Toward a Regime of Civic Exclusion and State Harassment

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Burma/Myanmar’s leaders and most of its inhabitants see their country as a historically shaped body of diverse people whose ethnicity determines their civic belonging. The Union Citizenship Act of 1948 defined national races as those groups that lived permanently in the country before the First Anglo-Burmese War (i.e., before 1824). This ethnicization of civic status is generally taken for granted and has not been contested by multiethnic group members. It is the political hegemony of the majority-Burman (Bamar) ethnic group that has led to decades of civil war between the government and ethnic minorities, not the inflexible principle that ethnic belonging primarily determines civic rights. Unlike other groups with a hybrid historical or ethnic status in the country (e.g., the Chinese in Kokang), the Rohingyas have been singled out for increasingly inequitable treatment by the state.

In light of those who argue that the 1982 citizenship law made the Rohingyas de jure stateless, Cheesman has shown that hundreds of thousands of Muslims were rendered stateless by a “deliberate breach and selective application” of the law when it was applied after 1989.41 The argument that their denationalization was the result of a deliberate state policy has been advanced by Rohingyas for many years. In the 1950s, National Registration Cards (NRCs) were widely used as de facto proof of citizenship or nationality, but in the 1970s, North Arakan Muslims were no longer issued NRCs, and many NRCs were allegedly seized by the authorities. When a new citizenship regime was applied in the late 1980s, people had to relinquish their identity papers to obtain color-coded Citizenship Scrutiny Cards (CSCs), but after 1995, most Rohingyas were merely given Temporary Registration Cards (TRCs), the so-called white cards, certifying that they were not full citizens. These TRCs were cancelled in February 2015. In June 2015, new green cards were distributed to those people who were ready to be scrutinized for citizenship under conditions that denied them self-identification as Rohingyas. This brief chronology illustrates both the arbitrary nature of the state’s treatment of Rohingyas and their bureaucratic exclusion from citizenship.

What forces have been driving this process on the side of the central state? Based on a long record of human rights violations, a plethora of motives, stretching from racism and Islamophobia over security concerns to accusations of illegal immigration, can be alleged to account for systematic discrimination. Yet although these factors definitely played into each other, none can explain the vicious turn of state policies by itself, and a response can only be tentative. As it was the army that assumed the task of supervising the border region after independence, a possible way to search for an answer is to try to understand army border policies. The foremost aim of the army was to establish efficient control of the border, prevent smuggling, and check cross-border movement. Friendship treaties and border demarcation agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh were concluded over several decades to reach this objective. Neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh were perceived as strategic threats, and although there were occasionally serious tensions and violent incidents, efforts were made to settle border issues by negotiations.

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Moreover, unlike in other regions at the country’s periphery, the army did not face unsurmountable military challenges in Arakan. The Mujahids (1948–1961) and a succession of inconsequential Rohingya armed groups (1965–2005) did not drag the army into endless warfare as the Karen, Shan, and Kachin rebellions did. The political control of the region was eased by the presence of two rival groups, giving the state the opportunity to play the ambitions and interests of the Arakanese Buddhists against those of the Muslims. Arakan was an area of much lesser political concern for the army than the country’s eastern periphery, bordering communist China. This situation at the western border prevailed until the mid-1970s. When the civil war in Bangladesh drove tens of thousands of refugees over the border, the Burmese government tolerated their presence at first, but it was wary that many would stay on, increasing the number of other illegal migrants that had reportedly settled in the rural countryside of North Arakan since independence.

In early 1978, shortly after the Burmese army’s successful operations against Arakanese rebel groups, the government launched a campaign to arrest illegal migrants backed by security forces. It led to widespread panic in North Arakan’s countryside and an exodus of nearly 200,000 people to Bangladesh. The Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF), an armed organization, surmised that there was a premeditated plan to exterminate the Muslim community. Although most refugees were repatriated, thousands stayed in Bangladesh while many more moved to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. There is little doubt that the experience at the country’s western border had an impact on the formulation of the 1982 citizenship law, which enjoined people to apply once again for their citizenship. The law’s anti-Arakan Muslim bias did not escape anyone’s attention; shortly after, it led to the foundation of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, an armed movement, in Bangladesh.42

In 1965, 300,000 Indians had left Burma following the nationalization of private businesses by General Ne Win, which entailed their exclusion from the country’s economic and social life. The exodus had no direct impact on Arakan’s mainly rural Muslim community. Nevertheless, Ne Win’s socialist visions, which isolated the country economically and politically, along with his nationalist, Burman-centric state ideology and Buddhist rigidity, tilted public opinion toward anti-Indian prejudice. Already firmly anchored in the national consciousness since the late colonial period, the mistrust between the Buddhist and Muslim parts of the population was particularly deep in Arakan, offering state authorities the opportunity to exploit these tensions and resentment for their own advantage. Among the Burmese military, Bangladesh’s population growth was perceived as a lasting threat to the thinly populated Arakan state.43

