Myanmar, or Burma, is home to a multitude of ethnic groups, dominated by the majority Burmese, or Bamar. The Muslim Rohingya are not officially recognized and are regarded as foreigners. The result: crimes against humanity.
The case of the Rohingya of Myanmar illustrates how ethnic discrimination and statelessness can lead to atrocities such as crimes against humanity and genocide. While such crimes have yet to be adjudicated in a court of law, consensus has grown in the last few years that strong evidence exists for these allegations. Legal proceedings were initiated in 2019 in the International Criminal Court, Argentinian courts, and the International Court of Justice based in The Hague, Netherlands, to consider claims of atrocity crimes, including genocide, committed by Myanmar state officials against the Rohingya.
While the Rohingya’s plight has reached the institutions of international law, the roots of the Rohingya’s statelessness and humanitarian crisis are unique to their historical, social, and geographic context. As in many cases of statelessness, ethnic discrimination is a cause and a consequence of the Rohingya’s lack of access to citizenship and other rights. In turn, ethnic discrimination results in part from how ethnic identity has historically been constructed in Myanmar, particularly in the past half-century.
While accounts vary, the Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslim, are generally understood to have some origins in Myanmar’s precolonial history, as well as in extensive Muslim migration to what is now Rakhine State in western Myanmar during British colonial rule in the nineteenth century. Through the late colonial period, Buddhist and ethnically Rakhine groups coexisted relatively peacefully with Rohingya and other Muslims in Rakhine State.
Inter-communal tensions arose during the Second World War, when Buddhist nationalist movements sided with the Japanese in order to end British colonial rule. Muslims in Rakhine State, uneasy about a future Buddhist-dominated regime and seeking greater political autonomy, sided with the British government. At independence in 1948, the Constitution generally sought to uphold principles of equality and certain levels of autonomy for major ethnic groups. Most Rohingya were recognized as citizens.
During the military coup of 1962, General Ne Win elevated the concept of taing yin tha (“national races”), invoking a notion of unity and belonging based on indigeneity. Scholars observe that over time, taing yin tha evolved to create a framework of racial hierarchy with Burmans at the top, coercing some groups to accept Burman-dominated rule and eventually excluding others, particularly the Rohingya, from national membership as citizens.
This exclusion developed in the 1960s and 1970s when, against a backdrop of scapegoating, the military regime made the ethnic Chinese and Indians responsible for the country’s economic challenges and gave rise to the misperception that many Chinese and Bangladeshis (from then East Pakistan) were residing in the country illegally. In 1978, close to 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the course of a nationwide operation to check immigration and residence status. Some officials reportedly confiscated residence cards in the course of the check, complicating some efforts to prove citizenship after most were repatriated later that year. Subsequent episodes of mass
displacement amidst racist military sentiment occurred in 1991–92, 2012, 2013, and 2017.
Many organizations point to the 1982 Citizenship Law as creating the basis upon which Rohingya were subsequently denied citizenship, because, for instance, Rohingya are not listed among the 135 ethnic groups who qualify for citizenship on the basis of having made their permanent homes in Myanmar from before 1823. While the law has discriminatory provisions that violate international human rights standards, other scholars find that the statelessness of the Rohingya results from the state’s failure to implement the law along with official efforts to blur the Rohingya’s legal status by means of various discriminatory and exclusive administrative documentation practices.
Regardless of whether the Rohingya’s statelessness is de jure or de facto, the Rohingya’s lack of status as citizens has led to laws and policies that discriminate against and seek to control them in the name of state security. These include restrictions to their freedom of movement and livelihoods, as well as the right to marry and have children. Since the exodus of 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017 and 2018, media and humanitarian access to Rakhine State is severely constrained, raising concerns about the conditions for vulnerable populations caught up in the midst of ongoing counterinsurgency operations against ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya militant groups. Anti-Muslim discrimination and violence has also grown in other parts of the country. Resolving the Rohingya’s statelessness therefore rests not only on changing the ways in which citizenship laws are applied with respect to this particular group, but also on the resolution of armed conflict and fundamental political reform toward a national identity based on equality and inclusion.
This contribution is licensed under the following copyright licence: CC-BY 4.0
The article was published in the Atlas of the Stateless in English, French, and German.