Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and distinguished members of the committee, for inviting me to speak on the Rohingya human rights situation in Myanmar.
You have already presented my introduction and the work of the Arakan Project, so I will move immediately to a brief overview of the current political situation and challenges in Myanmar, especially with regard to the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
After just one month of government, it would be a bit too early to speculate on the NLD's, the National League for Democracy's, approach to the conflict in Rakhine State, but shortly after the election, the NLD already declared that this will not be a priority. As yet, there is no indication as to whether the NLD will combat anti-Muslim campaigns organized by radical monks in the country, or whether they will challenge the four controversial religious laws promulgated under President Thein Sein. However, the first signs are not very encouraging.
Indeed, the NLD appointed a minister for religious affairs who suggested that Muslims should be no more than associate citizens, and at the same time interfaith activists received additional prison sentences. This week also nationalists amassed outside the U.S. embassy to protest the use of the term “Rohingya” in a U.S. statement and threatened to organize a much larger rally if the government does not react. The foreign ministry under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly made a request to the U.S. embassy to refrain from using the term, therefore bowing down to the nationalists' demands.
At the state level in Rakhine State, the NLD leads a minority government and the selection of an NLD chief minister has been strongly contested by the Arakan National Party, which is the Rakhine Party, which won the majority of parliamentary seats in the election in Rakhine State. This has resulted in internal division within the ANP when the hard-line faction declared that they would oppose the NLD. Moreover, armed conflict is now escalating between the Myanmar army and the Arakan army, also forcing Rakhine villagers into displacement. So the NLD leverage in Rakhine State is thus particularly weak, caught between the military and Rakhine nationalists.
I will move on to the human rights situation, but first I would like to make three related points.
First, the conflict in Rakhine State is long-standing, multi-dimensional and also triangular, involving Rakhine Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims, and the Myanmar government, with distrust and tensions on all sides. Rakhine sees the Rohingya as an existential threat and hostility has grown since Burma's independence, while successive governments over several decades have gradually imposed policies of persecution and exclusion against the Rohingya.
Second, the current and ongoing conflict is related to both ethnicity and religion. Constitutionally and legally, discrimination is based on ethnic identity, but religion is used as the mobilizing force on the ground. For example, the Kamans, a small Muslim group from Rakhine State who are recognized as citizens, we also attacked, in 2012, and today remain segregated with the Rohingya in the same displacement camps.
Third, the human rights situation faced by the Rohingya varies in different areas of Rakhine State. For example, in northern Rakhine where the Rohingya constitute 90% of the population, they have experienced little communal unrest and no major displacement since 2012, but abuses were mostly perpetrated by security forces. In the rest of Rakhine, violence was widespread and resulted in forced displacement and segregation brought by the authorities.
I will now analyze the present human rights situation thematically.
First, I will talk about citizenship. The 1982 citizenship law has rendered the Rohingya stateless and they are not among the 135 ethnic groups recognized by the government. Actually, the government and most of the Myanmar public refer to them as Bengali, and claim that they are foreigners from Bangladesh. In the 1990s, the Rohingya were issued with a temporary ID card, which was cancelled by President Thein Sein in 2015. Today, the receipts they hold provide no rights and have no legal basis. The only document they have is a family list.
Since 2014, the government has embarked on a citizenship verification process in which the Rohingya are forced to self-identify as Bengali. About 1,000 of them were granted naturalized citizenship in Myebon, but this has not given them freedom of movement. Elsewhere, the Rohingya refused to even participate in this process, but the few who did have not received any response. This exercise has now completely stalled.
Last January the immigration authorities announced new burdensome regulations for registering Rohingya children in their parents' family list. Most poor families would be unable to meet these requirements and associated costs, and their children are likely to remain completely unregistered. On the other hand, there has been no birth registration at all in all the Rohingya displacement camps elsewhere in Rakhine State. The Rohingya are now undocumented and totally disenfranchised. They were excluded from the population census in 2014 and denied the right to participate in the national election last year.
Second is forced labour and extortion. Forced labour has greatly reduced in recent years, but is still practised by the army for camp maintenance, sentry duty, and portering. Extortion is a really serious and ongoing culture all across the state.
Third is freedom of religion. In northern Rakhine, the 2012 curfew order is still in effect and targets only Muslims, as it prohibits gathering at mosques, but not at monasteries. As a result, mosques, madrasahs, and maktabs have remained closed for the past four years, and Muslims have been prevented from performing collective prayer and religious ceremonies. The security forces have also recently dismantled two mosques and destroyed a Rohingya graveyard.
Fourth is freedom of movement and residence. Severe restriction of movement is to prevent the Rohingya access to livelihoods. In northern Rakhine, the Rohingya must obtain travel authorization to move even between villages, and cannot, of course, move beyond the two townships over there. In addition, constant demands for bribes and the curfew further restrict the ability to move. Some 110,000 Rohingya and Kamans are strictly confined today in segregated displacement camps from other parts of Rakhine State. The restriction of movement also applies to those still in their villages as well as about 25,000 internally displaced Rohingya, ostensibly for security reasons.
