Burma's Rohingya: Beyond the Communal Violence
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Thank you, Anne. First obviously, I want to thank very much Refugees International and the Open Society Foundations for hosting this event abut shining a spotlight for many years on the issue of statelessness and challenges faced by the Rohingya. You have helped focus the world’s attention on these serious issues. We also commend the dedicated Greg Constantine for his moving photographs that successfully tell the stories of stateless people living on the margins of society.
But before talking about the Rohingya – and I am going to use that pronunciation, I realize that in Bangladesh one says Rohing-GA and in Burma one says Rohing-ZHA, but because my experience is deeper in Bangladesh, I will stay with that one. Let’s review why the lack of citizenship is at the root of solving the vexing problem of statelessness that affects 12 million people worldwide.
Citizenship is a core concept that defines the relationship between a state and an individual – each has obligations to the other. Citizenship is often the gateway to a person’s ability to realize a range of human rights and basic services, including freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination, arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to vote, access to education, and property ownership. The former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren, described citizenship as “the right to have rights.”
Stateless persons are not recognized as citizens by any state, and as a result, stateless persons lack identity basic protections that come with this status. They typically do not have identity documentation, and cannot register births, marriages, or deaths. Without such documentation, they often cannot work legally or travel freely. They cannot vote, open a bank account, or own property, and they often lack access to health care and other public services. Without birth registration or citizenship documents, children are often barred from attending school. For these reasons, stateless persons are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including gender-based violence, trafficking in persons, and arbitrary arrest and detention.
Combating statelessness requires first that governments, civil society groups, and international, regional, and local organizations recognize the problem, its causes, and the suffering and indignities it inflicts on millions of people around the world. This is an under-recognized problem. But recognition is not enough – governments around the world must take strong action to address this eminently solvable problem for millions of disenfranchised and vulnerable people.
The U.S. Government understands the need to take strong action to combat statelessness and we are doing so both through our diplomatic policy engagement and our financial support to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the international organization mandated to prevent and reduce statelessness. The United States is the single largest donor to UNHCR, as many of you know. This year, the United States contributed over $775 million to UNHCR’s work on protection, assistance, and statelessness.
But let’s return to the topic of our efforts on behalf of the Rohingya, rendered stateless as a result of the 1982 Myanmar Citizenship Law. The Rohingya’s ethnic identity and origin are highly disputed. While some historical accounts note that they are indigenous to the kingdom of Arakan since the 9th century, which at times, also occupied southern parts of modern Bangladesh; others claim that Rohingya migrated to the region during British colonialism. This latter claim has consistently fueled anti-Rohingya sentiment, leading to periodic tension and violence against the Rohingya by the former military regime after Burma gained independence.
It’s fair to say that the Rohingya are the reason I remain a public servant with the Department of State for over 22 years. Back in 1992 as a quarter of a million Rohingya were fleeing to Bangladesh, I was seconded to UNHCR and served as a protection officer in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, hearing first hand many of their stories. It was a transformative experience for me, as the government of Bangladesh --with strong support from the international community, including UNHCR -- worked feverishly to protect this disenfranchised group.
But it’s now 20 years later, and Bangladesh remains host to some 30,000 registered Rohingya from that wave of displacement. In addition, some 200,000-plus Rohingya have since sought safety and protection in Bangladesh, but remain undocumented. We have urged the government of Bangladesh to register this population and improve their living conditions, as well as those of the Bangladeshi community that hosts them. The needs continue to be great in the Cox’s Bazar district, one of the poorest in the country. Bangladesh is not alone in addressing these needs. The United States has remained steadfast supporters of continued assistance to Bangladesh through international and non-governmental humanitarian organizations and development partners, especially in the areas of health, water and sanitation, food security, and education. We have long advocated for protection for vulnerable Rohingya and will continue to do so.
But we have not had a singular focus on Bangladesh. Over the years, the U.S. Government has also supported UNHCR’s activities in Burma. UNHCR has worked with the Burmese government to provide identification documents to the Rohingya and improve their legal status and access to services. UNHCR programs have helped improve community participation, especially, but not exclusively, of Muslim women and girls, in decisions on education and reproductive health services. We have been vocal advocates on status and documentation issues. And additionally, our policy has aimed to ensure that the Rohingya benefit from improvements in services for healthcare, education, water, sanitation, and agriculture.
