The Principle of Self-Determination is one of the most important ideas in 20th century political history. It relates to the creation of new States out of the old colonial empires, to the sovereignty of Peoples and to the very basis of UN itself. Self-Determination is an essential human right, supported in the opening articles of both the major Covenants as well as in the Charter of the UN.
Self-determination emerged in the 19th century through nationalism in countries which were then parts of empires. It was an idea formed in opposition to those empires, linking up with the idea of democracy and self-rule.
The epoch of overseas colonialism has almost come to an end through the growth and development of colonial self-determination. This decolonisation of traditional colonies has not rendered the right of self-determination obsolete. In this post colonial period the issue of self-determination arises in different contexts. The emergence of Bangladesh and East Timor as independent sovereign states effectively disprove the proposition that self-determination has no relevance beyond colonial context. The UN Charter strongly embodied the Principle of self-determination. Self-determination, one of the most basic human rights, is usually only achieved after considerable difficulty.
The right of self-determination is derived from the effort of countless individuals and organisations over hundreds of years who fought for that principle. Some of this fighting still goes on today. The broader aspects of self-determination do not depend on decisions of the UN. They will be made by the peoples concerned in their own way and in their own time. Self-determination has been regarded as an inherent right of all people freely to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
In contemporary international relations, few controversial matters of international law have attracted the attainment and concern of the world community as intensely as has the right of people to self-determination. This is partly due to UN decolonisation policies and partly due to the growing awareness of the independent peoples to determine their own destiny.
Many colonial peoples and territories throughout the world have become independent through the growth and development of the right to self-determination. Borders of these new states were delimited by the colonial powers. This demarcation selfdom compiled with ethnic distributions. This in fact created a host of new states with plural societies. These multi-racial sates are now in turn the target of growing demands for self-determination. The preservation of order and the administration of justice are conceived to be the pre-eminent tasks of international law. They are interdependent. Justice can not be administered unless order is restored. Similarly order can not be sustained permanently if justice is denied. An effective balance between them is therefore imperative.
Ever since Burma became independent, the Burmese government or the military perpetuated gross violations of human rights in Arakan by mass-killing and property destruction. Hundreds and thousands of terrified people went across the border and took shelter in Bangladesh and in other countries. This refugee burden inflicted heavy pressure on the economy of those countries, particularly Bangladesh. It constitutes an actual threat to international peace and security. Violations of human rights as a domestic affairs of a country is no more available in contemporary international law. Similarly it has no legal merit as to the validation of Burma's plea of domestic jurisdiction.
It is necessary at the outset to see how the political process and power politics working in Burma since independence. Most of the problems and tensions that Burma encountered existed in their embryonic form during independence movement and at the early hours of independent Burma itself.
Burmese independence was achieved notwithstanding many unresolved issues. Aung San faced the policy of positive policy formulation in integrating diverse peoples into one polity. During Burmese independence movement little thought was given as to what would be the prospect of the nation in terms of political, economic and social progress. Following Burmese independence, these problems became very crucial and challenging. The nationalities felt that their cherished culture and way of life were threatened. There have been waves of indignation and protest throughout the country. Ever since Burmese independence one of the crucial problems was evolving a constitutional consensus and framing a constitution acceptable to all diverse nationalities. Nevertheless for long 14 years the government failed to make any real headway in drafting a federal constitution.
Since independence, the successive Burmese governments have been pursuing the policies of Burmanisation, Buddhisation and assimilation. In the process, the ruling Burmans become the 'prime nation' and other become 'sub-nation'. The Muslims, particularly the Rohingyas in Arakan have become the target of large-scale persecution resulting in the massive death of their people, destruction of age-old settlements, houses, mosques and religious schools, cemeteries and confiscation of properties etc. They have been invariably subjected to ethnic cleansing, genocide, expulsion in a planned way. About 1.5 million Rohingyas have already been expelled or have to leave their historical homeland for alien lands for their lives.
The national groups are heavily underrepresented in the government administration. No room was left for the people of Arakan particularly for its Muslim community to participate in the power structure both at the centre and in the province. This generated resentment in Burma. The national groups are apprehensive of their future. The central administration disregarded the basic concept of 'unity in diversity'. Particularly Arakan is being neglected and treated as a 'colony' of Burma.
It is often assumed that the basic unit for self-determination is a nation. A nation has been defined as a large group of human beings sharing common historical traditions, inhabiting or identifying with a particular territory, having generally speaking a common language, who feel they form a single and exclusive community. There are indeed certain distinguishing features that identify a cluster of people as a distinct group: historical tradition, racial or ethnic identity, religion or ideological affinity, geographical contiguity, common economic interest and demographic strength, Commonly binding factors have not always been the same in the past. Nevertheless any known community in the past acted on any one or combination of these factors.
Arakan, being an independent sovereign country for many centuries until Burmese occupation in 1784 A.D. and having all the qualifications of a people or nation, its heroic people is entitled to exercise their right to self-determination.
By N. Islam
(May 2000)