Fifth is access to services. Access to health care and education is abysmal. In northern Rakhine, the local hospitals are neglected and ill equipped and Buddhist medical practitioners regularly discriminate against Rohingya patients. Moreover, travel permission and bribes at checkpoints further complicate the access to health facilities. Tens of thousands of Rohingya in Sittwe camps have access to only one clinic attended by two medical doctors. Other camps rely on mobile medical teams organized by international NGOs. For emergency referrals, Sittwe hospital has a special ward for Rohingya, but they have to be transferred there under military escort. The situation has led to many preventable deaths, including women with complicated pregnancies.
As for education, learning centres have been established in the displacement camps, but lack qualified teachers, and an estimated 60,000 Rohingya children are deprived of a formal education. In northern Rakhine, many Buddhist teachers did not return to their posts after the 2012 unrest. The shortage of teachers and school materials, overcrowded classrooms, discrimination, and poverty have kept many Rohingya children out of school. In addition, as I already mentioned, Muslim religious education institutions have been closed down.
As far as university education is concerned, that's totally off-limits nowadays to all Rohingya everywhere in Rakhine State. For the displaced Rohingya access to water and sanitation, access to adequate shelter, and of course, livelihood are other issues of concern. Food rations have recently been reduced, apparently due to funding caps. The humanitarian situation in the Rohingya camps is simply totally unacceptable.
Now let me quickly move on to women's rights and children's rights. I have already mentioned some issues. Violence against women is pervasive by state actors, by Rakhine, but also within the Rohingya community. Incidence of rape, especially by security forces, increased after the 2012 unrest. Desperation also has led to the flight of many Rohingya women and children, putting them at great risk of being trafficked.
I know the time is up, so I will very quickly comment on mass migration and responses in the region.
It is one year after the regional maritime crisis of late 2015, and today, still more than 340 Rohingya in Malaysia, and another 300 Rohingya in Thailand remain in prolonged immigration detention, with little hope to be released. Only in Aceh, Indonesia, rescued boat people from last year have been accommodated in camps and assisted more or less properly, but of course many of them have already fled the camps in Indonesia in order to join family or friends or whomever in Malaysia.
Since May 2015, maritime movement has virtually stopped after Thailand and other countries in the region disrupted smuggling networks, but somehow Rohingya are now trapped in Rakhine State.
I would have liked to talk more about my recommendations, but I have provided them in writing. In so as far as the recommendations to the Canadian government are concerned, just let me say that the Arakan Project fully endorses the set of recommendations put forward to the new government in Myanmar by Ms. Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
I am now ready to answer any questions you may have.
That is a difficult question because I'm not personally [Inaudible—Editor
] to the point of pushing for trade sanctions, but definitely increase humanitarian assistance. That's for sure. That would be one of my main concerns at the moment, because during my recent trip to Myanmar, I understand that the international community seems to have, and the donor community, as well, some fatigue about the situation, and of course I'm looking for a way to try to get things moving.
One of the discussions I have heard of is about trying to move a bit away from simple humanitarian assistance, like blanket humanitarian assistance, and to move to early recovery and then development assistance. I question how development assistance can benefit the Rohingya if they cannot move and go anywhere. I still feel it is important that the Canadian government as well as other donor countries continue to guarantee that, at the minimum, humanitarian assistance will continue to be directed to the Rohingya in the camps and elsewhere, where it's needed.
At the same time, I also have been told that the World Food Programme, for example, is experiencing funding cuts, and as a result they have now decided to shift their blanket food assistance to more targeted assistance to vulnerable people. I didn't mention this in my testimony, but there are also a number of internally displaced persons—IDPs, as we call them—in the camps. They have not been assisted by the authorities for several reasons, including because they arrived later than others. For these people, of course, there was the sharing of rations already, which has been reduced, as I mentioned.
The situation of the Rohingya, displaced, and others has definitely reached the brink already. Cutting humanitarian assistance to them, also threats to try to push the government to find some solution, to me, are definitely not appropriate. I have very particular concerns about that. I want to make sure that assistance from the international community will continue. I know there are a lot of cuts nowadays because of the many crises in the global arena, but I'm trying to find a solution for the crisis.
My last discussion was about the head of mission group that was set up in Yangon. It included the Swedish ambassador. I think it was led by the Danish ambassador, but also there was very strong participation by the U.S. ambassador as well as a European representative, the U.K, if I remember well, and Turkey. I didn't see Canada as part of that. They seem to be pushing a plan now, which unfortunately, they did not release to me, but which included short-term, mid-term, and long-term steps to reach a solution. The key message they did reveal [Inaudible—Editor] is coordination in addressing the issue of freedom of movement and access to services as a priority.
