The myth of the stateless Rohingya

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikimedia Commons

The Burmese military perpetuates the belief that the Rohingya are stateless. But it is a myth.

By Oliver Ward

Aung San Suu Kyi continues to bury her head in the sand on the Rohingya issue. She avoided discussing sexual violence against women in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. She met with senior UN official, Pramila Patten during Patten’s four-day visit in December. Patten recounted how she dodged meaningful discussion about widespread rape in Rakhine State.

Human Rights Watch released a report on the situation in November. They interviewed 29 rape survivors. Three were under the age of 18.

Aung San Suu Kyi continues to hold the military line. The official military line is that the Rohingya are illegally squatting in Myanmar. The military maintains they are stateless ethnic Bengalis. It maintains they are illegal migrants. Should they go back to Bangladesh?

The Rohingya are a persecuted race

The Burmese military has denied Rohingya citizenship rights. After the military came to power in 1962, the Rohingya had foreign identity cards. They could not hold certain jobs. The military banned the Rohingya from practicing law or medicine. They could not run for office.

Then in 1982, they received the stateless label. The military refused to recognise them as an official ethnic group. They could no longer vote. They had restricted access to health services. The violent crackdowns began in the 1970s.

Source: CNN

The military constructed the idea that they are stateless

The idea of the Rohingya as a stateless people is a Burmese military construct. Muslims have inhabited the Rakhine region of Myanmar since the 12th century. During British colonial rule, Myanmar was a province of India. There was migration from Bangladesh and India to Rakhine State. But it was legal. It was internal migration.

In 1948, Myanmar secured its independence. The Burmese government passed the first Union Citizenship act. Rohingya who had been in Myanmar for at least two generations could apply for identity cards. They also served in parliament.

The military came to power in a coup in 1962. The new government created the myth of the Rohingya as a stateless population. It was a tool to justify the restriction of Rohingya rights. President of Refugees International, Eric Schwartz summed it up. He said, “the notion that they [the Rohingya] are stateless is nonsense. It is nonsense. It is a myth perpetrated by the authorities in Myanmar.”

The Burmese army fear a Muslim-majority autonomous area

The government uses the creation of a stateless people to oppress the Rohingya. After World War II, the Rohingya Muslims wanted an autonomous territory. They appealed to Pakistan to annex the territory. Pakistan refused. A separatist rebellion followed in the 1960s.

Many in Myanmar believe that the Rohingya would do this again. They believe if recognised, the Rohingya would attempt to “swallow” the country. The belief appears absurd when Muslims represent just 4% of the total population.

The systematic oppression of the Rohingya must end. The Rohingya have inhabited Rakhine State for centuries. They have as much right to be there as any other ethnic groups in Myanmar.

The first step towards peace is recognising the Rohingya as an ethnic group.  Then, the Myanmar government can work with the population to find a solution. It can deal with the separatist claim through peaceful channels. Perpetuating lies and fictitious constructs about the Rohingya population undermines the Myanmar government. It also turns the international community against them. It is time Aung San Suu Kyi dropped the stateless myth. Her government must open a discussion about the Rohingya’s place in Myanmar’s future.