By Amity Saha
Myanmar is an ethnically diverse country of Asia with its ethnic and religious minorities having a complex and contested history. There are 135 recognised national ethnic groups, according to the 1982 Citizenship Law. They are again labelled into eight major national ethnic races — such as Bamar (approximately two-thirds of the population), Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.
Among them, almost 90 per cent of the population is Buddhists, four per cent Muslims, four per cent Christians and about two per cent Hindus. Most Christians belong to ethnic minorities, including Chin, Kachin and Kayin. Some Muslim communities are officially recognised as a distinct ethnic group (like the Kaman), others are known as “Bamar Muslims”, “Chinese Muslims” or “Indian Muslims”.
Rohingya Muslims comprise the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine state. They self-identify as a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture. Rohingya people have always felt the ancient connection to Rakhine state. Successive governments have rejected these claims and Rohingya were not included in the list of recognised ethnic groups. So, now most Rohingya people are documented as stateless.
The 1947 Panglong Conference visualised the creation of a federal union based on voluntary association and political equality. Upon getting independence in 1948, Myanmar was a quasi-federal union largely dominated by the Bamar ethnic group. Later, self-determination, greater autonomy and an equitable share of power and resources claimed by ethnic minorities have driven armed conflicts within the country in diverse range and quantity.
In 2015, the preceding Parliament adopted a package of laws seeking to “protect race and religion”. These laws discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities and women in violation of Myanmar’s international obligation. The “Religious Conversion Law” launches a State-regulated system for changing religion, which contravenes the right to freedom of religion or belief. The “Population Control Healthcare Law” approves a selective and coercive proposition to population control, including a potential requirement of 36 months birth spacing that would violate women’s right to choose the number and spacing of their children. The law could be used to target areas with significant minority communities. The “Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law” bars Buddhist women from marrying non-Buddhist men — irrefutably that is violating a person’s right to choose a spouse.
A State’s prerogative to grant or remove nationality is guarded under international law. The 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar is discriminatory and breaches the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of nationality. According to CRC, Article No.7; this violates the right of every child to obtain nationality; as it fails to defend the attainment of citizenship for children born in Myanmar with no genuine link. It also gives overly wide powers to the government to invalidate citizenship without due protection. It has led and continues to lead to statelessness.
Myanmar has one of the largest stateless populations — around 1,090,000 — in the world; predominately Rohingyas in Rakhine state. The Rohingyas’ lack of citizenship worsens their vulnerability to a range of human rights violations.
In June 2014, the government initiated a citizenship verification process, piloted in Myebon town; located in Sittwe district of Rakhine state. Rohingyas refusing to identify themselves as “Bengali” were disqualified from the verification process. Those granted citizenship in Myebon were allowed to vote in 2015 but their freedom of movement and access to basic services and livelihood after receiving citizenship has not been enhanced. On June 7, 2016, a citizenship verification process — conducted within the framework of the 1982 Citizenship Law — was relaunched in Kyaukpyu, Myebon and Ponnagyun.
Rohingya and Kaman people face harsh boundaries in freedom of movement. Their stated purpose is to ensure security but their application is disproportionate and discriminatory by exclusively targeting Muslims. The majority of Rohingyas live in northern Rakhine state, where they require official authorisation to move between, and often within, townships. For example, a village departure certificate is required to stay overnight in another village. The procedures to secure travel are arduous and time-consuming. Failure to comply with requirements can result in arrest and prosecution. Restrictions routinely lead to felony, so law enforcement people and government officials are used to harassing people.
Since the June 2012 violence, township administrators have imposed a curfew in northern Rakhine state, allegedly to “protect the safety of both communities”. It has been regularly extended since 2012. The curfew is reportedly based on Section 144(1) of the Myanmar Code of Criminal Procedure, which permits temporary orders in urgent cases and requires a Magistrate or delegate to issue the curfew order. OHCHR has received credible allegations that the applicable procedure as per Section 144(1) has not been meeting the terms. The curfew gives wide discretionary powers to the authorities, including limitations on assembly and prohibiting movement between dusk and dawn. The curfew limits the ability of Muslims to worship and practice religion freely by limiting gatherings of more than five people. Apparently, it is only enforced against the Rohingyas. While a separate Presidential State of Emergency order was lifted in March 2016 in northern Rakhine state, the curfew remains in place.
Most of those displaced by the 2012 violence reside in central Rakhine state, in approximately 39 IDP camps. Restrictions on movement in camps are severe and many are under extreme security measures. In certain locations, there is strict control of access and exits through security checkpoints. According to the nature of these camps, many camps could be considered as places of deprivation of liberty, even like passing life in confinement, under international law.
The blanket restrictions on freedom of movement for Muslim communities clearly violate international human rights law, which requires any limitations to be necessary and proportionate. The restrictions discriminatingly target the Muslim population and severely constrain their access to livelihoods, food, healthcare and education. Lifting these restrictions is essential to addressing other human rights and humanitarian concerns in Rakhine state.
*Amity Saha is a Research Assistant (International Affairs) at Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA). Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]