Nevertheless, I have some comments on that, because obviously freedom of movement and access to [Inaudible—Editor] are intrinsically related to citizenship. Seeing that the citizenship issue, as I also described in my testimony, really is stalled and stuck at the moment, I do not want to see the international community actually forget about the citizenship issue just because it seems an intractable issue.
Yes, that's why pressure is needed, and I think constant pressure. I assume also that the NLD government will probably be able to get some more support in terms of business contracts and other things. I think that foreign governments should definitely not forget the situation in Rakhine State. It should remain high on the agenda.
Yes. First of all, I mentioned this group of ambassadors in Yangon, which is called the head of mission group. It includes ambassadors from a number of countries. The group includes also a couple of NGOs, such as Save the Children and the Danish Refugee Council. It seems to me it would be a good idea for the international community that's there to actually try to have a concerted and coordinated response, and act as a messenger to [Inaudible—Editor
] the government. That's what I wanted to say.
In terms of recommendations specifically for the Canadian government, it would be really difficult for me to say exactly, but I definitely would recommend that the Canadian government continue to closely monitor the human rights situation, the humanitarian situation, the political situation in Rakhine State, and to engage proactively and consistently with the Myanmar government in addressing issues.
I also think that the Canadian government should condemn in a public statement when there are incidents of violence against religious and ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya. Obviously, I think that in terms of support and funding, I know that the Canadian government already participated in the humanitarian effort, but I'm sure there are ways to step it up as well, and at least continue it.
Another issue, too, is in terms of refugees. Canada was the first country to actually do resettlement for Rohingya, initially from the Bangladesh refugee camp. As you know, Bangladesh has now closed totally the resettlement program from the camp, but Malaysia is still doing resettlement, and actually has increased the quota of resettlement of Rohingyan refugees, mostly to the United States. Perhaps Canada could also contribute to these efforts and provide a more durable solution, and resettlement would be one of them, to people who are already in exile, and especially vulnerable people. That's also a reason why Rohingya are moving sometimes from refugee camp to refugee camp, from one country to another; they are frustrated and are trying to find a solution.
I haven't had the time to talk much about the refugee situation in the region, but as you know, none of the countries there have signed the refugee convention, and basically see them as illegal migrants. For the Rohingya who are stateless, I think there's almost no hope of returning to Myanmar one day. They are hopeful, but in talking already about the trouble inside the country, expecting that the refugees will be able to return in the short term, I think, is totally unrealistic. Children are born in exile to families year after year, so I would suggest that Canada review the resettlement of Rohingya refugees as well.
Those are some of the main recommendations I can think of. Those were in my original list that I was unable to put in my statement.
Yes, and it's not only the constitution itself. Actually the constitution basically made no reference to people who are not recognized as citizens in the country. I think there is an absolute need for legislative reform and to review all the laws that are discriminatory and bring them in line with international human rights. One of these would be the 1982 citizenship law. As you know, it puts people into three categories. Also there is the fact that the Rohingya are not recognized as an ethnic group and because of their ethnicity they have no access to citizenship. Actually, the law does provide some access but it's very limited. For example, section 6 claims that everyone who was recognized as a citizen before the law came into effect would remain a citizen. The other issue related to that law is basically how it is used in practice. That is, of course, the main problem, because the government nowadays does not even accept that the Rohingya did at one point at least receive the same [Inaudible—Editor
] as other citizens in Myanmar.
On top of this, of course, they try to promote naturalized citizenship as one avenue, but they have opposed that in a way because first of all it offers fewer rights, with respect to elections for example, but mainly to apply for that citizenship, the Rohingya need to speak fluently....
For example, there are several requirements and criteria for fluency in the national language, and obviously since the Rohingya are not recognized as an ethnic group, neither is their language recognized as a national language which means that [Inaudible—Editor] exercise I mentioned led to 1,000 receiving citizenship. These are people in different situations [Inaudible—Editor] in northern Rakhine [Inaudible—Editor] people that have been living a long time. They are a very small minority but they must speak Rakhine, which is the national language. In northern Rakhine, 80% of the Rohingya do not speak it, so they would automatically be rejected from naturalized citizenship.
I think the solution in terms of citizenship is to find a way—I'm not a lawyer myself—to provide equal access to everyone on a group basis to citizenship rights.
I know the Rohingya are very strongly advocating to have the name “Rohingya” recognized. I understand why they want that, because in Myanmar if you are not a member of an ethnic group, and with the constitution and legislative system as well, there's no way you can access people's rights. At the same time [Inaudible—Editor] about the Rakhine especially who see that as a demand also for future territorial claim.
Perhaps to me the most important thing is that the Rohingya have access to citizenship of Myanmar [Inaudible—Editor] for the time being whether it will be a demand for recognition on an ethnic basis. Based on their long-standing history of staying in Myanmar, they should have access somehow to citizenship. How that actually would be applied in practice I don't have a ready-made solution, unfortunately.