The desperate situation of refugees adrift and unwanted in the Bay of Bengal has drawn global attention to Myanmar’s decades-long humanitarian tragedy.
Responding to the current wave of predominantly Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, the Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, Filipino and US governments have adopted a humanitarian approach to ensure the well-being of those already at sea. And last week, Thailand’s foreign ministry hosted a summit in a largely fruitless attempt to reach a long-term solution to this problem.
But unless Myanmar reverses its discriminatory domestic policies targeted at the Rohingya, more will be forced onto boats to avoid persecution.
Recent legal moves
Initially, Myanmar announced a boycott of the summit. It objected to the use of the name “Rohingya”. Myanmar eventually agreed to attend the Bangkok meeting, but this news was overshadowed domestically by President U Thein Sein’s decision to enact the controversial Population Control Health Care Law.
The law will allow Myanmar’s central government to impose “birth spacing” regulations on women in communities where population leads to “unbalanced resources”. How it might be enforced is unclear. But given Myanmar’s poor human rights record, the law should raise serious red flags.
The law will drive more Rohingya to leave Myanmar. It calls into immediate question the authenticity of Myanmar’s desire to find a solution to its home-grown refugee problem.
The Population Control Law is part of a four-piece legislative program known as the “Protection of Race and Religion” package. Advocated by nationalist Buddhist organisations like Ma Ba Tha and the monk U Wirathu, these proposals call for restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversion.
U Wirathu and other activists have used Myanmar’s new media freedoms to argue that Buddhism, the country’s majority religion, is under immediate threat from Islam. Sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment for inciting religious conflicts and released in a 2012 amnesty, U Wirathu has since inflamed anti-Muslim and anti-Indian attitudes. He has endorsed policies that he believes will further his goal.
The Population Control Law is considered by many to be a direct attack on perceived high birth rates among Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. U Wirathu told The Irrawaddy that the law’s dual purpose is to protect women’s health and “stop the Bengalis” (a pejorative name for the Rohingya).
Human Rights Watch has condemned the law and believes it will violate women’s rights and target minorities. Recently, while visiting Myanmar, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the law as likely to exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions.
This is the clearest indication yet that, despite regional and US pressure, Myanmar’s government does not intend to change its policy course. It will continue the decades-long program of discriminatory policies against the Rohingya that denies them their human rights.
A long history of ongoing discrimination
The Rohingya have been subject to repressive policies and practices within Myanmar since the 1962 military coup. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority, living predominantly in Rakhine State, adjacent to Bangladesh. Despite claiming centuries of connection to this area, the Rohingya’s heritage and right to Myanmar citizenship are denied by the government. The government, and many Myanmar citizens, see the Rohingya as economic migrants from Bengal who came to Myanmar, in large part, during British colonial times.
This belief is significant because of the way Myanmar determines citizenship rights. Myanmar citizenship laws are based on ethnicity and race. The Rohingya are not listed among Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups. This renders the 800,000 who live in Myanmar collectively stateless and gives the government legal latitude to strip away their civil, political and economic rights.
The law adds to layers of existing discriminatory government policies towards the Rohingya. These include restrictions on travel, marriage, pregnancy outside of marriage and economic activity, such as stipulations on work and forced labour. To many, northern Rakhine State resembles an open prison.
In 2013, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Quintana, acknowledged the:
… widespread and systematic human rights violations by state officials targeted against the Rohingya and wider Muslim populations.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has described the Rohingya’s situation as an “ongoing humanitarian emergency”. Shortly after this statement, MSF was ordered by the government to cease operations in Myanmar. A Human Rights Watch report has documented the Myanmar government and local authorities’ “crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing” perpetrated against the Muslim Rohingya.
Despite Myanmar’s recent governance changes and apparent liberalisation, the root cause of this humanitarian crisis in South-East Asia is Myanmar’s policies towards the Rohingya.
Finding a lasting solution requires Myanmar’s regional neighbours to ask questions beyond what to do with boatloads of refugees. What is causing the boats to be filled with desperate Rohingya in the first place? The Myanmar government might find this difficult to answer.