Denial of Rohingya identity and their right to internal self-determination | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 16, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:10 AM, February 16, 2021

Law Vision

Denial of Rohingya identity and their right to internal self-determination

Rohingya's plight surrounding non-recognition is as old as the history of colonialism in South Asia and South East Asia. Their identity crisis has gone through clinical strategies and oppression forwarded by Myanmar government at different times. Historically, Rohingyas are designated as Kalar or Kula (lower class of people in a society) by the supremacist Buddhist believers. Undermining the Rohingya identity by disowning and calling them illegal immigrants is a part of 'Theravada Buddhism' that later turned into chauvinism in Myanmar.

From 1784 to 1942, King Budapawa, Anglo-Burmese Wars, Japanese invasion, Burmese Independence Army's operations somehow targeted the Rohingyas and focused on their identity extermination at different times of history. They were internally displaced from Eastern part of Arakan to Northern part of Arakan, fled to the Bengal and adjacent countries during these atrocities. Their struggle of self-determination started after the end of colonial period when they sought attachment with Pakistan, which became impossible too after Aung San's assassination. Later though they formed groups for political and social recognition in Myanmar, General Ne Win's regime technically reposed them and banned all sorts of political parties of the Rohingyas. Gradually they were left out of the national census of Myanmar. Eventually strategic denial comes into effect in black letters too.

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Emergency Immigration Act 1974 was passed to issue national registration certificate and foreign registration certificate to curtail illegal immigration from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. During this process, Rohingyas were offered foreign registration certificate only. To substantiate the extermination process, Burmese government started 'Operation Nagamin' to evict foreign nationals from the country. Those who were given foreign registration certificate were declared illegal immigrants and foreigners. The whole operation caused mass refugee influx in Bangladesh. Modus operandi of this operation was to exclude Rohingyas and their ethnicity in 'The Citizenship Act 1982', to increase relatability and reasonableness of the Act. Identity denial finally came into existence by the alteration of the name of Arakan to Rakhine by State Peace and Development Council in 1988. The rest of the atrocities and clearance operations is witnessed by the whole world contemporarily.

A whole race lost their ethnic identity and political recognition due to its religion in own country. Though, they struggled for their self-determination at several times, it had not sufficed for them in the absence of a clear trajectory of how self-determination would actually be exercised within the territory of a country, how actually right to internal self-determination will come into effect in the case of Rohingyas.

Article 1(2) of the United Nations Charter 1945, 'Declaration on Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (GA Resolution 1514) 1960', Conference on the Security and Co-operation in Europe Final Act 1975 and Article 3 of the 'United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People' have defined right to self-determination as a customary principle under international legal regime. To safeguard ethnicities around the world we need to capitalise and expand the aspects of 'right to external self-determination' to 'right to internal self-determination'.

Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples 1976 (Algiers Declaration) defines right to internal self-determination as a means for a particular group (ethnic or religious) to determine its political, economic and social status within a country. Denying the separate status of a race somehow justifies unilateral secession. But Rohingyas' never pleaded for unilateral secession rather their struggle always aspired for identity determination through legal, social, and political practice within the country. Also, Principle (e) of Declaration on friendly relations among states 1970 defines self-determination inclusively that actually implies that self-determination may be both external self-determination and internal self-determination.

Generally external self-determination is the right to have a separate state along with other necessary credentials; whereas internal self-determination means the right of an individual group in pursuance of ethnicity to have themselves identified with political status to encompass heterogeneity and multiculturalism as a means of their cultural and political recognition. It also requires participation in election through their representatives. Internal self-determination advocates for equal participation in politics and other functions of state by an ethnicity. For this we need to determine, whether Rohingyas are a ethnic group or not? We may find this answer in the provisional measures forwarded in 'The Gambia v. Myanmar' by International Court of Justice. The court referred the Rohingyas as 'protected group' under Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948. When a race has racial, religious, national or ethnic belonging, it should be considered as a protected group. International legal regime accepted Rohingya's ethnicity and then the whole process was termed 'textbook example of ethnic cleansing'. But the remoter interpretations do not suffice to establish 'right to international self-determination'. Comprehensive and clear articulation is required to establish this new jurisprudence apart from interpretation.

On the whole, from this discussion we may define self-determination in two aspects. Broadly it depicts unilateral secession of a state if political, social or religious system is disturbed by the governing body. In the narrower sense it means social and legal recognition on the basis of historical or hereditary identity. Refusing this identity is a benefactor of ethnic cleansing, what we witnessed in the case of Rohingyas. The process of external self-determination in many cases begin with the claims of internal self-determination within a particular territory. The same process designates ethnic minorities as illegal immigrants and foreign nationals to appease economic instinct and majoritarian communal belief of a country. Rohingyas are the victim of this fractionalisation, identity denial, non-recognition- all resulting in ethnic cleansing.

To ensure right to internal self-determination, scholars may endeavor to explore the jurisprudence of self-determination for procuring the ethnicities around the world along with rohingyas to assist the world court. ICJ may expand the definition of right to self-determination when giving final relief in the case of 'The Gambia v. Myanmar' for the mainstreaming of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Moreover, other international parent agencies of human rights may focus on the possibilities to establish the practice of right to internal self-determination across the globe to save ethnic races from perils.

The writer is Lecturer, Department of Law, Feni University.

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