The Rohingya Situation: Seventy-One Years After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By: Lexi Tartaglio

December of 2018 marked the seventieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[1] And yet, over seventy years after this monumental agreement, we continue to live in a world where genocide, ethnic cleansing, and general provisions and actions that undermine human rights as a whole take place.

Further, there are large atrocities that fail to garner much media attention, leaving large populations without any knowledge of some of the events taking place abroad. One such issue is the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, which has been seriously underreported in American news. Since late August 2017, more than 671,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from the Rakhine State of Myanmar to escape the militant actions taking place in the country.[2] In what a senior United Nations (UN) official has dubbed a “textbook example of ethnic cleaning,”[3] over 281 Northern Rakhine villages have been either totally or partially destroyed by fires started by the government.[4] “At least 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of five were killed.”[5] Bangladesh now hosts over one million Rohingya refugees,[6] making the Rohingya situation one of the world’s fastest growing refugee crises’ according to the UN.[7]

 

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim group, and make up the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar.[8] There are about three and a half million Rohingya worldwide, with approximately one million living in the Rakhine state of the country.[9] This is over a third of the population, which differs from Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist citizenry.[10] Further, the Rohingya have their own ethnic, linguistic, and religious practices separate from the Buddhist population of the country.[11] They trace their origin in the country to Arab traders centuries ago, but Myanmar has refuted their “historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.”[12]

The Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and the Myanmar government refuses to grant them citizenship.[13] Since 1982 when the ethnic group was rejected citizenship, the group has become one of the largest stateless populations in the world.[14] The group was even denied inclusion in the 2014 census as they were not recognized as people.[15] The Myanmar government has effectively discriminated against the ethnic group through “restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement.”[16]

 

Why are the Rohingya Fleeing the Country?

In August of 2017, a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked over thirty police and army posts.[17] The government declared the group a terrorist organization, and government troops subsequently launched deadly attacks on Rohingya villages, effectively burning their villages, attacking them, and killing civilians.[18] “At least 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of five were killed in the month after the violence broke out.”[19] Myanmar military even raped and abused Rohingya women and girls.[20] The military also allegedly shot at fleeing civilians and planted land mines near border crossings used by the ethnic group to flee into Bangladesh.[21]

However, the government puts the number dead at 400 and claims that the militant operations ended in September of that year, but there is a lot of evidence suggesting otherwise.[22] Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslim people have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh.[23] Refugees International and the United Nations determined that crimes against humanity were taking place by the government.[24] Bangladesh’s foreign minister has condemned the violence in Rakhine as a genocide.[25] In addition to other countries around the world, South Eastern countries like Indonesia and Malaysia requested the country to bring an end to its violence.[26] The UN called for military leaders to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide and found that the military conducted clearing operations and other planned activities that extended far beyond the government’s response to the ARSA attacks on the police posts.[27]

 

What is Happening Today?

Despite calls by the UN and other international organizations, there have been minimal, if any, meaningful actions taken to combat Myanmar’s actions. Most governments in Southeast Asia do not have the legal framework to protect refugees’ rights and have not responded to the crisis.[29] The UN Security Council urged the government to stop the violence, but they have not imposed any sanctions on the government.[29] China and Russia support the efforts in Myanmar under the guise that the government is attempting to stabilize its national development.[30] And, the United States government has failed to declare the Myanmar military responsible for crimes against humanity even though there is overwhelming evidence to support this conclusion.[31]

However, there have been substantial steps taken to help the refugees in Bangladesh. The United States has been the largest donor in supporting the refugees from Myanmar[32], including sending and providing funds for food, health, water, and sanitation efforts.[33] And, the United Kingdom has sent almost sixty million euros to support those fleeing to Bangladesh.[34] The United Nations has requested $951 million in immediate relief funds.[35] Many of the refugees are living in overcrowded camps, and Bangladesh is largely incapable of funding these sites on their own. Basic assistance and living conditions have improved, but the refugee population is still in a precarious situation due to the poor living conditions and exposure to the monsoon elements in their refugee camps.[36] As for the Rohingyas still in Rakhine, they endure governmental sponsored discrimination, segregation and have restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to essential health and educational services.[37] They are beaten, abused, and subjected to poor labor conditions because they are still not recognized as part of the country’s citizenry.[38]

 

Conclusion

While it is great that many of the world leaders have stepped in to help the refugee population in Bangladesh, this country and other top leaders need to impose greater sanctions and pressure on the Myanmar government to stop engaging in actions that are leading to the subsequent displacement and subjugation of hundreds of thousands of people. Until this happens, a significant population continues to face horrendous treatment in a period purported to support human rights progress.  We are approaching the 71st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) but have a long way to go until we reach the goals expressed in the agreement.

 

[1]Top Ten Issues in 2019, Institute for Human Rights and Business (2019), http://www.ihrb.org/library/top-10/top-ten-issues-in-2019.

[2]Bauchner, Shayna, et al. Rohingya Crisis, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/tag/Rohingya crisis.

[3]Huang, Cindy. Human Rights in Southeast Asia: The Rohingya Crisis in Focus,  Refugees International (July 25, 2019), http://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/testimony-on-rohingya-crisis-cindy-huang.

[4]Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis, BBC News (Apr. 24, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.

[5]Id.

[6]Huang, supra note 3.

[7]Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis, BBC News (Apr. 24, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.

[8]Id.

[9]Albert, Eleanor, and Andrew Chatzky. What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?,  Council on Foreign Relations (Dec. 5, 2018), http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.

[10]Id.

[11]Id.

[12]Id.

[13]Id.

[14]Bauchner, supra note 2.

[15]Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis, BBC News (Apr. 24, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.

[16]Albert, Eleanor, and Andrew Chatzky. What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?,  Council on Foreign Relations (Dec. 5, 2018), http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.

[17]Id.

[18]Id.

[19]Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis, BBC News (Apr. 24, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.

[20]Id.

[21]Id.

[22]Albert, Eleanor, and Andrew Chatzky. What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?, Council on Foreign Relations (Dec. 5, 2018), http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.

[23]Huang, supra note 3.

[24]Id.

[25]Albert, Eleanor, and Andrew Chatzky. What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?,  Council on Foreign Relations (Dec. 5, 2018), http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.

[26]Id.

[27]Huang, supra note 3.

[28]Albert, Eleanor, and Andrew Chatzky. What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?,  Council on Foreign Relations (Dec. 5, 2018), http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.

[29]Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis, BBC News (Apr. 24, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.

[30]Id.

[31]Huang, supra note 3.

[32]Id.

[33]Id.

[34]Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis, BBC News (Apr. 24, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.

[35]Albert, Eleanor, and Andrew Chatzky. What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?,  Council on Foreign Relations (Dec. 5, 2018), http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.

[36]Rohingya Refugee Crisis, OCHA (Apr. 18, 2019), http://www.unocha.org/rohingya-refugee-crisis.

[37]Huang, supra note 3.

[38]Id.

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