-existent - the medical workers having received death threats.
According to a Human Rights Watch report “Burmese authorities and members of Arakanese groups have committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State since June 2012,” (Published April 22, 2013) it tells anyone interested in knowing of the 153 page report available ; of the “role of the Burmese government and local authorities in the forcible displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims and the ongoing humanitarian crisis.” Rohingya have been “doubly” discriminated against, if such a term exists. First, by denial of citizenship, second by the current surge of violence against them.
The question that emerges here is as to why Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi silent on this humanitarian issue? Her party bagged majority seats in lower parliament in 2012 elections. Sources say she plans to run for President, come 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence is also being seen by some political pundits as a tactic to win support of the pre-dominant Buddhist majority who comprise a major chunk of the “citizens” in Myanmar. It is an effort to garner political support for an ambitious future, speaking up for “non-citizen” Rohingya may result in damaging her popularity with the local Buddhists and Buddhists monks who seem to have been sucked into this vortex of hatred. To Ms Aung San SuuKyi I want to say; history will judge you. Judge you it will. You have a choice. You can either turn your back on the plight of those deserving of the attention of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Or, you can go ahead and win the Presidential elections in 2015. If you win the Rohingy as their citizenship, you will still go on to become the President since you will return them; their honor. And with this you will win the respect of every person in the world. This genre of respect that does not come with winning of awards. The choice is yours.
To the Buddhists around the world; followers of a religion of peace, love and meditation, I say; do not let the image of your religion be tarnished because of petty local politics in one country. You must join hands and let the world see that fairness and love has the power to be above local politics. This blatant unfairness must be bought to an end.
To the UN I beseech; pass a resolution against these atrocities and ensure citizenship for the local Rohingya. The bloody atrocities against them are a clear case of ethnic discrimination. UN must play the role of a strong international organ.
I hope someone out there is listening!
Yasmeen Aftab Ali is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.