rohingya children

No Citizenship Equals No Rights: The Legal Implications For Stateless Rohingya In Burma.

Without legal recognition by the government, the Rohingya population is unable to own land, marry, or even have children. Until world leaders unite behind their cause, the Rohingya will continue to suffer terrible inequalities.

The Rohingya people in Burma are fleeing their homes in mass numbers as violence continues against them.[1]  They are one of the most persecuted groups in the world with no allies or connections.[2]  Their situation is a good case study for analyzing the international human rights implications of statelessness.  Groups like the Rohingya are powerless to prevent the mistreatment by their government because they have no legal rights anywhere in the world.[3]  Burma must give the Rohingya citizenship and stop the violence to set an international precedent for the empowerment of stateless people.

Statelessness oppresses people by withholding basic rights and freedoms, such as the right to own land, legal right to work and access to education.  It places legal restrictions on the right to marry and right to obtain recognition of birth and death certificates.  Statelessness puts people’s everyday lives beyond their own control.
Broadly defined, statelessness is the lack of any recognized citizenship or nationality.[4]  A government grants citizenship to individuals to ensure legal protections by their own domestic government and foreign governments.  The phenomenon of stateless people is rarely reported by the media, but affects an astounding 12 million people worldwide.[5]  Typically, citizenship is based on either the blood origin of the parents, jus sanguinis, or birth in the nation state, jus soli, or a combination of both laws.[6]  Traditionally, citizenship is perceived as a birthright rather than something that must be earned or attained.  The United Nations considers citizenship and nationality as basic human rights under article 15 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.[7]

Individuals and groups become stateless because of war, ethnic strife, or changes in sovereignty, for example the dissolution of the former Soviet Union into many independent nations. Statelessness oppresses people by withholding basic rights and freedoms, such as the right to own land, legal right to work and access to education.[8]  It places legal restrictions on the right to marry and right to obtain recognition of birth and death certificates.[9]  Statelessness puts people’s everyday lives beyond their own control.

The Rohingya live in the state of Rakhine, known formerly as Arakan, in west Burma.[10]  There is a long history of strife between the Rohingya and the majority group, the Burmese Buddhists.[11]  The Rohingya minority is Muslim, has their own language and a population of roughly one million people.  The Burmese Buddhists argue that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bengal brought over by the British, while the Rohingya claim they have been in the region for centuries.  Unfortunately, the Burmese government sided with the Buddhists and passed a Citizenship Law in 1982 that denied the Rohingya their citizenship.[12]

A recent murder in Rakhine transformed the simmering animosity into widespread violence.  In May or June 2012, a Buddhist girl was raped and murdered, allegedly by Muslim men.  Both sides participated in the violence.[13]   The repercussions of the fighting forced over 90,000 Rohingya people to abandon their homes and live in internal refugee camps and abroad.[14]  Many people were displaced, attacked or killed.  The Burmese government attempted to gain control by issuing a state of emergency that allowed officials to make mass arrests and detentions of the Rohingya.[15]  Some people left and joined others living illegally in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and beyond.  Many Rohingya live in unregulated refugee camps in Burma and Bangladesh, where they face severe malnourishment and unsanitary conditions.[16]  These refugee camps are an atrocity that the UN has criticized as a ‘dire’ situation.[17]  Other Rohingya have crossed the Andaman Sea to Malaysia and Thailand in hope of a more peaceful and calm life.[18]

Couples marrying without a permit can be jailed.…If the couple is legally married, they must agree to only have two children.  If a couple does not have the marriage license, the couple’s children cannot be registered with the government. If a Rohingya child is successfully registered, the Burmese government refuses to issue a birth certificate.
The core reason that the ethnic cleansing continues is the lack of basic legal rights.  The Rohingya cannot own land and are not entitled to the land they own under Burmese law.[19]  They are exploited for illegal, cheap or free labor because they do not have legal documentation to work.[20]  The Burmese Army routinely uses forced labor by adults and children.[21]  Another tactic of control is the government restricting the number of marriages licenses issued to the Rohingya.  In 1994, the government issued an order that couples marrying without a permit can be jailed.[22]  It can take two or more years for the approval of a marriage license after the couple has applied and paid a bribe to Burmese officials.[23]  If the couple is legally married, they must agree to only have two children.[24]  If a couple does not have the marriage license, the couple’s children cannot be registered with the government. In a case that a Rohingya child is successfully registered, the Burmese government refuses to issue a birth certificate and has not since the 1990s.[25]  For Rohingya families, this is a daily struggle with no end in sight.

