Over the past two months, about half a million Rohingya people have fled from Myanmar (Burma) to neighboring Bangladesh. The immediate trigger for this mass exodus was a crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces against Rohingya insurgents and civilians, which reportedly included widespread torture, rape, and killing. However, the roots of this conflict lie far in the past.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority based in the western part of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Since the establishment of Myanmar in 1948, Rohingya leaders have made separatist claims, at times accompanied by a violent struggle by some insurgent groups. The government, on its part, has denied Burmese citizenship to the Rohingya people and refused to include them among the country’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. The government asserts that the Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, whereas the Rohingya consider themselves to be indigenous people of western Myanmar. Neither Bangladesh nor any other country has been willing to grant citizenship to Myanmar’s Rohingya, and the vast majority of the group’s one million members have thus remained stateless.
As a stateless minority, the Rohingya have suffered severe discrimination in Myanmar. They have been denied the right to participate in elections and have faced severe restrictions on movement, land ownership, family life, religious freedom, education, and employment. They have also been persecuted by extremist Buddhist groups without government interference. During the last decades, this reality has pushed tens of thousands of Rohingya to seek asylum in neighboring countries. The present crisis thus marks the culmination of the longstanding persecution of this stateless minority.
In this contribution, I argue that the adoption of a more effective regional response to the problem of statelessness is essential in order to ameliorate the plight of the Rohingya and other stateless groups in Southeast Asia. I begin by providing a brief factual background on statelessness in Southeast Asia. I then describe the existing international legal framework on statelessness, noting the limited impact that it has had in Southeast Asia. Finally, I present the justifications for adopting a new Southeast Asian regional approach to statelessness, and discuss the role that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should play in this respect. Read the rest of this entry…