Our second year geographers shared some of their recent adventures by sending in short essays that were designed to show where and how they encountered geography over the summer. Staying with an iconic theme of geography, all of the entries involved travel to a different place, whether in the UK or abroad.
The essays were strong and in the end we decided to award two book prizes for a joint first place based on their engaging insight and interpretation which demonstrated engagement with ideas that will be explored in forthcoming Geography lectures. Over the next week we’ll be sharing with you all of these short essays.
In no particular order, one of the book prizes is awarded for the following essay: congratulations Ludo.
A Stateless Nation? The Rohingya Muslims and their lack of citizenship
by Ludo Findlay
Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The camp is one of three, which house up to 300,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing inter-communal violence in Burma. Source: Wikimedia Commons
During my vacation I visited Myanmar/ Burma and was interested to find out that despite only ‘opening up’ to tourism recently, it was still forbidden for foreigners to visit parts of the country. This piece will focus on one of the ‘closed off’ states, Rakhine, and the Rohingya Muslims who live there, who have been denied legal citizenship of Burma, and who have been increasingly thought to be the subject of an ethnic cleansing (Ratcliffe, 2017). In this report I will explore how the lack of citizenship has affected the Rohingya people, particularly in their lack of rights and their sense of belonging to the country, and why neither the government of Burma nor its neighbouring country Bangladesh have granted the Rohingya people legal citizenship.
The Rakhine state is on the far western side of Burma and borders Bangladesh, with a 1/3rd of its inhabitants being Rohingya Muslims (Smith and Krol, 2017). This is vastly different to the demographics of the country as a whole, with the Rohingya people only make up 3% of the national population. The Rohingya people are the descendants of Arab traders who settled in what we now know as Rakhine State in the 14th Century (Kosem and Saleem, 2016) but despite being ethnically Burmese and having lived there for hundreds of years, they have not been recognised as such in the last 50 years, and consequently have not been granted legal citizenship (Galache, 2017).
This lack of legal citizenship has led to large restrictions placed upon the Rohingya people’s freedom of movement, access to medical assistance and education, leading to them living in conditions which people have deemed apartheid-like (Jaswal, 2017). Furthermore, they are banned from owning land and have been “subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, forced eviction, and house destruction” (Kosem and Saleem, 2016, p212). This has led to unrest amongst the Rohingya people, culminating on an attack against a few Buddhist policemen, in which the Burmese government retaliated with what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing operation, with Rohingya villages being burnt, women raped and children murdered (Nelson, 2012). The Rohingya’s only form of defence has been to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they are too treated as illegal immigrants. Throughout this recent trouble, it is thought that 500,000 Rohingya people have become refugees, half of the Rohingya population (Ratcliffe, 2017).
So why has legal citizenship not been granted to the Rohingya people? In 1962, the military took dictatorial control of the country via a coup d’état and sought to use nationalism as a political tool, thus proliferating the influence of the Bamar, the largest ethnic group in Burma, comprising 70% of its population (Kosem and Saleem, 2016). During this time, the Rohingya people were perceived as foreigners, as they shared more cultural and physical characteristics with Bangladeshis than Burmese people (Kosem and Saleem, 2017, p212). This was most clearly seen by their language, which is very similar to the Bengali dialect of Chittagong (Ratcliffe, 2017), but most importantly they are Muslims, whilst the Bamar ethnicity is allied very closely with Buddhism. As a result of this political nationalist movement, the Rohingya Muslims, amongst other minority ethnic groups, were not granted citizenship, and their descendants continue to be denied it too (Galache, 2017). The official Myanmar government version dictates that the Rohingya were Bangladeshis brought over by the British during the colonial era, when both Bangladesh and Myanmar were controlled by Britain, and thus due to them being brought be the colonists, are illegal immigrants and shouldn’t be regarded as legal citizens (Smith and Krol, 2017). Meanwhile, over in Bangladesh, the country cannot afford to have almost half a million refugees entering the country whilst it itself is in a poor economic position, particularly when it rightly recognises that the Rohingya people are Burmese and not Bangladeshi.
This unique situation has led to the Rohingya population ‘belonging’ nowhere. Belonging can be seen in a geographical sense as primarily social, and is about inclusion and exclusion, rather than a sense of familiarity (Ralph and Staeheli, 2011). Although they share a national past and a homeland with the rest of the Burmese population, their treatment by the government has led them to feel that they do not belong in Burma, largely due to their religious differences with the majority of Burmese people, which affects how they are perceived by the other Burmese ethnic groups (Samer, 2010). Even when a pilot group of Rohingya Muslims were granted legal citizenship in 2012, other ethnic groups still viewed them with suspicion, with certain areas requiring them to have special permits to travel to them (Galache, 2017). I personally experienced this view when discussing the situation with various Burmese people (all of Bamar ethnicity), who did not consider the Rohingya as ethnically Burmese.
In conclusion, it seems that a nationalist movement led by the military junta and centred on the Bamar people, has led to a situation where the Rohingya are seen as foreigners in the only land they have ever known. The lack of citizenship has prevented assimilation into the Burmese culture, and due to the military intent on removing the ‘illegal immigrants’, a terrible genocide is taking place.
Galache, A. (2017) Citizenship for a few, rights for none: the Rohingya in Myanmar [online] Available at: https://www.equaltimes.org/citizenship-for-a-few-rights-for?lang=en#.WcuzAoWcGuU [Accessed on 24th September 2017]
Jaswal, M. (2017) Aliens In Their Own Land [online] Available at: https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/03/the-stateless-humans-of-myanmar/ [Accessed 24th September 2017]
Kosem S., Saleem A. (2016) Religion, Nationalism, and the Rohingya’s Search for Citizenship in Myanmar. In: Mason R. (eds) Muslim Minority-State Relations. The Modern Muslim World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. P.211-212.
Nelson, D (2012) Burma considers citizenship for Rohingya Muslims [online] Accessed at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/burmamyanmar/9648329/Burma-considers-citizenship-for-Rohingya-Muslims.html [Accessed 24th September 2017]
Ralph, D. and Staeheli, L. (2011) ‘Home and migration: mobilities, belongings and identities’ Geography Compass, 5(7): 517-530.
Ratcliffe, R. (2017) Who are the Rohingya and what is happening in Myanmar? [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/sep/06/who-are-the-rohingya-and-what-is-happening-in-myanmar [Accessed 24th September 2017]
Samers (2010) Migration. Abingdon: Routledge
Smith, N. and Krol, C. (2017) Who are the Rohingya Muslims? [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/rohingya-muslims/ [Accessed 24th September 2017]