In the early 1990s, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime, formerly the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), reasserted the presence of the army in the border region. Land confiscations for military camps, compulsory relocations, and the settlement of Burmese colonizers among the majority-Muslim population raised tensions that led to a massive exodus of 250,000 Rohingyas in 1991–1992. The repatriation efforts under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) faced resistance from many Rohingyas. Many ran away soon after their return because of forced labor and brutal violence, including rape and extortion. The verification procedures of the Burmese authorities were not facilitating the return of the refugees. The repatriation process slowed down after 1997 and came to an end in 2005. Two official Rohingya camps with more than 30,000 people existed in Bangladesh. In 1992, the Burmese government considered many of the refugees as illegal migrants from Bangladesh who had no right to claim an identity that did not exist officially. The term Bengali was increasingly used by the authorities to refer to the community as a whole.

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Throughout the 1990s, the policies of harassment perpetrated by the Nasaka, a mixed unit of police, intelligence, and customs officers, created increasing hardship for the Muslim population. The authorities kept livelihood conditions low by failing to invest in economic development and infrastructure.44 Reduced freedom of movement, the introduction of restrictions on marriage and birth registrations, and the obstruction of religious practices pushed many people out of the country. At the same time, a project of model villages was launched to repopulate North Arakan with Buddhist settlers, including former prisoners.45 After 2012, against this increasingly well-documented background, a new generation of pro-Rohingya advocacy groups reiterated the accusation that the government intended the slow extermination of the Muslim population.46

The politics that motivated the harsh but ambiguous government policies in North Rakhine State have yet to be fully understood. Despite the disenfranchisement of Muslims, state authorities still resorted to the Muslim voting bloc at the constitutional referendum of May 2008 and in the general elections of November 2010, when Rohingya white-card holders were promised full citizenship. Three Rohingya members of Parliament (MPs) were affiliated with the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the government party, from 2010 to 2015.

President Thein Sein’s reform policies did not bring an end to murky party politics, nor did the increasingly autonomous role played by the parliament and the courts break any new ground. Rather, it confirmed the high level of social and political exclusion of Rohingyas in Myanmar. In September 2014, white-card holders were barred from being members of a political party, but the proposal of giving white-card holders voting rights was reiterated by the ruling USDP in February 2015. Once it was approved by the parliament, however, it was rapidly invalidated by Myanmar’s constitutional court. Rohingya political leaders who had been candidates or elected MPs at the 1990 and 2010 elections readied themselves for the free elections of November 2015, but the court’s final decision coincided with a widespread anti-Rohingya backlash following the 2012 communal violence and, more generally, a tide of Buddhist nationalism that swept across Myanmar from 2013 to 2015.

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The outbreak of violence in 2012, which marked the beginning of a series of humanitarian crises in Rakhine State, was triggered by the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman at the end of May, followed in early June by the killing of a group of Muslims who were visiting South Rakhine from another region. More violence erupted in the Muslim-majority area—Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung—in the north on June 8, followed by attacks in the capital, Sittway. A state of emergency was declared, but security forces were later accused not only of failing to stop the violence, but of being complicit in it. Until mid-July, more than 100,000 people were reportedly displaced and resettled in IDP camps. Eighty people were killed, and more than 4,000 houses were destroyed. A second wave of violence, in October, spread over a much wider area in central Rakhine and led to another 80 dead, with 22,000 people displaced and more homes destroyed. More than 80 percent of the victims were Muslims.47

Since the 1990s, the outside world has increasingly taken notice of the plight of the Rohingyas on both sides of the border due to greater international awareness of Myanmar’s conflicts. In 1994, Rakhine State became accessible to individual travelers and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors Without Borders) and Action Contre la Faim (ACF; Action Against Hunger), which launched humanitarian projects in Rohingya villages. The stream of Rohingya migrants crossing the Andaman Sea to reach South Thailand and Malaysia became a seasonal phenomenon after Malaysia started (though only briefly) to register Rohingyas for work permits in August 2006. It was poorly recorded at first, and this was perceived as a major regional problem only when news spread about the atrocious treatment of Rohingya refugees by the Thai navy in 2009, the scandals that broke out about official involvement in human trafficking, and finally the reluctant moves of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to accept desperate Rohingya boat people abandoned by their traffickers on the high seas in May 2015.

Taking stock of the migration of Muslim people from Arakan to the neighboring countries and beyond during many decades, the next section will provide an overview of the Rohingya diaspora, who have played a decisive role in the post-2012 globalization of the Rohingya cause.