I am proud of the fact that we have and will continue to support humanitarian protection and assistance to the Rohingya in Burma, Bangladesh, Malaysia and elsewhere in the region by working closely with the international community and countries affected by Rohingya displacement to reach a comprehensive, sustainable, and just solution to their plight.
As you know, the Department of State has been a very strong advocate for national reconciliation as Burma undertakes democratic and political reform. And just to outline briefly: in an effort to address one of the most intractable and difficult ethnic minority issues, made all the more challenging following the June 2012 eruption of violence between Rohingya and Rakhine communities in Rakhine State, Secretary Clinton dispatched a delegation of senior U.S. Government officials to visit Burma and Bangladesh. We assessed conditions and made initial recommendations after speaking with government officials, local communities, civil society, and international and non-governmental organizations. The trip included field visits to both sides of the border.
Throughout the trip, each of us brought his or her expertise to bear on the situation. And I’ll review who was on the delegation in a little bit more detail than Anne described in her opening: Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joe Yun from EAP. He offered perspective on Burma’s attempts to balance domestic priorities with its broader reform efforts, while DAS Alyssa Ayres from the South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau offered neighboring Bangladesh’s perspective. DAS Dan Baer from the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau emphasized the human rights perspective and importance of reconciliation. And I addressed the broader displacement and protection perspectives, along with the relationship with international and non-governmental humanitarian organizations. In both countries, we benefited from the expertise of very strong ambassadors and USAID teams.
Approximately 800,000 stateless Rohingya live in a region that has experienced significant displacement and periodic violence over recent decades. During the Burma portion of our trip, we focused specifically on the challenges resulting from the aftermath of the June violence. Much needs to be done: to reduce tensions, to improve the humanitarian situation, and to work towards a sustainable and just solution for all those who have suffered from the conflict and longer-term deprivation of rights. Some of the tough issues to be addressed include lasting security and stability, freedom of movement for Rakhine and Rohingya, protection (and when I say protection, including the provision of physical security and basic rights), and unimpeded humanitarian access and assistance to meet basic immediate needs. We explored how the international community can assist the Burmese government in long-term recovery efforts and the development of a path to citizenship for those Rohingya with claims. Peace is possible in Rakhine State only through economic development, poverty alleviation and ensuring basic rights for residents.
At the same time as the Burmese government works to address the underlying causes of ethnic conflict, we believe a regional approach is necessary to address mixed flows of refugees and migrants by land and sea and ensure that those fleeing are treated humanely. In this regard, we traveled to Bangladesh, where we met with senior government officials and the diplomatic community in Dhaka and traveled to Cox’s Bazar to meet with local authorities, host communities, Rohingya, UNHCR, and international NGOs.
Sadly, solutions to this protracted displacement appear increasingly elusive. I noticed a definite increase in tension and desperation since my last trip in 2011, and an escalation in humanitarian need. School enrollment is down as parents pull children from classes to become income earners, and malnutrition rates exceed emergency levels and continue to rise. Unfortunately, at the same time, organizations are facing greater obstacles to help ameliorate the situation. In our field visits to the official camps, refugees demonstrated for the right to nationality, highlighted human rights violations, and advocated for more services and education for their children. Outside the camps, the undocumented Rohingya population suffers even more without access to school, health care or decent shelter.
Fortunately, fantastic partners are committed to bettering the lives of this disenfranchised group, and humanitarian assistance provided by the U.S. Government and the international community is making a life-saving difference. Thanks to advocates such as RI, OSF, Human Rights Watch, and photographers like Greg Constantine, the Rohingya are no longer invisible and their stories are being told.
While raising international awareness is important to improving the lives of the Rohingya, we will continue to work closely with the Governments of Burma and Bangladesh and the international community to deepen the commitment to national and regional dialogues. Our commitment to resolving this intractable problem is clear. Personally, I just hope that it doesn’t take another 20 years to find that comprehensive, sustainable, and just solution.