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Interview: ‘Things have gone backwards, definitely’

A displaced Rohingya woman at an IDP camp outside Sittwe. (Photo DVB)

Chris Lewa, the founder and director of the Arakan Project, was in Geneva this week to as Burma’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) came under review for the first time since 2008. DVB spoke with her on Wednesday to learn more about the review, and about her work with the Arakan Project, which focuses on improving the human rights situation of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living mainly in Arakan State.

Question: When did you found the Arakan Project and how did you become interested in learning more about the Rohingya minority?

Answer: We started the Arakan Project in 1999. What took me there was since 1994, I was working with the Karen in Thailand and the Chin in India, but after so many years of working with different minority groups, I heard of one not that many people were talking about — the Rohingya — and so I wanted to explore that.

Q: How do you conduct your research?

A: We have concentrated all our research work in northern Arakan State. However, after the violence in Sittwe, when about 100,000 people were expelled from their homes and segregated in camps, I started to travel much more often to visit the IDPs near Sittwe.

Initially, we started interviewing people who fled the country, especially new arrivals, about the situation inside the country, but later on, when mobile phones started becoming more common, we started to use the Bangladeshi network. Together with our Rohingya refugee team, we started building contacts in their villages of origin and in other villages, and we tried to create a whole network of sources. In northern Arakan, we always try to cross-check information. Sometimes we have to interview people via phone. People also try to come out to Bangladesh to talk to us.

Q: In your shadow report [for the CEDAW review], you highlight the plight of Rohingya women. How bad is the situation of Rohingya women in Arakan State?

A: It’s a huge problem. Some of the interviews we did were with female heads of households. One was a widow and others had husbands who had disappeared, all for different reasons. One [husband] was called to do forced labour, but [his wife] never heard from him again. When she called the authorities, they said they had seen him in the village. When she disagreed, the authorities alleged that he must have fled or joined insurgent groups and said that if she couldn’t find him, they would arrest her. So you can see the kind of situation women find themselves in. They just get caught, so they are simply too afraid to ask anything.

Q: In the report, you focus on the issues of citizenship, lack of freedom of movement, denial of social services, violence against women, and the lack of access to justice. What do you think is the key issue facing Rohingya women?

A: The citizenship issue to me is key, because if you are not recognised as a citizen, you cannot access your full rights. The Rohingya who claimed citizenship before the 1982 Citizenship Law had documents from the national registration which were the same as all Burmese had across the country. However, now they are in an ambiguous situation.

The previous government organised a pilot survey but one of the conditions was the Rohingya had to identify as Bengalis. Out of those that did so, about 1,000 got citizenship, some got full citizenship under Article 6 [of the Citizenship Law], but others who didn’t have documents were able to access naturalised citizenship. But the Rohingyas do not like naturalised citizenship as it provides for lesser rights — for example, you cannot be an electoral candidate. So Rohingyas generally refuse that.

Q: Has the citizenship situation improved in recent years?

A: On the contrary. The government cancelled all the white temporary cards in February 2015 and the Rohingyas were given a receipt. This paper has no legal value.

Then at the end of May this year, [the government] formed a Rakhine [Arakan] peace and stability central committee to look into Arakan issues with no Rohingya representative and no mention of their tasks. They have restarted the national verification process, which the previous government had done — with the only difference being that the Rohingya don’t have to identify as Bengali any more.

I don’t think the citizenship verification process is the right way to address it. At the same time, there is no transparency from Aung San Suu Kyi and her committee, so how can they expect people to join this process if they don’t even explain the outcome of it? I believe this sovereign citizenship is absolutely necessary. I believe it shouldn’t be looked at on an individual basis but on a group basis.

Q: If registration is such an issue, how many children do you estimate are unregistered?

A: The first issue is the government only imposes the marriage authorisation on the Rohingya. So they have to apply to get official permission before they get married. The recent issue is birth certification, as we found many children were not registered because the parents were married without permission, only in their religious ways. So if they got pregnant without the necessary paperwork then they could be prosecuted. There’s an estimated 60,000 Rohingya who are unregistered. So this is an issue, because if they aren’t registered, they don’t exist, basically. They can’t go to school, travel, or get married when they grow up. Also, there is this new process where document clearance is needed from the police and from immigration. So I express my serious concern that the situation is not improving, it is getting worse.

Q: Have things improved for Rohingya women since the last CEDAW review in 2008?

A: Things have gone backwards, definitely. The violence, 140,000 in segregated camps, additional discriminatory laws — the only progress is this two-child policy — in practice, is no longer implemented. However, the local order that imposed this still remains in effect. Also, it is a bit easier than before to obtain an official marriage authorization. In the past, it could take up to two years and many women who became pregnant without official marriage permission would resort to abortion to escape punishment. We do not hear about so many abortion cases at the moment.

In general, if you look back to the last CEDAW review, all the recommendations that they gave then are still valid today but the government has implemented none of them. And in many cases, the system is worse.