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The State Of “No-Land’s Man”: The Human Rights Of Rohingyas

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Every human being holds fundamental rights, which is called human rights, as enshrined in the international legal framework and globally endorsed legal system. The UN Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 says that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedom outlined in this declaration without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, birth, or another status. Human beings enjoy human rights locally and globally under the premise of global justice.

However, many states worldwide are marked as violators of human rights whilst they are supposed to be protectors. Thousands of people experience serious human rights violations across the world where states play catalyst and perpetrators. To gain a better understanding of the issue, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organized a dialogue on The State of Economic Development in South Asia on the topic The State of “No-Land’s Man”: The Human Rights of Rohingyas. The lecture was delivered by Professor Nasir Uddin, Professor, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Professor Nasir Uddin, Professor, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh, said that human rights are those activities, conditions, liberty, and freedom that all human beings are entitled to enjoy by their humanity or as a human being. These are civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. These rights cannot be taken away and must be respected by all. However, only governments can put in place the laws and policies necessary to protect human rights.

The History Of Myanmar And The Rohingyas

Professor presented the background and history of the Rohingya people. The Rohingyas are an ethnolinguistic and religious minority living in Myanmar for centuries. The Rohingyas inhabit the northern part of Rakhine State (Arakan). Before 25 August 2017, more than one million Rohingyas lived in Myanmar, and now the number is around 0.4 million. Earlier, Bangladesh inhabited about 0.5 million Rohingyas, and now it houses more than 1.3 million.

Professor presented a brief history of Myanmar. Myanmar became independent in 1948. In 1954, Rohingyas were close to having their autonomy under a democratic government, but it was prevented by a military coup of General Ne Win in 1962. Since 1962, Rohingyas have been subjected to exploitation, persecution, and discrimination. These Muslims were removed and barred from occupying various civil posts.

There were restrictions on their movement, and their property and land were confiscated. Between 1962 – 1988, General Ne Win banned all Rohingya socio-cultural organizations and expelled them from the country. In 1978, the General launched ‘Operation Dragon’ that forced 250,000 Rohingyas to enter Bangladesh.

Arakan (pictured above) was an area in the Northern state of Rakhine where the Rohingyas lived.

The Myanmar Citizenship Law 1982 granted nationality to 135 nationals excluding Rohingyas. Since 1991, more than 1.1 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh. According to Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1928), everyone has the right to a nationality, and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Professor said that this is the first case of human rights violation and questioned why 12 million people are stateless.

The Myanmar Citizenship Law And The Rohingya Exodus

According to the Myanmar Citizenship Law, citizens whose ancestors lived in Burma (Myanmar) before British occupation in 1824 are entitled to citizenship. Since Rohingyas settled in the Arakan state during the British colonial period, they are ‘illegal Bengali migrants’ and hence not entitled to citizenship. He argued that Rohingyas are descendants of Moorish, Arab and Persian traders, and preachers; Mughal, Turk, Pathan, and Bengali soldiers cum migrants, who arrived between the 9th and 19th century in the Arakan. Professor also talked about the vast literature and history, which provides evidence about Rohingyas’ presence before the British colonization of Myanmar.

There were several reasons due to which Rohingyas fled Myanmar. Their living conditions were atrocious. Their land and material resources were confiscated. There were restrictions on their movement, education, and marriage. They were not given the freedom and liberty to lead a human life. They experienced intense brutality and genocide in Myanmar.

60 percent of the Rohingya villages have been burnt down. Major settlements of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state have been destroyed. Even in Bangladesh, they do live under inhumane conditions. They live in plastic tents. There is hardly any access to education for children and no opportunities for young adults. They do not have any access to healthcare or nutritional food. There is no security for women and children. They do not possess any right to work or movement in the host nation as well. So, Rohingyas have been demoted to a life of “subhuman.”

Many Rohingya people were forced to leave Myanmar and live in subhuman camps in Bangladeshi refugee camps.

