Burma: Religious Freedom and Rohingya Muslims in Peril

By: Engy Abdelkader

“…[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities….”

- Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, 1786

Our nation’s founders viewed religious freedom as a natural right, one with which each of us are born and which governments are responsible to protect. The wisdom and brilliance informing our founding fathers’ commitment to freedom of religion continues to be lost on so many political, religious, and community leaders even today.

Representative is Burma.

The country suffers from a steady stream of credible accusations alleging genocideethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity targeting Rohingya Muslims. The religious and ethnic minority group has survived decades-long persecution. And, things simply aren’t getting better.

In fact, the humanitarian and human rights crises are worsening.

In the streets, some naked Rohingya children play with sewage, leaving them exposed to deadly diseases. Many are forced to perform hard labor to alleviate their family’s economic blight. Others have been abandoned.

Most are malnourished without access to healthcare, including vaccinations to preventable childhood illnesses.

Prohibited from private Islamic schools, their only option becomes state-run schools barely recognizable as such. There are no desks, no chairs, and no books. Classes are overcrowded with a 1:114 teacher to student ratio. Unsurprisingly, the Rohingya suffer from an astounding 80 percent illiteracy rate.

In ghettos, the Rohingya live surrounded by tall walls and heavy barbed wire. More than 140,000 are trapped in state-run camps after losing their homes to anti-Rohingya violence. Police officers, tasked with regulating Rohingya movement, have become permanent fixtures. Officials explain that it is for their own safety.

Inside Rohingya villages, ghettos, and camps, there is little to no food or opportunity for employment. Still, Burmese officials have restricted Rohingya access to UN and other humanitarian aid workers, in violation of international human rights principles. 

This humanitarian crises is exasperated by human rights crises, including discriminatory laws, policies, and practices.

A two-child policy targeting the Rohingya exposes violators to fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Burmese officials falsely claim that Muslims are intent on "Islamicizing" the country via exploding birth rates. Interestingly, research from Harvard University shows the Rohingya Muslims have among the lowest birth rates in Burma.

In contravention of myriad international human rights instruments, the country’s 1982 Citizenship Act deprives the Rohingya Muslims of full citizenship. The “stateless” group previously carried government-issued foreign residency cards, frequently rejected by employers and schools. Earlier this year, however, officials revoked the cards so as to obstruct Rohingya political participation in national presidential elections scheduled for November.

The Rohingya’s statelessness facilitates numerous other human rights violations. In addition to the lack of employment and education opportunities, other abuses include arbitrary detention, forced labor, discriminatory taxation, and confiscation of property. Officials have arrested Rohingya for teaching religious doctrine and even praying. The group also encounters mounting obstacles to building or even repairing their religious houses of worship.

Last year, officials announced Rohingya eligibility for second-class citizenship, thus denying them access to full citizenship. To acquire second-class citizenship, officials required the Rohingya to register as “Bengalis” and evidence 60 years of continuous Burmese residency. Most Burmese believe the group migrated from neighboring Bangladesh, while the Rohingya assert their ancestral connection to the land dating as far back as the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

Most recently, officials have passed a series of Protection of Race and Religion Laws, pressed by activists with an anti-Muslim agenda.

First, the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill requires Buddhist women to register interfaith marriages in advance of the union; the marriage can be stopped in the event of objections. It infringes upon the religious freedom rights of Rohingya Muslim men, as well as majority Buddhist women.

Second, the Population Control Health Care Bill allows certain areas to be designated for special health measures, including a 36-month interval for women between childbirths. As such, birth spacing may be selectively enforced against the Rohingya in addition to the two-child rule referenced above.

Third, the Religious Conversion Bill forces converts to seek state approval from a local “Registration Board.” This is an interesting development in light of articulated concerns about the "Islamicization" of Burma. Finally, the Monogamy Bill, criminalizes extramarital relations as well as polygamy (the latter of which is already a crime).

A spectrum of UN international human rights experts has denounced each of these legal measures.

In light of the foregoing, perhaps it is unsurprising that as many as 1 in 10 Rohingya Muslims have fled persecution. Just recently, more than 8,000 Rohingya refugees (and Bangladeshi economic migrants) were stranded at sea when human smugglers abandoned the unseaworthy vessels with men, women, and children aboard.

Commonly referred to as the “boat people,” Rohingya lives have been claimed by starvation, dehydration, and brutality. Dozens of bodies have washed up on Burma's shores. Those who manage to survive the dangerous boat journey emerge from their ordeal looking “skeletal.” Even then, refuge may prove elusive. Recently, mass graves were discovered in Thailand and Malaysia, near human trafficking camps.

Yet, Burmese officials refuse to acknowledge the root causes of Rohingya flight, rather dismissing the refugees as mere migrants seeking employment elsewhere. To be sure, the Rohingya should be integrated into Burmese society with equal access to citizenship, education, employment, property, marriage, and travel, among other rights. While the international community has responded, more could and should be done.

Last December, for example, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution pressing officials to confer full citizenship rights. More recently, in July, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning anti-Rohingya persecution. The US Congress adopted a similar initiative, House Resolution 418, urging Burmese officials to end anti-Rohingya persecution.

Still, the Rohingya people suffer.

Engy Abdelkader is faculty at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where she teaches courses on international terrorism and human rights as well as civil liberties and national security. 

This piece was originally authored on July 23, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/14/tj7jtiv3wspvp389k5grgf56775xaw