Preethi Nallu

For decades the running joke in Myanmar, known as Burma until 1989, was that George Orwell crafted his novel 1984 based on his personal prognosis of what the Southeast Asian colony would become following the exit of the British Empire.

On November 13, his predilection for an unceasing dystopian state of affairs was broken by a historic turn of events in the country. While Orwell’s narrative could not have accommodated the coexistence of Big Brother and the Outer Party in one system, in the parallel real world, the Myanmar military conceded elections to the National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by the iconic Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The seventy-year-old leader spearheaded a landslide victory, with her party claiming enough seats in the parliament to choose the next president.

The recognition is a significant game-changer for a country where every publication, including advertisements, until recently required pre-approval by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRB), part of the Ministry of Information. This draconian rule dictated flow of information from and within Myanmar for 50 years. But, the latest polls, which appear to have been relatively free and fair with substantive local and international media coverage, beckon a new political climate.

However, such progress primarily applies to the Bamar majority in the country. In addition to this group, which constitutes about 68 percent of the population, Myanmar officially recognizes 135 ethnic minority groups. While the Shan constitute the largest such group in Myanmar, with official figures pitting them at nearly 10 percent of the population, hundreds of thousands live unclassified as refugees in Northern Thailand. In parts of Shan State, which constitutes one-fourth of the country’s landmass, fighting resumed between government forces and the Shan State Army (SSA) following November’s polls.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s strategy with most ethnic minorities—“vote for NLD and we will represent your democratic rights”—has proven effective, as she won by large margins in the restive borderlands of the country, according to a latest Economist report. At the same time, voting was canceled in large swaths of the ethnic minority regions that have been chronically war-torn since the creation of a Burmese state in 1948. Resolving these discrepancies after the new Parliament convenes in early 2016 will be an uphill battle.

Yet the biggest stumbling block for the leader has been her conspicuous silence on the issue of the Rohingya. The absence of at least 1.2 million Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, from the vote is but one glaring gap in basic democracy in Myanmar.

While the latest polls provided a significant impetus for change for a majority of the population living inside the country, the Rohingya have suffered an even greater setback, with their voting rights suspended by the military backed government ahead of polls. Not a single Muslim candidate is expected to sit in the coming Parliament. 

No recognition from the government of Myanmar, no prospects of assimilation in neighboring countries and no means in between—these prevailing conditions that have dominated the experience of the Rohingya community have also earned them the label of one of ‘the most persecuted people’ in the world from UN agencies.

Rahima, a 26-year-old Rohingya refugee, is among those who have been rendered invisible by the Myanmar government’s deliberate expulsion campaigns. She has lived in a shanty Thai border town since fleeing the country in 2005, severed from her home and family members during a fleet for life.

Decades of destitution

I met Rahima 6 years ago along the Thai-Myanmar border. Despite having interviewed many refugees over the course of my work, her narrative struck a deep chord with me. I had come across her ‘file’ through a local human rights organization that collected information related to ‘unclassified’ refugees along the Thai-Myanmar border.

“All eight brothers and sisters and parents suspected dead,” the introduction to her story read.

With the help of one of the researchers, I managed to meet her.

My first visit to Rahima’s home rendered me speechless.

The makeshift community that sat on the murky bank of a nearly dried up lake looked like the perfect recipe for water-borne diseases. The stagnant water and putrescent odor from human and material waste were a delight for the swarms of mosquitoes that ushered us into the quarters. Malaise thrived in myriad forms in this neglected neighborhood standing on the fringes of the Thai village and its community.

Rahima, then twenty-one years old and mother to three children, greeted me at the entrance of her shack. Originally from Arakan State in Western Myanmar, she ended up in an undisclosed Thai border town renowned for human trafficking and depraved treatment of ‘illegal Burmese migrants.’

