The State of “No-Land’s Man”: The Human Rights of Rohingyas

Utpal K De, Simi Mehta, Tanya Agrawal, Ritika Gupta

Every human being holds fundamental rights, which is called human rights, as enshrined in the international legal framework and globally endorsed legal system. The UN Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 says that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedom outlined in this declaration without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, birth, or another status. Human beings enjoy human rights locally and globally under the premise of global justice.

However, many states worldwide are marked as violators of human rights whilst they are supposed to be protectors. Thousands of people experience serious human rights violations across the world where states play catalyst and perpetrators. To gain a better understanding of the issue, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organized a dialogue on The State of Economic Development in South Asia on the topic The State of “No-Land’s Man”: The Human Rights of Rohingyas. The lecture was delivered by Professor Nasir Uddin, Professor, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Prof Nasir Uddin-Rohingyas

Professor Nasir Uddin, Professor, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh, said that human rights are those activities, conditions, liberty, and freedom that all human beings are entitled to enjoy by their humanity or as a human being. These are civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. These rights cannot be taken away and must be respected by all. However, only governments can put in place the laws and policies necessary to protect human rights.

Professor presented the background and history of the Rohingya people. The Rohingyas are an ethnolinguistic and religious minority living in Myanmar for centuries. The Rohingyas inhabit the northern part of Rakhine State (Arakan). Before 25 August 2017, more than one million Rohingyas lived in Myanmar, and now the number is around 0.4 million. Earlier, Bangladesh inhabited about 0.5 million Rohingyas, and now it houses more than 1.3 million. 

Professor presented a brief history of Myanmar. Myanmar became independent in 1948. In 1954, Rohingyas were close to having their autonomy under a democratic government, but it was prevented by a military coup of General Ne Win in 1962. Since 1962, Rohingyas have been subjected to exploitation, persecution, and discrimination. These Muslims were removed and barred from occupying various civil posts.

There were restrictions on their movement, and their property and land were confiscated. Between 1962 – 1988, General Ne Win banned all Rohingya socio-cultural organizations and expelled them from the country. In 1978, the General launched ‘Operation Dragon’ that forced 250,000 Rohingyas to enter Bangladesh.

The Myanmar Citizenship Law 1982 granted nationality to 135 nationals excluding Rohingyas. Since 1991, more than 1.1 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh. According to Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1928), everyone has the right to a nationality, and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Professor said that this is the first case of human rights violation and questioned why 12 million people are stateless.

According to the Myanmar Citizenship Law, citizens whose ancestors lived in Burma (Myanmar) before British occupation in 1824 are entitled to citizenship. Since Rohingyas settled in the Arakan state during the British colonial period, they are ‘illegal Bengali migrants’ and hence not entitled to citizenship. He argued that Rohingyas are descendants of Moorish, Arab and Persian traders and preachers; Mughal, Turk, Pathan, and Bengali soldiers cum migrants, who arrived between the 9th and 19th century in the Arakan. Professor also talked about the vast literature and history, which provides evidence about Rohingyas’ presence before the British colonization of Myanmar.

There were several reasons due to which Rohingyas fled Myanmar. Their living conditions were atrocious. Their land and material resources were confiscated. There were restrictions on their movement, education, and marriage. They were not given the freedom and liberty to lead a human life. They experienced intense brutality and genocide in Myanmar.

60 percent of the Rohingya villages have been burnt down. Major settlements of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state have been destroyed. Even in Bangladesh, they do live under inhumane conditions. They live in plastic tents. There is hardly any access to education for children and no opportunities for young adults. They do not have any access to healthcare or nutritional food. There is no security for women and children. They do not possess any right to work or movement in the host nation as well. So, Rohingyas have been demoted to a life of “subhuman.”

