Stateless in Burma: Rohingya word wars

In order to understand how the ‘Rohingya crisis’ has come to pass we need to consider the narrative built by three groupings of international actors - the Burmese government, host countries for Rohingya who have fled and the international community at large.

Amal de Chickera
12 October 2012

‘Rohingya crisis’ is a much bandied phrase these days. Since June this year, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, burnings, beatings, rapes, killings and other forms of persecution against this most marginalised group have led to human rights and humanitarian crises which have tainted the landscape of Rakhine State in Western Burma and given substance to the term. In order to understand how these developments have come to pass, we need to consider the narrative built around the crisis by three groupings of international actors - the Burmese government, host countries for Rohingya who have fled and the international community at large. Amidst the jockeying for position in the discourse - and opportunities to define it - the human impact of the crisis appears to have been relegated to the background. As a result, it seems that we are no closer to a solution that is just and equitable and that respects the human rights of the Rohingya.

In the context of the Rohingya crisis, the international community at large comprises two main interest groups – the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and what can loosely be termed as the western block (the EU, US and Australia etc.). These countries have varying degrees of interest in the Rohingya issue specifically and conflicting economic and geo-political interests in Burma more widely. According to their narratives, the Rohingya are clear victims both within Burma and (to a lesser extent) in the countries to which they flee. A sub-text to the western block version of this narrative is that the Burmese democratic transition process is also suffering because of this and other 'communal conflicts' in Burma. 

According to the narrative of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries which host large numbers of Rohingya refugees, the ‘crisis’ endures because of the lack of straightforward solutions to the problem. Burma is responsible, but the Rohingya are both victim (inside Burma) and burden (in their own countries). It must be noted that Bangladesh and Malaysia are also member states of the OIC.

Burma views the crisis as one caused by the existence of these unwanted people and their encroachment into its territory.

The Burmese Narrative - The Illegal, Unwanted Migrant Bengali

Let’s begin with the most repellent narrative – the Rohingya are illegal immigrants; land stealing encroachers; criminals who procreate like rabbits; dark skinned and ugly. In this view they certainly do not belong in Burma. In fact, this narrative posits that the term ‘Rohingya’ is a fiction – they are all ‘Bengali’. This racist, totally unfounded and hate-inciting position is that of the Burmese regime. It is a narrative that is shared by many Burmese, including leaders of the democratic movement and those who have never seen a Rohingya in their lives. Dating back decades, it has been used to justify acute discrimination, exclusion, abuse and violence against the Rohingya. The power of this narrative is such that in 1982 it was the basis upon which the Rohingya were stripped of their nationality. They were thus rendered stateless, which means that they are not considered as nationals by any State under the operation of its law.  

The main arena within which this narrative has played out is within Burma and amongst diaspora groups. However, the regime has not shied away from making formal statements along these lines internationally: at gatherings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), amongst diplomats and to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. No doubt, words spoken internationally have domestic audiences in mind, but they probably also stem from an understanding that the ‘new’ Burma cannot continue to operate with the impunity and isolation of the old; that it needs to engage with and attempt to win over non-Burmese actors, or in the very least, make a strong case as to why it will not succumb to international pressure.

Contested histories are an extremely potent tool for those who engage in the business of lies – they shift focus from the present to the past and divert attention from the core issues. The Burmese regime has expertly negotiated the situation, playing Rakhine (the Buddhist majority population of Rakhine State) against Rohingya, drawing on absurd historical accounts and creating a Rohingya ‘fiction’ which they have used to justify their unjustifiable laws, policies and actions. Over time these laws, policies and actions have imposed a new reality on Rakhine state in which exclusion, discrimination and arbitrariness have become the norm; marriage without bribery-induced permission is a crime; forced migration is the most common type of movement and return to Burma is illegal. The untrue narrative of ‘illegal migrant’ has taken on a truth of its own as those who commit the crime of fleeing persecution cannot legally return. In 1978, about 200,000 Rohingya who fled the country and were forcibly returned thus substantiated the ‘illegal immigrant’ narrative. Similar numbers ‘illegally migrated’ out of and back into Burma in the 1990s.

Rohingya names are also being struck off ‘family lists’ – often the only type of documentation for Rohingya and consequently the only proof that they were born in Burma. After the violence erupted in June 2012, security personnel have reportedly been visiting Rohingya homes and striking off the family list the names of persons not present at the time. They may have gone to the shops, been in hiding or been ‘disappeared’ by those very security forces or fled to Bangladesh. Whatever the reason, their absence from home renders them ‘illegal’.

Over time, and perhaps because of international pressure, this narrative has become more nuanced. The Burmese President has in some forums admitted that illegal migration is minimal and that the real problem is the Rohingya population explosion. This shift in discourse adds another layer of complexity and confusion to the narrative, particularly because it hasn’t replaced the ‘illegal immigrant’ argument, but rather formed a parallel track. Both versions (they are illegal immigrants and they multiply too aggressively) stem from the xenophobic position that the Rohingya are foreign invaders taking over Burmese lands.

The narrative does not end there. It goes on to absolve the regime of any responsibility. The fact that the Rohingya are ‘illegal immigrants’ is meant to explain why they are hated by the rest of Burma, and particularly by the Rakhine whose lands they have encroached on. This, it is posited, has driven the local ‘legal’ population to violence – and understandably so. Accordingly, the Burmese regime does not endorse the violence but, in the face of such strong sentiment, it has been powerless to prevent it from happening.