By the time she was four, Rahima and her family were forced from their farmland in Arakan state for the first time. By the time she was sixteen, she lost track of her parents and her siblings. By twenty-one, she had been displaced from her home several times, fled the country, witnessed unthinkable atrocities, and become the mother of three children. Without legal protection or recognition as a refugee, and with her children in toe, she collects recyclable rubbish for a living, rummaging through mountains of discarded plastic and filth. Her children, who play in these premises, suffer from chronic illnesses. Following her on a single day of work is enough to risk contracting contagious diseases.

During my second visit, Rahima shared her story. As she breastfed her youngest child at her home, built with a tin roof and thatched walls, with no electricity or running water, she relayed harrowing accounts of torture and persecution in minute detail with startling composure. The seeming nonchalance, a feature very common amongst people in the region, made the stale air inside the congested shack seem particularly oppressive.

“They kept attacking our home in Arakan, no matter where we moved. One day the Tatmadaw (army) came for us and I and my six brothers and sisters and parents had to flee. Some of us got separated over the journey. I waited at a train station with my sister. They took her as she was pretty and discarded her after doing bad things to her. She was not the same person anymore. I continued my journey, often traveling with groups of strangers. At one point I saw the army cutting the breasts of a woman. I kept running for my life. I was sixteen years old.”

Since crossing the border to Thailand, Rahima has remained in the same locale without any improvements to her quality of life. So, keeping in touch with her through local colleagues has been fairly simple over the years. Despite having spent significant periods working in different refugees’ camps—from the Karen refugee camps to informal Syrian refugee settlements in the Bekaa—the staggering level of hopelessness in Rahima’s case has left an acrid taste in my mouth with every visit.

Her entire family is suspected dead. No international agency or legal mechanisms have protected her as a female refugee with children.

A history of disenfranchisement

Muslim settlement in Myanmar, then Burma, can be traced to seventh century sailors and merchants, who married into local communities and developed distinct sub-cultures and languages over time. Later waves of Muslim immigrants came from India (including parts that are now Bangladesh) and Yunnan province of China. According to official statistics, approximately 4 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, but the Burmese-Muslim Association insists that this figure is high as 12 percent. The Kamein, whose ancestry can be traced to the Mughals who migrated to Arakan state in 1600, are the only recognized Muslim group. Meanwhile, all Rohingya who cannot prove their origins in Myanmar prior to the arrival of the British in the 1820s are deemed aliens.

According to the Myanmar government, these populations are simply Bengali Muslims from present day Bangladesh who emigrated during British colonial rule and are hence ‘returnable.’

In 1962 after a military coup, the government initiated the Emergency Immigration Act, which required citizens to obtain national registration certificates. Although the Rohingya had been living in Arakan State for several generations, they were only granted foreign registration status. In 1977, the government initiated programs to expel them by military force. At least 200 thousand fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Once again in the early 1990s, they were subject to repression and human rights abuses by local security forces and fled in large numbers. In 2012, riots broke out in Arakan state in reaction to a sectarian dispute over the purported rape and killing of a Buddhist Rakhine woman by Rohingya Muslims. Muslims of all ethnicities were targeted, and communal violence coupled with military force once again led to the displacement of 140 thousand Rohingya, who remain in IDP camps and at risk of attacks and further ethnic cleansing.

No respite amidst reform

Despite the atmosphere of reform that Myanmar has embraced, especially since 2012 when Aung San Suu Kyi won by-elections, the status of the Rohingya has not changed, while their living conditions have significantly deteriorated.

Yet many Rohingya welcome the victory of NLD with tempered hopes that once the party assumes its new role, its rhetoric and policy will turn in their favor.

Earlier in 2015, NLD Spokesperson Nyan Win called for “changes into the 1982 Citizenship laws,” the main source of Rohingya disenfranchisement, in an interview for the Independent. Following this statement, which stirred immediate intrigue, he clarified to local media that this was his “personal opinion” and not an official NLD statement. It is clear that despite winning an overwhelming majority, the party is under immense pressure to prudently measure its choice of words on the topic. 

Meanwhile the so-called international community—including UN agencies and commercially vested countries—has been tepid in its reactions to atrocities committed against the Rohingya throughout the reform period.

