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Rakibul Hasan: Time to speak out

Rakibul Hasan: Time to speak out

Highlighting the plight of Rohingya refugees

Image above: Rohingya protesters raise awareness at the G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, 2014

In Myanmar, scores of Rohingyas are being murdered everyday. Others are escaping Myanmar for Bangladesh or left floating on the ocean – without food, medicine, shelter and other basic needs –trying to reach safe destinations. Rakibul Hasan explains why and calls for action. Have your say at the bottom of the page.

Myanmar continues to ignore all UN standards that recognise minimum citizen rights for human beings. All Myanmarese people should be able to self-identify their ethnicity, but Myanmar classifies the Rohingyas as Bengalis in its census.

History shows that the Rohingyas first migrated to the kingdom of Arakan – which is now the Rakhine state – in the eighth century, more than a thousand years ago. But the Myanmar state claims Rohingyas were settled by the British from 1824 to 1948 from different parts of India, including present day Bangladesh. According to Myanmarese Citizenship Law, anyone settled in the 112 years of British rule, cannot be considered citizens of Myanmar. They claim Rohingyas are Bangladeshi. This is like saying that Australians of British descent, are British because their ancestors first came from Britain.


For Rohingyas, the problem is not only that Myanmar classifies them as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Bangladesh identifies Rohingyas as “undocumented foreigners” because they were neither born, nor are they naturalised, in Bangladesh. Thus they become stateless.

Boys and girls sitting in a blue room

Rohingya children. Image credit: Lufti Hakim

But it does not end there. Myanmar puts restrictions on Rohingyas’ marital and reproductive rights. They are denied the right to speak their language even though they are registered in the census as Bengali. Hence, they start losing their distinct cultural heritage and lingual identity. Rohingyas used to write their Rohingyalish scripts and speak with distinctive accents and vernacular.

Divide and rule

By denationalising the Rohingyas, Myanmar pursues two calculated goals. First, it creates legal grounds to deport Rohingyas to Bangladesh. Second, the undemocratic regime tries to win strategic support from rightwing Buddhist nationalists to perpetuate the military rule in Myanmar. 

The United Nations (UN) estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar to be nearly one million. A UN report from June 2016 states, “Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in Rakhine State.” It adds that this is one of the poorest states.

The Rohingyas live in segregated camps with no access to jobs, education or medical care. After 2013 riot, around 140,000 Rohingyas were displaced and many of them fled to two UNHCR camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. The exodus still continues. Today up to 500,000 Rohingyas live illegally in Bangladesh and approximately 200,000 Rohingyas among them are believed to have settled outside the camps in different parts of Bangladesh.

Truth and consequence

Bangladesh is already overpopulated and the authorities strongly oppose taking in more Rohingyas. But about 70% Rohingyas who are staying in Bangladeshi refugees camps refuse to return to Myanmar ever in their lifetime. 

Moreover, babies born in the refugee camps cannot be repatriated. Bangladesh cannot ignore them anymore and Myanmar will never take them back. Traumatised, fear-stricken and deprived, some Rohingyas in the camps end up involved in antisocial mischief. They may turn to drug dealing in cities or commit crimes as mercenaries. Thus they tarnish the image of Bangladesh –as Bangladeshi passport holders – particularly in the Middle East. And this makes Bangladesh increasingly reluctant to welcome them in.

Small boy begging on the side of a street

Royingya refugee boy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image credit: Naz Amir

If Myanmar doesn’t find a way to settle this issue, I fear the escalating crises around Rohingyas may attract outsiders to intervene. Some Rohingyas may choose the path of insurgency or separatism. Some may join militant organisations, such as the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF),  Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) and Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO).

In our hands

I still have some hope. Martial law is rarely popular and military rule depends on the policy of divide and rule.  So, as military regimes do not represent the majority of people or their choices, they are not an indication of what most Myanmarese people think about Rohingya issues.

I hope that under the democratic leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, people will find common ground and speed up the process of granting citizenship to Rohingyas.  Rohingyas could be proud Myanmarese too. Give them the opportunities, respect and equality of citizenship that they deserve simply for being human, and in return Myanmar will get loyalty and dedication.

The international community – the last resort of peace and stability – must help democratise and stabilise Myanmar. The United Nations must restore trust among all the people of the world, as some believe it is reluctant to support persecuted Muslims.

Each and everyone of us should go through the true narratives of history, to make us wise and rational. Identity tags and names dehumanise people and bring collective punishment to innocent people for the crimes of few perpetrators. Tags and names prevent us from accepting our fellow humans. There must be more debate and discussion about how to stop hate, racism, genocide and persecution.

If we do not raise our voices now, then when?