Written By: Emma Leung
The Rohingya people have been faced with decades of discrimination and repression by the Rakhine State’s military as part of a large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing. The most recent attack was in August 2017, with more than 671,000 Rohingya Muslims forced to flee the State and take refuge in Bangladesh.
This article aims to lay out the current situation regarding the Rohingya Crisis and the human rights crisis that has arisen out of it, as well as what has been done so far as an attempt to remedy the situation.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority in Myanmar, representing the largest percentage of Muslims in the State. However Myanmar, being a predominantly Buddhist country, has denied the Rohingya citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law, making them one of the largest stateless populations in the world. As a result, the ethnic group has been formally “stateless” for more than 20 years, and has been consistently deprived of access to resources such as employment, education, health services and freedom to move within the country.
What is the Rohingya Crisis?
The Rohingya Crisis refers to the mass exodus of the Rohingya Muslims from Burma’s Rakhine State by the military, in what has been described by the UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The Rohingya people have faced such systematic discrimination and targeted violence for many decades, with spikes in 1978, 1991-1992, 2016 and August 2017.  It is estimated that between 400 and 3,000 people were killed during the August attacks, and an estimated 65,000 refugees have fled into Bangladesh since 25 August 2017. 
Though basic assistance has been provided since the August 2017 attacks and the situation has somewhat stabilised, the situation remains uncertain and precarious, as the root of the problem in Myanmar has yet to be addressed. Whilst refugees have access to basic resources such as food and health care, they remain in a vulnerable position in being stateless and being dependent on aid.
The latest exodus took place on 25 August 2017, in which the Rohingya ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) attacked the police and army post.  The government has declared ARSA a terrorist organisation and in response the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar armed forces, launched a vicious campaign, destroying hundreds of Rohingya villages.
What rights are the Rohingya entitled to? What laws protect the Stateless?
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to a nationality”. The importance of providing special attention and protection to those who are stateless and thus vulnerable was recognised in the UNHCR.
The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines someone who is stateless as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”, thus including the Rohingya people under its definition. The 1954 Convention establishes minimum standards of treatment for such people, including the right to education (Art 22), employment (Art 17) and housing (Art 21). Notably, these are all rights that the Rohingya people have been consistently and systematically deprived of.
What has been done so far?
In response to the latest August 2017 attacks, on 18 September 2018 the UN fact-finding panel released a report stating that the Myanmar Government has “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya people with clear patterns of abuse by the military and the government, characterized by systematic targeting of civilians.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave a ruling on 23 January 2020, calling Myanmar to take action to protect the Rohingya. This ruling was a crucial breakthrough in being the first international court to rule on the issue, a stark rebuke to Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor’s denial of the allegations in 2017 that the army systematically burned Rohingya villages, murdering and raping thousands. This claim was brought by the Gambia, acting on the behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and accused Myanmar of violating international treaties against genocide. The claim called on the ICJ to order protection of the Rohingya people, to instruct the army to cease its persecution and to preserve all evidence related to the allegations of genocide. While the making of the claim in itself is significant, its impact is still yet to be seen, as the ICJ has not instructed Myanmar to admit UN investigators into the country to allow them to gather evidence about the 2017 attacks, having been barred from entering. Moreover as the ICJ is reliant on the UN Security Council to enforce its ruling, the judgement in itself has no binding effect on the State.
The lack of effective response to the crisis both on a domestic and international scale may be explained by the fragile network of political and strategic interests at play. Whilst international pressure has focused on Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the actions of the military, one must realise that her power is restricted under the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar, rendering her unable to command authority over the armed forces. The military in Myanmar holds considerable political and economic power, having written the 2008 Constitution themselves and therefore may act as an explanation as to why the State Counsellor has not spoken out against the military.
One may question why it has taken three years for an international response to the crisis, and it is indeed a valid question. A potential explanation could be the fragile and complex dynamic major world powers such as China, Russia and the United States have in factoring in political and economic considerations and are reluctant to intervene beyond providing humanitarian aid. Both China and Russia have a delicate relationship with the minority Muslim populations with their countries, such as the Uygher Muslims and the Chechen Muslims, with the State regarding these minority groups as a threat to the country and adopting repressive attitudes towards them. Therefore, it is likely that both states would err on the side of caution in criticising action taken against the Rohingya Muslims, as this may call into question their own actions against the Muslim minority groups in their state.
Whilst there is no doubt that there are delicate political tensions and strategic considerations at play, the Rohingya people have been suffering for decades at the hands of the Myanmar military. It is of the utmost importance that world powers come together and form a coherent international response to tackle the root of the crisis that has gone on for much too long.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not reflect the views or opinions of the Durham Asian Law Journal.
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