Professor pointed out that human civilization’s history is the history of migration, and citizenship should not be related to when individuals arrive in the country. Myanmar excluding Rohingyas from citizenship is a complete violation of Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also mentioned that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not the law but the guidelines which every signatory state ought to follow while making their laws and regulations. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are signatory states of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Repatriation And A View To The Future

He also mentioned that there were two attempts made for their repatriation but failed. Therefore, the future of Rohingyas is uncertain. From the very beginning, Bangladesh has been trying to send the Rohingyas back, which is the only option for Bangladesh. UN has failed in salvaging the Rohingyas as its permanent members China and Russia used their veto power prohibiting any action against Myanmar. He also said that migration was motivated by economic interpretations and in search of better livelihood once upon a time. It is now motivated by the fact that the state has become intolerant of cultural and religious differences.

Professor Utpal K De, Professor, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, while moderating the session, pointed out that according to Myanmar, only those people who were in Myanmar before 1824 are only bonafide citizens of Myanmar. He said that irrespective of whether an individual was staying in Myanmar since before 1824 or not (who have already died) and their next generations have contributed to the country’s development, how their present generations cannot consider as citizens.

Citizenship comes either by birth or if somebody or his/her forefathers have been living in a country for over a generation. He also pointed out that there are countries where if somebody lives for over five years and contributes to their welfare, he/she becomes eligible for citizenship. Most of the Rohingyas have been living there for centuries to be automatically citizens by birth. Professor De also questioned UNO’s role and surrounding powerful countries in finding a solution to Rohingyas’ plight, which may also enter into the socio-economic problems of neighbors like Bangladesh, India, China, etc.

Dr. Ken MacLean said international human rights law is about a global framework that explains the states’ rights and obligations towards people within their boundaries. Still, the concept of national race through which Myanmar defined its citizenship is biological, and therefore there is a clear conflict between a legal concept and a racialized biological one.

Dr. MacLean questioned how you resolve this conflict between a local definition and a global citizenship definition. Dr. MacLean also questioned that if third-country resettlement is not possible for Rohingyas, then they either have a protracted stay in Bangladesh, which Bangladesh is apprehensive about, or they are repatriated to Myanmar, which is problematic due to the politics, violence, ethnonational extremists, and legal obstacles including the 1982 citizenship law and Rakhine state laws.

If Rohingyas are to be repatriated, it has to be safe, voluntary, and dignified. Dr. MacLean also raised a question about the role of neighboring countries in the region like India, China, and other Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia who also host a country to many Rohingyas if they have a positive or negative impact in trying to find a solution that works for Myanmar, Bangladesh and especially Rohingyas.

Dr. MacLean also raised Rakhine Buddhists in similar conditions and faced similar discrimination as the Rohingyas. In their perspective, they are neglected, whereas the Rohingyas do get international attention. He also said that the Myanmar 1982 citizenship law does not explicitly say to exclude Rohingya, but it is obvious that they are being excluded. The 2014 census also says that around 20 percent of the people, irrespective of their ethnicity, do not have proper IDs and documentation.

Dr. Simi Mehta raised an important question on the International Court of Justice’s role and the Idea of Nobel Peace Prize certification to the leader of Myanmar where the Rohingyas have been demoted to a sub-human life, and there are attempts made to wipe their entire identity and history.

Dr. Arjun Kumar raised an important question that similar contestations have happened on many continents across the world hence if there is any particular characteristic to South Asia than the rest of the world.

On a question of recent shifting of a group of Rohingyas from refugee camp to Bhasan Char (newly came up island) near Cox’s Bazar of a possible further livelihood crisis under climate uncertainty, he replied of decades observation and examination of possible habitation in the island.

Moreover, he pointed out the failure of repatriation of several families was due to their reluctance to return to uncertain life and face untoward incidents in the current situation of Myanmar, which of course has some similarity with a large number of some ethnic groups of people migrated from Bangladesh or erstwhile east-Pakistan and settled to India, who have been reluctant to return to their birthplace and avoid the uncertainty of their life. However, there are noticeable improvements in socio-economic life and livelihood in present-day Bangladesh.

By Utpal K De, Dr. Simi Mehta, Tanya Agrawal, and Ritika Gupta, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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