Among Asia’s most discriminated people are the Rohingya, about 1.3 million of whom live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of this Muslim ethnic minority also live in Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia – many in crowded camps.
Almost everywhere they are stateless and the discrimination is even enshrined in government policy in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship despite have lived for generations in western Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s Citizenship Law classifies the Rohingya as illegal Bengali immigrants. Consequently, they receive little or no protection from the police and are unable to marry, move, bear children or take jobs without permission from the government, according to Bangkok-based human rights organization, Fortify Rights.
Since June 2012, there have been several outbreaks of violence in Rakhine in which Rohingyas were targeted by Buddhist extremists. It is estimated that at least 100,000 of the ethnic minority group were displaced in that violence.
ADMCF and funding partner, Firetree Asia Foundation, supported Fortify Rights to produce the first comprehensive report on the Rohingya, Policies of Persecution. That report, based on 12 leaked Myanmar government documents, detailed decades-old restrictions in place against the Rohingya as a response to a perceived “illegal immigration problem” and “threats to national security”. The report also detailed the criminal punishments for Rohingyas who violate restrictions, including years in jail and fines.
The most recent example of discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar started in March with data collection for that country’s first census in four decades. The census for the population estimated at 60 million includes a list of 135 nationalities but excludes the Rohingya, who have been told to self-identify as Bengalis, according to news reports.
The Fortify Rights report, based on information from a network of Southeast Asian human rights defenders, calls for the Myanmar government to abolish its discriminatory
policies, accord Rohingya citizenship and full protection under the law.
Following its release at a press conference in Bangkok, the report received extensive media attention, including from TIME magazine, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and others. It was also covered in regional and Myanmar language outlets.
Several other more comprehensive news stories have since been written about the Rohingya, including by Jane Perlez of the New York Times, all quoting Fortify Rights Executive Director Matthew Smith and using Fortify Rights’ research.
The Report’s findings have also been debated in the UK Parliament and mentioned by UK Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire. He stated in a public speech that the UK shared the concerns of Fortify Rights and was implementing many of the organization’s recommendations to the international community. Those included urging the Myanmar government to cease practices that restrict the basic human rights of the Rohingya.
Locally, some activists in Myanmar are now speaking openly in opposition to the abuses and, according to Matthew, this is unprecedented.
Beyond working to expose the human rights abuse Rohingyas suffer in Myanmar, Fortify Rights is continuing its documentation of the challenges the ethnic minority faces in Thailand and elsewhere as they flee persecution, violence or economic hardship.
Human traffickers take advantage of the Rohingya’s poverty and statelessness, often forcing them into bonded servitude in Thailand. Ill-treatment and even killings are not uncommon, Fortify Rights and others have documented.
In June, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest rank in the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. That put the country on par with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, such as North Korea and Syria and meant Thailand is legally subject to sanctions.
Last month, Matthew was awarded a prestigious Echoing Green fellowship. He was selected out of 3,000 applicants along with the leaders of 41 other organizations globally. Former Echoing Green Global Fellows include the founders of Teach For America, City Year, One Acre Fund, SKS Microfinance and others.