By Richard Potter
October 20, 2014
In a move to sway the public into believing it has taken pragmatic steps to resolve one of the greatest human rights catastrophes in the country, Myanmar has confirmed before the UN General Assembly. ”An action plan is being finalized and will soon be launched,” Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said in his address. “We are working for peace, stability, harmony and development of all people in Rakhine state,” he said. He spoke as an orator for reconciliation, but beneath the gentle slew of niceties and words reminiscent of progress is a call for a process of ethnic reclassification, resettlement, and indefinite detention of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, many of whom are already trapped in squalid camps throughout the country’s western Rakhine State. What is most alarming is the lack of response, outrage, and even possible silent approval by the international community.
The plan, which was first exposed to the international community by Reuters, proposes that in a measure to provide citizenship to the nearly one million Rohingyas living in Myanmar they must first renounce their ethnicity as Rohingya, and claim one instead as Bengali. To many observers this may seem as a simple matter of semantics but the implications are far deeper rooted. The Myanmar government has long considered and pushed a narrative that Rohingya are immigrants who entered the country illegally from neighboring Bengladesh, and in 1982 officially stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship and nearly all other rights. Forcing Rohingya to self describe themselves as Bengali is in actuality forcing them not only to deny their culture, history, ancestry, and identity, but also forcing them to take on a label of immigrants within their own homeland.
On top of denying their own ethnicity the plan then requires those who register as Bengali to then produce documentation that they fit the requirements of the 1982 Citizenship Law, which requires Burmese citizens to trace their ancestry back to 1823, the year before the British colonized the country. The problems here are numerous, but most outstanding remains that for hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas that if they ever possessed such documents they would have likely been lost, along with all of their other belongings during the riots of 2012 where violence that targeted Rohingya all across the state displaced countless Rohingya who fled for their lives and also had their homes and belongings burnt to the ground.
A third measure in Myanmar’s proposal states that Rohingya who do not register as Bengali, and for those who do but fail to meet the requirements for citizenship, will be placed in temporary camps until they can be relocated. In this instance relocated means deported to an undetermined location. Not only is this plan inhumane, it’s also wholly unrealistic where no country or international body will willingly agree to accept such a mass influx of refugees who were deported as part of an campaign of what is no less than ethnic cleansing. The real problem this creates is that the only outcome that can occur in this situation is an expansive encampment campaign, which will no doubt resemble the squalid camps already existing which are housing nearly 150,000 Rohingya who were displaced in 2012, further ensnaring the entire ethnic group to a life of open air prisons with little or no access to basic necessities or medical treatment, denial of basic human rights, and no sign of hope on the horizon.
For those few Rohingya who do register as Bengali and pass the citizenship verification process they will still find themselves segregated in Burmese society. A notably lacking element for reconciliation the plan is that it would take no measure to prevent the isolation of Rohingya within Rakhine State, and therein restrict their movement, communications, ability to engage in commerce, and seek medical attention. For those lucky few who can manage despite the system being leveled against them to obtain citizenship, it appears what they will actually receive will only be a hollow facade of it where there rights and safety lack guarantees. Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, was quoted in a recent article on their website stating “The few that are found to be citizens in the assessment process will presumably have the rights to move and live where they wish – but as many commentators have noted, even if a Rohingya is able to achieve citizenship, that will not protect him if he strays into a Rakhine Buddhist area.” With memories of violence that targeted and displaced so many Rohingyas only two years ago this seems of utmost importance to address, yet it remains an elusive point of discussion.
The dangers of this plan are very plain for the world to see, and the moral obligation for the international community to stand against it is as clear as any case could be, but what is so especially alarming about this plan is that it seems as though the international community may sit back and let it happen without objection. The plan itself actually calls on the UNHRC to help resettle Rohingya from these proposed camps into undetermined countries. What is assumed is that the UNHCR will not accept to directly cooperate with relocation under these circumstances, but what is not clear is why when this plan has become open knowledge there has been little or no outcry from the international community against what many have suggested is an open campaign of forced displacement and ethnic cleansing.
If the international community does not condemn this plan and threaten actions against it as it now stands they will have allowed for a campaign that will almost undoubtedly result in the mass displacement to squalid locked down camps for countless lives and an inevitable aid and health crisis that will follow as it has already for the more than 100,000 Rohingya already living in these conditions. It is the international community alone that has the ability to pressure the Myanmar government to begin reversing the policies that for decades have been plaguing the Rohingya. For them not only allow them to continue, but also to worsen, is a mark on all our nations’ integrity, morality and credibility; It draws into question our sincerity and abilities as humanitarians wherever we may find ourselves in the world. What the international community fails to do for the Rohingya, so too will they have failed to do for the whole of humanity.
Richard Potter is a Social Worker and writer from Pittsburgh, PA. His work has been featured in Vice, Mondoweis, Your Middle East, and Rohingya Blogger.