“The UN recognizes and appreciates the recent improvements in the conditions in Rakhine, including efforts to improve the situation of the IDPs,” read a statement from the UN secretary general’s office, ahead of a field visit by the special envoy to Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, in June 2015.

Local and international human rights groups immediately condemned such recognition of superficial improvements, whilst hundreds of thousands remain at risk.

“UN officials even had the audacity to praise a rescue operation by the Burmese navy while refusing to mention that it is the very same government’s policies that have forced so many people onto boats in the first place,” wrote Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW had also criticized similar such positive endorsements by EU officials, following diplomatic visits in 2014.

Meek international and domestic questioning since the 2014 riots have lent support to systematic repudiation by the outgoing military backed government. Its most recent reaction to an Al Jazeera documentary, based on meticulous corroboration of ‘genocidal’ treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar-based human rights organization Fortify Rights, has been predictable. The Ministry of Information issued a statement ahead of November elections, claiming that accusations against the Myanmar government of anti-Muslim attacks and expulsion campaigns were “unfounded” and “orchestrated internationally” to undermine the country’s re-evaluation by the UN’s Human Rights Council. The Big Brother-like tone of the Ministry of Information and the level of outright denial would have vindicated Orwell. Despite conceding elections to NLD, the military is determined to keep those advocating for the Rohingya at bay.

And this will prove one of the greatest challenges for the first incumbent leadership chosen by the people of Myanmar. The military backed USDP, although at its most cooperative since taking power, is undoubtedly shocked by the setback in the latest elections. Known for the poker-faced, tempered reactions that have historically preceded brutal campaigns to seize power, the party’s next move is difficult to assess. NLD will be preoccupied with maintaining political stability over the foreseeable future.

As a result, the poll results that Burmese voters celebrated as a momentous change in the country’s democratic trajectory ring hollow for the Rohingya. Many like Rahima have been disregarded to the point of complete political obscurity. Even those living in Arakan State suffer due to lack of basic political rights and a tempestuous co-existence with fellow Rakhine residents, mostly Buddhists.

Semantics and Politics

The lack of recognition of the Rohingya—as a distinct set of people with a shared cultural identity, religion, language, customs, and proof of existence as a community in western Myanmar for hundreds of years—has left them out of the ‘democratization and reform’ conversation.

Reports of thousands of “boat people,” the popular denotation for the Rohingya, many of whom set sail every year with the aim of reaching neighboring countries for refuge, would compel most to use the words “Rohingya” and “refugee” together. But this seemingly obvious phrase—Rohingya refugees—is a matter of intense debate in the military-backed regime, where even the likes of a celebrated pro-democracy leader like Suu Kyi have refrained from recognizing either title.

Do Rohingya exist as a distinct set of people? Can they be classified as refugees? It is not just a matter of semantics. It’s a matter of politics.

The term Rohingya is often dismissed by Burmese historians, Rakhine civilians and the government as a political tool being used by “Bengali” leaders who would like to carve out a separate state for this community. Such movements did indeed take root in the 1950s, only to be followed by several ethnic cleansing campaigns of entire communities by the Myanmar military.

Ironically, the same people who have been ostracized for decades owing to their distinct appearance, mannerisms, ethnicity, language and religion are also excluded from recognition as a distinct set of people.

At this juncture of Myanmar’s political transition, the steps towards recognizing the Rohingya will need to be incremental. The Myanmar government differentiates between indigenous and non-indigenous citizens and grants rights based on this sub-classification. While recognizing the Rohingya as a native ethnic group appears off the cards for the time being, partially due to fears of future demands for autonomy from such a recognized group, the possibility of ‘non-indigenous citizenship’ for the Rohingya must yet be pursued. Despite the ‘foreigner’ clause, millions would find immediate access to basic social welfare and civic rights. This preliminary step will help initiate the process of recognizing their rights not only as permanent residents of the country, but also as a minority group in need of protection under national and international laws.

Preethi Nallu is an Associate Editor at Warscapes and Managing Editor for Refugees Deeply. Twitter at @Preethi_Nallu.

Image by Steve Gumaer via Creative Commons