The contradictions are plentiful: Burma blocks humanitarian aid being received by those most in need; Burmese security personnel have played an active role in the violence and other crimes committed; and any contention that this all-powerful regime that yesterday ruled with an iron fist is today unable to control civilians acting on their own accord is simply laughable. 

The Host Country Narrative – The Burdensome, Economic Migrant Rohingya

Bangladesh is the primary proponent of the host country narrative which Malaysia, Thailand and other countries also buy into. It holds that the Rohingya are both victim and opportunist and always a burden and a security threat. This narrative recognises that the Rohingya face discrimination – even persecution inside Burma, but also labels those who have fled persecution as opportunistic economic migrants who impose undue pressures on job markets and social structures. This is a narrative of convenience which empathises with the suffering of the Rohingya as long as they remain inside Burma but vilifies those very same Rohingya who seek refuge on their shores. Its contradictions have led to confused and conflicting attitudes and policies. In Bangladesh, a small number (less than 30,000) of Rohingya are recognised as refugees, a much larger group (over 300,000) who share the same characteristics are viewed as economic migrants. Both groups are seen as burdens to already stretched state resources and as threats to national security. In Malaysia, the UNHCR is allowed to register the Rohingya but not to protect them as refugees. 


Rohingya in Bangladesh. Photo: Demotix

This dichotomous portrayal of the Rohingya as both victim and problem creates a situation where they are refused the protection that common sense and international law say they deserve. It also leads to situations that justify the deliberate violation of human rights through aggressive, life-threatening acts. Bangladesh pushed back to sea boatloads of Rohingya refugees in the aftermath of the June violence, their justification being that they could not bear the Rohingya burden alone any longer. Their refusal to accept multi-million dollar infrastructure support for Rohingya, their refusal to accept third country offers to resettle small numbers of Rohingya and their withdrawing of permission to three key humanitarian agencies to continue supporting the Rohingya indicate that Bangladesh is the primary reason that Bangladesh bears this burden alone. Another contradiction. Another case of reality being manipulated to fit self-serving narratives. Bangladesh is not the only culprit. Thailand too pushed back hundreds of Rohingya to sea in 2009/2010, due to the ‘security threat’ they supposedly posed.

The countries that espouse this narrative acknowledge that there is a problem but are engaged in a stalemate with regard to solutions. Each is unwilling to act first, for fear of attracting still more Rohingya. They call for a ‘holistic’ or ‘regional’ solution – different ways of saying that Burma must right its wrongs and accept all Rohingya back – even those who have lived their entire lives in these third countries. 

The International Community Narrative – The Victim Rohingya

Other countries, particularly those that do not have to deal with large numbers of Rohingya arriving unannounced on their shores, acknowledge that the Rohingya are victimised by Burma and also that receiving countries fall short of their protection obligations. This narrative seemingly says the right things, but is not loud, forceful or timely.

Why is this so? One reason may be awareness – particularly on the part of western countries – that they would be seen or portrayed as meddling in the affairs of the global south. A second reason may be reluctance to step in and share responsibility. Shouting ‘victim’ too loudly would obligate actions under international human rights law and the doctrine of responsibility to protect. Perhaps, this sort of burden sharing which goes beyond tokenistic gestures is not high on the foreign policy agendas of the powers that be. Much stronger forces are also at play: geo-political and economic strategies vis-a-vis China which have dominated the Burmese economic landscape since the sanctions-era. Burma, with all its stuttering promise of democratisation, is opening up to the rest of the world – a world suffering the impact of economic crisis upon crisis, desperate for new resources, markets and spheres of influence. And so the contradictory and dishonest Burmese narrative is pandered to, sanctions are lifted and international obligations to step in to protect the most vulnerable are forgotten.

Thus, the victim Rohingya makes her way into reports and statements and is the subject of conferences and resolutions. But food isn’t put onto her table, she is not protected from rape and she continues to be persecuted by Burma, shunned by Bangladesh and exploited by Malaysia.

The victim narrative has been reduced to words that bear little meaning because they have not been backed up with deeds.

The Human Rights Position – The Stateless, Refugee, Discriminated Rohingya

The above analysis demonstrates that ultimately the Rohingya are in the same place they were at the beginning of the story. They continue to be persecuted and excluded, to be misrepresented and unwelcome and to lack any form of control over their own destinies. Perhaps there has been one change in that, with increasing international interest, the Rohingya have found new influential ‘friends’. However, this has not yet translated into a difference actually being made, predominantly because these ‘friends’ are not primarily influenced by what is morally right or legally obligatory, but rather by what makes economic and geo-political sense.

But this cannot and must not be so. Not in the 21st century. Not in a world of human rights, where it is the duty of the international community to protect the most vulnerable. ‘Statelessness’ is the ultimate test of the effectiveness of international human rights law. The stateless are the only truly direct subjects of the law, for they do not additionally benefit from national protection. And the Rohingya are the most vulnerable of all the world's stateless persons.

Human rights principles challenge us to act not out of self-interest, but out of a legal obligation to protect the most vulnerable. Importantly, this obligation arises not from a sense of charity, but from an understanding that by protecting the most vulnerable and creating the space for them to partake in society as equals we strengthen democracy, stabilise the economy and increase security.

Amal de Chickera would like to give special thanks to Natalie Brinham for her extensive feedback and input in the creation of this article. 

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData