In April, I wrote an article for The National on the worsening situation for Muslims in Myanmar. Their condition has not got any better. Instead, the government has adopted new legislation that is likely to have a further devastating impact on its Muslim minority.
Last month, the country’s foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, told envoys at the UN General Assembly that a long-expected strategy for the Rohingya minority would soon be put into effect. According to Mr Lwin, the “action plan” had been devised to guarantee peace and security for everybody in the area. He called on the global community to take part in the implementation of this strategy to provide a “durable solution” in the region.
Not long after Mr Lwin’s address at the UN, mainstream media such as Reuters shed light on what the scheme might practically involve: a set of coercive strategies that endanger the situations of thousands of people, while at the same time recycling legislation that was not in line with international law and was condemned when it was first enacted in 2012.
The suppression of the Rohingya community has been going on for decades. Since 1982, these people have been denied citizenship rights and have been considered illegal immigrants in their own homeland. Consequently, hatred, torture and killings have become a horrific daily reality for them. Over the past two years, Buddhist mobs have reportedly killed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims. The United Nations reported that the atrocities had also displaced almost 29,000 people, and labelled the Rohingya as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the government has done nothing to stop the continuing atrocities and has, instead, unwittingly contributed to them. At the same time, many in the mainstream media have been silent. The world community knows very little, if anything at all, about the situation.
This new strategy shows that the government of Myanmar has no inclination to put an end to the continuing repression, and is pursuing more coercive initiatives that will probably contribute to further injustice against Rohingya minorities.
According to Emanuel Stoakes of The Diplomat, a draft of this new strategy contains only a slight difference from the old policy. Under the policy, the Muslims of Rohingya, who were retrospectively denied citizenship in legislation enacted by the military leadership 26 years ago, are given the opportunity to attain certain privileges if they are able to comply to a “citizenship verification exercise” in which these people must identify themselves as Bengalis – indicating that they came from Bangladesh.
Refusing to identify as Bengali, or being unable to provide the necessary documents to prove their existence in Myanmar for generations, would give them no option but to be incarcerated in camps. After that, the policy envisages that they be relocated abroad by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Given that many people have said they are prepared to reject the verification programme and many others would be unable to find their official family records, it is likely that a very large number of Rohingya will have no option but to be displaced to camps. In such a scenario, the likelihood of violence and destabilisation would rise significantly.
Under its rules, the UNHCR may not be able to resettle the Rohinyga because they do not meet the definition of a refugee as someone who has “fled persecution and conflict across international borders”. This would mean that those Rohingyas who are denied citizenship could be forced to stay in camps indefinitely.
The unspeakable suppression against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar must end soon. It is more than clear that these people are in dire need of genuine and serious efforts by both the Myanmar government and the international community to mitigate their worsening situation.
More voices must join those speaking out in support of their rights. Organisations such as Asean must break away from their silence and insist that there be no normalisation with Myanmar while these outrageous policies are adopted against innocent men, women and children in their own homeland.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a writer based in Qatar and the UK