The Rohingya, the Dreamers, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights

By Ann Norman

As the executive director of a Thai human rights organization based in the US, I am finding it hard to worry about Thai human rights right now because of bigger human rights disasters underway in 1) a country neighboring Thailand (on ongoing genocide in Myanmar) and 2) right here at home (the possible expulsion of the Dreamers). I need to talk about these things or give up my claim to care about human rights.

When it comes to human rights principles, the first Article of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights will get you pretty far:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

And Article 2, then clarifies that “EVERYONE is entitled to the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration” without exceptions for “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belong . . .” [emphasis mine].

Two days before the fighting and the burning of whole Rohingya villages and the mass exodous of Rohingya women and children to Banglasdesh (which, by the way, is currently experiencing catastrophic flooding!), I read the results of a UN study on the Rohingya problem, the Final Report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. I read almost the whole thing. It outlined the difficult problem and recommended first steps forward based on human rights principles. But the recommendations came too late for the Rohingya, “The most persecuted people on Earth.” Fighting broke out and Rohingya villages were burned to the ground with survivors fleeing with only the clothes on their backs.

I have been trying to draw attention to the Rohingya crisis for several years, and in my everyday conversations have discovered that 1) few people around me here in the US have ever heard of the Rohingya and 2) interest in this ongoing genocide drops in half once I add the detail that the Rohingya are Muslims. (And to be fair there are many, many other crisis going on in the world.) Nobel Prize Winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi likewise denies and downplays the disaster going on in the Rahkine State of Myanmar, giving liberals an excuse to ignore it as well.

What I am saying to all the people looking the other way is: This is your chance to prove “you would have” helped the Jews during the Holocaust. I put “you would have” in quotation marks because to answer this counterfactual question statistically, we can say “one probably would have” turned their back and let it happen, because that’s what a randomly drawn person of that time did. Later they could say they didn’t know a genocide was going on or that pressures were so great that they couldn’t help.

There are few easy or uncomplicated human rights issues, but that is no excuse not to get started moving in the right direction. The right direction was outlined in the UN document that came days before everything fell apart: allow the Rohingya people free movement within their own country and ensure their safety and security, resettle the displaced back to their villages, register them as citizens, investigate the abuses against Rohingya, let the humanitarian agencies in to help.

The footdragging in moving in this direction is done to create an ethnic cleansing. If the situation is made intolerable for the Rohingya, they will either die or leave. This is literally what many people secretly want. Please don’t secretly be one of them. Ethnic cleansing is made possible by first dehumanizing and deligitimizing a group: They are Muslims, or they are not citizens, and so they are none of our concern. The Rohingya are stateless, which means that even their own country won’t claim responsibility for them. But the world is responsible. They are our brothers and sisters, as noted in Article 1 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Which brings me to my main point: By law the Rohingya are no one’s responsibility; and by law, the Dreamers, who grew up in the US thinking of themselves as Americans, have to go “home” –-and this is because THE LAWS ARE BAD. What comes first are HUMANS and their human rights. The laws are made by humans and should be made and adjusted to recognize the rights of humans, which are primary. You will notice that the human rights listed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights are not created by laws, they are RECOGNIZED by laws, or not. And if not, you still HAVE those rights. It is just that they are being abused.

As for the Dreamers, they are all races and ethnicities and religions and colors. But they are being demonized and dehumanized by the label “illegal”. People should not be illegal just by their very existence in a country, apart from anything they have done. The instinct to kick out the Dreamers from the US is the same as the instinct to kick out the Rohingya from Burma, or the instinct to kick out the Jews from Nazi Germany. They are “not like us” is the message. It is tribal thinking, and we have to break out of it by following a moral code put together by a coalition of 48 countries from around the world, including the United States and Thailand.

Finally, if you have not read the UN Declaration of Human Rights, you may imagine it is full of peace and love and wishful thinking. But it is not that. Read the preamble and you see it is grounded in reality and with very urgent and practical aims: furthering human welfare and avoiding war. If our laws are fair, upholding the rule of law is going to be made a lot easier. And if human rights are not protected by the rule of law, man may be “compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression . . .” (to turn part of the preamble to the declaration around).

I am reminded of a Thai song (of course), from the first Carabao album, called ปลาใหญ่ ปลาน้อย“Big Fish, Little Fish” written by คมสันต์ ดวงสูงเนิน Khomsan Duangsungnoen. It’s about the law of the jungle, and the very different laws that humans can make together. So “Create and build the laws, people!”

[My translation:]

Deep in the great basin of the of the ocean
As wide as you can see or hear
Life counts this as its birthplace
To swim around, die, be born, it’s ordinary
To pass away, it’s ordinary
It’s a law. It’s a law.

One animal has a body large and bold
Has great strength and is totally savage
Devouring the small animals, so they die and are gone*
It is natural law that brings it about
Big fish eat little fish
Big animals eat little animals
It’s a law . . . Not [for] people

Look around at human society
Having hands that overflow with merit/virtue
People have honesty shining
The light of Dharmic truth heed as a golden light

Help and aid each other, brothers and sisters
Compassionately support/maintain the world, brothers and sisters
You’re not various [pieces of] dead wood, you’re friends
Hearts will glow with a golden color
Confidence will arrive plentifully

Big fish are friends with little fish
Big animals are friends with little animals
It’s a law . . . create/build the laws together, people!

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