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  Global Views
Rohingyas of Myanmar
Special Contribution
By Nuruddin Azam
The Rohingyas is a group of Arakanese people in Myanmar . They are spread mainly in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Akyab, Rathedung and Kyauktaw townships close to neighbouring Bangladesh .

From the 7th century merchants from the Yemen , Arab and other parts of the Middle East began to settle in Arakan. After the British occupation of Arakan in the 19th century, many Bengalis from the then British East Bengal also started settling in Arakan.

There is a long history of anti-Indian and anti-Muslim sentiment and riots in Myanmar from the time of British occupation of Arakan. The first major such riot occurred in 1930 as a result of the irresponsible action of a British firm of stevedores which had brought in Burmese workers to break the strike of Indian workers. The Indians were compelled to end the strike. The following day when the Burmese workers reported for work they were told by the British firm that their service was no longer required. The Burmese workers became angry and started the fight and Indians retaliated. In a couple of days the riot spread through the whole country and thousands of innocent lives were lost. Subsequent history is replete with anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots in the region which need a careful analysis from the historical perspectives.

Amnesty International reports highlight the continued sufferings of the Rohingya people under Myanmar’s military rulers in the past decades. Their freedom of movement is severely curtailed and most of them have been denied Myanmar citizenship. They are subjected to extortion and arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, forced labour, forced eviction, and restrictions on marriage.

More than 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh in 1978 following the Nagamin operation of the Myanmar army. This military campaign targeted civilians and resulted in widespread killings, rape and religious persecution of the Rohingyas.

Another quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh in 1991-92. They reported forced labour, executions, torture, and rape. Myanmar army forced Rohingyas to unpaid work on infrastructure and strategic military and economic projects under inhuman conditions.

Many thousand Rohingyas also fled to Thailand . There are claims that many of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea by the Thai army and police. Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva confirmed that there were instances in which Rohingya people were pushed out to the sea.

In February 2009 over 90 organisations from different countries including Amnesty International called on the Myanmar Government to cease the systematic persecution of the Rohingya minority, who must be recognised and assured full rights and protection. The statement, inter alia, stated:

”We, the undersigned organisations, are extremely concerned about the treatment of over a thousand Rohingyas from Burma and migrants from Bangladesh who have been forcibly expelled and abandoned in international waters by the Thai security forces since December 2008.

Over the past few weeks, several boats have been rescued off the coasts of Indonesia and the Andaman Islands of India. Survivors tell of having been detained in Thailand , beaten, and towed out to sea on boats without engines or sufficient food and water. Several hundred remain missing and are feared dead.

We are also concerned about the fate, including possible refoulement, of the Rohingya who remain in detention in Thailand , Indonesia and India . If Rohingyas are returned to Burma they could face widespread human rights violations, including forced labour, forced eviction, land confiscation and severe restrictions on freedom of movement. Refoulement of such individuals is prohibited under customary international law.”

After giving air to their specific concerns, the signatories put forward the following recommendations:

”Given the gravity of situation, we recommend that:

The Burmese Government:

End the systematic persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority and recognise them as citizens with full rights and protection.

The Thai Government:

Cease forcibly expelling the Rohingyas, which is in violation of international law. Investigate serious allegations of mistreatment by the Thai security forces which may be in serious violation of Thailand 's obligations under the 1984 the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and bring to justice those responsible.

Ensure that detainees have access to humanitarian assistance, protection and independent legal counsel by relevant international and local agencies. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) should have access to all detainees to ensure fair determination of their status.

Facilitate an open and independent inquiry by the Thai National Human Rights Commission and/or an international body into the allegations of human rights violations, providing them with full access to survivors and detainees, relevant government and army officials, and records related to the events.

The Indonesian and Indian Governments:

Respect the principle of non-refoulement in relation to those rescued at sea and currently being detained.

Ensure that detainees have access to humanitarian assistance, protection and independent legal counsel by relevant international and local agencies. UNHCR should have access to all detainees to ensure fair determination of their status.

The Bangladeshi Government:

Uphold its international obligations as a country of first asylum to ensure the protection and assistance of Rohingya with the support of the international community. The members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Initiative for Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC):

Launch immediate search and rescue operations for the remaining boats pushed back into international waters, as well as other boats of migrants reported to have left Bangladesh .

Work with the UNHCR, the international community and civil society groups to find equitable regional solutions that meet the protection needs of those forced to leave Burma , with responsibility-sharing arrangements regionally and internationally.

Urge the Burmese Government to stop the systematic persecution of the Rohingya minority, which is the root cause of their flight to neighbouring countries.

Meet their obligations as state parties to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR).

Urge all members to ratify the 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and the 1990 International Convention for the Protection of the Right of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

The United Nations and the International Community:

Continue to support the governments of Bangladesh , Malaysia , Thailand and its neighbours to find a durable solution to the protection needs of Burmese refugees throughout the region, ensuring consultation with civil society.

Engage the Burmese Government to solve the ongoing human rights crisis there, including amending the 1982 Citizenship Law which renders the Rohingya stateless.

Ensure that urgent humanitarian assistance is provided to Rohingyas and Bangladeshis who have fled on boats.

Ensure that human rights complaints related to the treatment of these people are thoroughly investigated and reported to the Human Rights Council.”

More than one year has already passed after that initiative with no positive outcome yet. It is now imperative for these organisations and others to come forward and move international bodies such as the United Nations and regional groups like ASEAN to play their roles so that a permanent solution to this long standing problem is found.

It should, however, be remembered that a permanent solution to the plight of Rohingya minority in Myanmar will remain elusive as long as the undemocratic military rulers continue to deny their citizenship rights.

Nuruddin Azam

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