A new report has highlighted the need for the international community to examine the ongoing oppression against the Rohingya.

Myanmar is a nation whose history is marred by the struggle between those in power and those they oppress. In recent years this has been especially true of the ethnic Rohingya in the country’s western Rakhine state. They have faced decades of oppression, culminating most recently in a military campaign against them that is now being investigated as genocide by the United Nations.

In a recent report by the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), 160 cases were documented over four years of discriminatory prosecution against the Rohingya minority for attempting to move freely in the country where they were born. While the military campaign against the Rohingya may have paused for the time being, the ongoing effort to cause them harm through the legal system and in the media is fully operational. 

Apartheid citizenship system

In Myanmar, citizenship is not like in other countries. Being born in Myanmar is not enough to be a full citizen. Instead, the country has tiers of citizenship dependent upon ethnicity, religion, and ancestry.

The country officially uses the racist term “mixed blood” to describe non-Buddhist residents. Minority ethnic and religious groups are often kept in lower tiers of citizenship, which restricts their ability to travel, to obtain government jobs, and to seek higher education.

The Rohingya face the worst discrimination, only being recognized at the lowest tier, which treats them as undocumented foreigners, despite being born inside the country for generations. 

These policies are in defiance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Myanmar is a state party, by hindering the right to nationality and the right to freedom of movement.

The Myanmar government, which remains dominated by the military, began its degradation of the Rohingya’s rights in the 1960s, and finally removed them completely with the 1982 Citizenship law, which excluded them from the country’s list of recognized ethnicities that qualify as citizens.

Because of this, the Rohingya have been denied fundamental freedoms, which no government should be able to withhold from its own people. Over time more and more rights have been removed, to the point that Rohingya today are disfranchised from voting in elections, have been barred from running for office, are not permitted to travel outside their own villages, and cannot attend higher education programs, while their access to health care is severely limited.

To appease the international community while achieving its own ends, Myanmar has attempted to force the Rohingya to register for National Verification Cards, a scheme that it claims is a track to the naturalization of the Rohingya, but research shows it has only been used to further degrade their status by forcing them to register as “Bengalis” and offers them no additional rights.

In fact, the NVC is glittering bait rather than a glimmer of hope.

Weaponization of legal system

The restrictions on travel have placed an especially large burden on the Rohingya, preventing them from seeking employment, medicine, or safety from the ongoing conflict in the region.

The Rohingya who live in Rakhine state are expected to remain in their own villages, or in the open-air prisons of the camps for internally displaced people, where they have been without any sign of relocation since 2012. Yet, predictably, many Rohingya attempt to leave this situation in hopes of finding a better life outside of the camps.

Some have attempted to flee by boat or by land through towns and cities en route to Malaysia or Thailand. Those who do so and are caught have been disproportionately punished by the government and authorities with racist and antiquated laws that defy basic international norms and myriad human-rights laws. 

Rohingya who are arrested for traveling outside of their villages face significantly worse penalties than actual foreigners traveling through the country without documentation. When the Rohingya are arrested, BHRN has found their trials are conducted so quickly they are unable to obtain legal representation, are denied due process, and they are often given the harshest penalties possible.

For Rohingya, they risk fleeing an open-air prison only to be placed in actual prisons, for the crime of trying to live as freely as someone else born in Myanmar of the state’s preferred ethnicity and religion. 

These arrests have increased after the military’s 2016 and 2017 campaigns that dislodged nearly a million Rohingya from the state into refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.

The circumstances that Rohingya in refugee camps and in Myanmar face are understandably desperate, and that has pushed them to seek help from human traffickers. In a startling discovery by BHRN, cases against traffickers were seldom made when Rohingya were prosecuted for illegally traveling through Myanmar or offshore. In cases where traffickers were prosecuted, the Rohingya being trafficked were still given harsher sentences and not treated as victims. 

Demonization by media 

To make matters worse, local media outlets in Myanmar utilize demonizing and dehumanizing language to describe Rohingya who were arrested for traveling. Often they are described as “Bengali” as a way to assert that the Rohingya are foreign. Frequently they are called “illegal Bengali immigrants” or “illegal immigrants of the Islamic faith.”

These terms are used to convince the public, who already are heavily bombarded with ultra-nationalist propaganda, that the Rohingya are not people born in Myanmar who are trying to find safety and livelihood, but rather are nefarious foreigners breaking laws around the country.

In a country where anti-Muslim riots have broken out regularly over the past decade, this is both malicious and dangerous. It turns the public against one of its most vulnerable demographics and entrenches sentiments that have already been used to justify the genocide against them. 

Myanmar, particularly its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, must make the politically unpopular but morally correct decision to make genuine efforts to grant the Rohingya full citizenship and rights. Rohingya living in Myanmar must be allowed to travel freely without impediment due to their ethnicity or religion.

The Rohingya living in the refugee camps in Bangladesh must be allowed to return as full citizens with full rights as well. Anything short of this is apartheid, regardless of how politically advantageous it may be. 

Kyaw Win

Kyaw Win is a human rights activist from Myanmar based in London. He is the founder and executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network.