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There is no soil under my feet on which to walk

HONG KONG (SE): “Declaring a state of emergency is not a licence to commit human rights violations,” Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher from Amnesty International said in relation to the June 10 declaration of a state of emergency in the Rakhine state by the government of the Union of Myanmar.

The declaration of a state of emergency followed violence among the Muslim and Buddhist Rakhine minority groups and the unrecognised Muslim Rohingya people, but Amnesty notes that the violence continues and has been added to by the ruthlessness of the Burmese Army.

But Zawacki cautioned, “It is the duty of security forces to defend the rights of everyone—without exception or discrimination—from abuses by others, while abiding by human rights standards themselves.”

However, according to testimonies given by Myanmese people at a screening of a documentary on the treatment of the Rohingya by the government in Naypyidaw at the Kowloon Union Church on August 7, this is not the case.

A speaker from the Kachin state, home to her persecuted minority people who have been at war on and off with the government over the past 17 years, said, “It is sad, because the government does not notice there are so many ethnic groups in our country. Of the 135 different groups, the government only recognises eight.”

She pointed out that since the break in the ceasefire in her native state one year ago her people have been forced to flee. “They have gone to China and Thailand,” she said, “and some have managed to get further afield. Even those who could not get away are taking shelter in evacuation camps.”

She explained that it is dangerous in the Kachin state. “Soldiers simply shoot people if they meet them,” she explained. “No questions asked.”

She added, “The government does not seem to recognise the value of what is being lost.”

She spoke of a case of rape by the military that her people managed to get into court. “But the court wouldn’t  hear the case,” she lamented. “It was dismissed without a hearing.”

She added that she is cautious about the enthusiasm expressed in the western media about the opening up of Myanmar to democracy, noting that although there was an initial release of political prisoners, some 450 remained in custody and more are now being added to their number, with the advent of new arrests and crackdowns on free speech.

“The government does things, but why?” she asked. “The parliament talks, but the minority groups are not there and while the talks go on, they are losing their lives.”

She added, “If the government is not systematic, then issues keep getting worse. We hear from the media about change, but we really need to ask where there is room for ethnic people.”

She explained that because her people are an ethnic minority they are not recognised as regular citizens by the government. This was reflected by the court refusal to recognise their right to have a case heard.

Even elections in the Kachin state were inexplicably cancelled by the military authorities, so no representative from the Kachin can even sit in the parliament.

She added that government treatment of the Rohingya is even worse, as it refuses to recognise their existence and even excludes them from holding citizenship in Myanmar.

“As a result, they are stateless people,” she explained.

A one-hour documentary produced by a Myanmese journalist under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, depicts the Rohingya people huddled in refugee camps or begging for their existence in what was, prior the injustice of geography drawing national border lines through the middle of their traditional lands, once part their natural habitat, modern-day Thailand, Bangladesh and India.

“I feel like I have no ground under my feet on which to walk,” one refugee in Thailand said in the documentary.

The world is familiar with the distain shown towards the people by the governing Myanmese military elite in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, and it still, today, shows the same destain towards the plight of the Rohingya.

“The Myanmar authorities should allow local and international agencies full and unhindered access to all displaced persons,” a statement from Amnesty reads, “including an estimated 1,500 persons illegally denied refuge in mid-June across the border by Bangladesh.”

These people were Rohingya men fleeing a wave of mostly arbitrary arrests by Myanmese border forces. Amnesty also notes that the causes of the violence should be investigated, because understanding the causes is as vital as the effects.

Nevertheless, lack of citizenship remains the greatest problem faced by the Rohingya people.

“Under international human rights law and standards, no one may be left or rendered stateless. For too long, Myanmar’s human rights record has been marred by the continued denial of citizenship for the Rohingya and a host of discriminatory practices against them,” Zawacki said.

The plight of these people is heightened by the ignorance of their fellow Myanmese about their situation. A Myanmese woman present at the documentary screening noted that even though she had grown up in Yangon, she was not aware of who they are.

Another explained that the military dictator and leader of a revolutionary coup in the early 1960s, Ne Win, tended to tie citizenship with groups who had fought or sided with him in the revolution, and most minority groups did not join.

In addition, he explained that there is no list of citizens, but it is group names that are registered and their members are then treated as citizens.

He explained that consequently, border guards look on the Rohingya as foreigners and they are simply told to go back to India, or China.

Non-citizenship means no access to higher learning, decent jobs or any kind of future, on top of the problem of finding soil under your feet on which to walk.

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