Professor pointed out that human civilization’s history is the history of migration, and citizenship should not be related to when individuals arrive in the country. Myanmar excluding Rohingyas from citizenship is a complete violation of Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also mentioned that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not the law but the guidelines which every signatory state ought to follow while making their laws and regulations. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are signatory states of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

He also mentioned that there were two attempts made for their repatriation but failed. Therefore, the future of Rohingyas is uncertain. From the very beginning, Bangladesh has been trying to send the Rohingyas back, which is the only option for Bangladesh. UN has failed in salvaging the Rohingyas as its permanent members China and Russia used their veto power prohibiting any action against Myanmar. He also said that migration was motivated by economic interpretations and in search of better livelihood once upon a time. It is now motivated by the fact that the state has become intolerant of cultural and religious differences.

Professor Utpal K De, Professor, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, while moderating the session, pointed out that according to Myanmar, only those people who were in Myanmar before 1824 are only bonafide citizens of Myanmar. He said that irrespective of whether an individual was staying in Myanmar since before 1824 or not (who have already died) and their next generations have contributed to the country’s development, how their present generations cannot consider as citizens.

Citizenship comes either by birth or if somebody or his/her forefathers have been living in a country for over a generation. He also pointed out that there are countries where if somebody lives for over five years and contributes to their welfare, he/she becomes eligible for citizenship. Most of the Rohingyas have been living there for centuries to be automatically citizens by birth. Professor De also questioned UNO’s role and surrounding powerful countries in finding a solution to Rohingyas’ plight, which may also enter into the socio-economic problems of neighbors like Bangladesh, India, China,, etc.

Dr Ken MacLean said international human rights law is about a global framework that explains the states’ rights and obligations towards people within their boundaries. Still, the concept of national race through which Myanmar defined its citizenship is biological, and therefore there is a clear conflict between a legal concept and a racialized biological one.

Dr MacLean questioned how you resolve this conflict between a local definition and a global citizenship definition. Dr MacLean also questioned that if third-country resettlement is not possible for Rohingyas, then they either have a protracted stay in Bangladesh, which Bangladesh is apprehensive about, or they are repatriated to Myanmar, which is problematic due to the politics, violence, ethnonational extremists, and legal obstacles including the 1982 citizenship law and Rakhine state laws.

If Rohingyas are to be repatriated, it has to be safe, voluntary, and dignified. Dr MacLean also raised a question about the role of neighboring countries in the region like India, China, and other Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia who also host a country to many Rohingyas if they have a positive or negative impact in trying to find a solution that works for Myanmar, Bangladesh and especially Rohingyas.

Dr MacLean also raised Rakhine Buddhists in similar conditions and faced similar discrimination as the Rohingyas. In their perspective, they are neglected, whereas the Rohingyas do get international attention. He also said that the Myanmar 1982 citizenship law does not explicitly say to exclude Rohingya, but it is obvious that they are being excluded. The 2014 census also says that around 20 percent of the people, irrespective of their ethnicity, do not have proper IDs and documentation.

Dr Simi Mehta raised an important question on the International Court of Justice’s role and the Idea of Nobel Peace Prize certification to the leader of Myanmar where the Rohingyas have been demoted to a sub-human life, and there are attempts made to wipe their entire identity and history.

Dr Arjun Kumar raised an important question that similar contestations have happened on many continents across the world hence if there is any particular characteristic to South Asia than the rest of the world.

On a question of recent shifting of a group of Rohingyas from refugee camp to Bhasan Char (newly came up island) near Cox’s Bazar of a possible further livelihood crisis under climate uncertainty, he replied of decades observation and examination of possible habitation in the island.

Moreover, he pointed out the failure of repatriation of several families was due to their reluctance to return to uncertain life and face untoward incidents in the current situation of Myanmar, which of course has some similarity with a large number of some ethnic groups of people migrated from Bangladesh or erstwhile east-Pakistan and settled to India, who have been reluctant to return to their birthplace and avoid the uncertainty of their life. However, there are noticeable improvements in socio-economic life and livelihood in present-day Bangladesh.        

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Picture Courtesy: Dhaka Tribune


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.