The complexity of the situation has united world leaders weighing in on separate sides of the issue.  Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her lack of response to the human rights violations.  She stated, “violence has been committed by both sides. This is why I prefer not to take sides. And, also I want to work toward reconciliation between these two communities. I am not going to be able to do that if I take sides.”[26]

Her statements are in contrast to the more moderate U.S. President Barack Obama who spoke in Burma and recognized the disaster of the Rohingya, stating “[f]or too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there’s no excuse for violence against innocent people.”[27]  The Burmese government did not comment on Obama’s speech.

The Dalai Lama (the Tibetan Buddhist leader) and other Buddhist officials have also spoken out, calling on Buddhist people to stop the violence against the Rohingya.[28]  While it is optimistic that Obama and the Dalai Lama have taken a stance against this violence, the persecution will continue so long as the minority is denied their rightful citizenship.  The time has come for Burma and its citizens to make amends with the Rohingya.  This is a chance for Burma to set an international precedent and demonstrate to the world that it is serious about becoming a self-governing state, by ensuring democratic protections and rights for all of its people.

 


[1] The official name, decided by the junta, is Myanmar.  However, most Burmese people call the country Burma.  We choose to refer to the country as Burma.

[2] Dan Rivers, Terrorized, starving and homeless: Myanmar’s Rohingya still forgotten, Cnn, (Nov. 26, 2012 6:09AM), http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/25/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-violence-rivers/index.html.

[3] U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 2009 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Returnees, Internally displaced and Stateless Persons, 64h Sess., (June 15, 2010), http://www.unhcr.org/4c11f0be9.html.

[4] UN Refugee Agency, Who is Stateless and Where? http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c15e.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Goris, supra note 1.

[7] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, U.N. Doc. A/RES/217(III) (Dec. 10, 1948), http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a15.

[8] Press Release, United Nations Human Rights Council, UN Human Rights experts call on Myanmar to address discrimination against members of Muslim minority in north Rakhine State, U.N. Press Release UNHCR (Apr. 2, 2007), http://www.unhchr.ch/huricane/huricane.nsf/view01/F0ED9448671A73E6C12572B100553470?opendocument.

[9] Id.

[10] Maha Hosain Aziz, Myanmar Still Suffers From Religious Strife, Bloomberg Businessweek, (Nov. 12, 2012), http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-11-12/myanmar-still-suffers-from-religious-strife.

[11] Id.

[12] Jayshree Bajoria, Why Delhi should care about the Rohingya, The Indian Express, (Nov. 30, 2012), http://www.indianexpress.com/news/why-delhi-should-care-about-the-rohingya/1038204/0.

[13] Burma: Mass Arrests, Raids on Rohingya Muslims, Human Rights Watch (July 5, 2012), http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/05/burma-mass-arrests-raids-rohingya-muslims.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Haroon Habib, Rohingyas not welcome in Bangladesh, The Hindu, (Oct. 27, 2012), http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/rohingyas-not-welcome-in-bangladesh/article4038610.ece.

[17] Andrew Buncombe, UN criticises ‘dire’ camps for Rohingya refugees, The Independent, (Dec. 7, 2012), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/un-criticises-dire-camps-for-rohingya-refugees-8393580.html.

[18] Anbarasan Ethirajan , Rohingyas and Bangladeshis risk perilous journeys, BBC, (Nov. 24, 2012 7:04PM), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-20442923.

[19] Nicolas Haque, Rohingya lives lost in limbo,AlJazeera, (Aug. 1, 2012, 3:52PM), http://blogs.aljazeera.com/blog/asia/rohingya-lives-lost-limbo.

[20] Chris Lewa, Forced labour still prevails: An overview of forced labour practices in North Arakan, Burma, THE ARAKAN PROJECT, (May 30, 2012), http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs13/AP-Forced_Labour_prevails.pdf.

[21] Id.

[22] Banyol Kong Janoi , Rohingya Muslim Minority Face Marriage Restrictions, Asia Calling (Nov. 24, 2012), http://www.asiacalling.kbr68h.com/en/news/burma/3006-rohingya-muslim-minority-face-marriage-restrictions-.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Chris Lewa, Issues to be raised concerning the situation of stateless Rohingya children in Myanmar (Burma), The Arakan Project, (Jan. 2012), http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs12/AP-CRCBurma-12-01.pdf.

[26] Anjana Pasricha, Aung San Suu Kyi Explains Silence on Rohingyas, Voice of America, (Nov. 15, 2012), http://www.voanews.com/content/aung-san-suu-kyi-explains-silence-on-rohingyas/1546809.html.

[27] Obama to Myanmar: Respect rights of Rohingya Muslims, Today’s Zaman, (Nov. 19, 2012), http://www.todayszaman.com/news-298620-obama-to-Myanmar-respect-rights-of-rohingya-muslims.html.

[28] Dalai Lama, Buddhist leaders in Rohingya compassion call, Bdnews24.com (Dec. 9, 2012 10:20PM) http://bdnews24.com/details.php?id=237881&cid=1