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Hate Speech, Interethnic Violence and ‘Muslim-Free’ Villages: The Rohingya Crisis in an Era of International Indifference

20 February 2019

In Myanmar’s Rakhine State the Rohingya minority, predominantly Muslim, has been subject to the most horrifying human rights violations. The government has embarked on a series of military campaigns against them characterized by religious persecution, murder, arbitrary arrest, arson and rape as weapons of war against the civilian population. Discriminatory policies by Myanmar’s government against the Rohingya minority have been in place since the late 1970s, compelling thousands to flee their homes. In August 2017, following an attack by insurgents which left seven soldiers dead, the military launched a brutal and indiscriminate attack on Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine state that resulted in thousands of deaths and the forced displacement of more than 727,000 Rohingya refugees to neighbouring Bangladesh. Thus, the case represents the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world. Indeed, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has described the situation as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.

In late October 2018, I was privileged to attend a meeting at Minority Rights Group’s office in London where Kyaw Win, Executive Director of the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), expressed his utmost concern regarding the deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar, and provided us with valuable insights concerning BHRN’s impressive work documenting human rights violations in the country.

Hate speech and harmful misinformation lie at the core of Myanmar’s interethnic violence. As Mr Win recounted, ethnicity and religion in Burma are closely intertwined. The military rule (1962-2015) established a narrative of the Buddhist Bama ‘as rightful owners of the nation, and all others as subordinate to them’[1]. This narrative has prevailed and intensified, despite the original promise of the 2015 elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi into power and achieved a ceasefire agreement between the government and various ethnic groups, purportedly promising an end to the cycles of violence and atrocity. Yet the democratic transition in Myanmar is at a standstill; repressive laws are in place seeking to silence those who wish to scrutinize governmental decisions and hate speech is thriving, particularly against the Rohingya.  Moreover, there continues to be no law or institution in place to hold the military to account: since its supremacy was secured by the Constitution, it continues to enjoy almost total impunity for its actions.

The interlinking of religion and ethnicity is clearly observable through the many obstacles faced by Muslims in obtaining National Registration Cards (NRCs), an element to which Kyaw Win devoted much attention. As he explained, Burmese law has three grades of citizenship: (1) full citizen, (2) associate citizen and (3) naturalized citizen. To qualify for the former, it is required to show proof of lineage in Burma tracing back to before 1824, when British rule began. Associate and naturalized citizens have their rights severely curtailed. The possession of NRCs is mandatory under Burmese law, and failure to acquire them translates into severe difficulties in obtaining housing or work, alongside the persistent harassment by authorities and risk of imprisonment.

NRCs record the bearer’s ethnicity and religion, and Muslims frequently report various problems in securing them, including the requirement that Muslims provide extensive documentation regarding family lineage that is often impossible to obtain, the flat-out denial of an NRC card to Muslims, and the refusal by authorities to register Muslims as solely Bama (the majority ethnicity in Burma). Instead, they are demanded to add another nationality in their NRCs from a majority-Muslim country, such as Pakistan or Bangladesh, regardless of having no family connections with that country. In turn, this has resulted in a precarious situation of statelessness whereby a vision of a Bama-Buddhist nation is enforced, dominating all other minority groups and in which the Rohingya effectively have no place.

Alarmingly, Kyaw Win highlighted the spread of self-declared ‘Muslim-free’ villages across Myanmar. Since 2012, there has been a rise in the number of villages where locals, backed by the authorities, have erected signboards warning Muslims not to enter. BHRN has documented the existence of at least 21 cases[2]. Examples of messages written in these signboards include ‘Muslims are not allowed to stay overnight’, ‘Muslims are not allowed to buy or rent properties’, ‘No one is allowed to marry Muslims’, ‘If you try to feed the tiger it will eat you’ and ‘If you give any space to Kalar, your country, race and religion will be eliminated’. The existence of these villages is a testament to the toxic effect of the prevailing narrative that depicts Muslims as a threat that needs controlling, leading to further segregation and hatred.

Yet despite the irrefutable evidence that ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Rohingya is indeed taking place in Myanmar, the international response has been underwhelming. Between 2013 and August 2017, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, frequently denounced human rights violations against the Rohingya, and reports were issued detailing the latter. Following the mass violence in August 2017, the EU’s response was confined to a humanitarian aid operation, and it was not until the spring of 2018 that the EU took any concrete measures to penalise Burmese authorities and military officials for these abuses. Moreover, and problematically, the EU initially advocated for a Bangladesh-Myanmar return of refugees.

On that account, BHRN has called for the Government of Bangladesh to postpone repatriation plans for Rohingyan refugees until conditions are acceptable to do so. Ensuring that the Rohingya have their safety and human rights guaranteed on their return to Burma is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, at the moment this represents a far cry from reality. Those facing repatriation will be kept in ‘temporary shelters’, effectively denying them freedom of movement and limiting their access to work, aid and medical care. These shelters will function as open-air prisons, and returnees will be forced to accept National Verification Cards (NVC) registering them as ’Bengalis’ whilst ultimately denying them their identity and citizenship claims.

All refugees interviewed on behalf of the organization were not asked if they wanted to return, and believe they will be in danger if forced to do so. Indeed, suicide attempts have become common amongst the Rohingya when notified that they will have to return to Burma . A man interviewed by BHRN said: ‘My home was near a military base. They shot at us and for so long. My nephew was killed then. He was burnt alive in front of me’. This is just one example of many. How can we then expect them to want to return to a place where they have witnessed the most egregious human rights violations before their eyes? Surely, an ethical repatriation process should be voluntary, which is not the case. And, surely too, one would expect a much more robust intervention on behalf of the international community in face of the Rohingyan crisis – which has also not been the case. Regrettably, Myanmar represents another example of international indifference where the protection of the most basic human rights is superseded by broader political considerations.

Jaume Rius Lopez is an intern at MRG’s publications department. His primary role consists of updating MRG’s directory of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, focusing regionally on Central and South America. He is also involved in other publications and carries out editorial work. Jaume holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Kent and an MA in Conflict, Security and Development Studies from the University of Exeter.