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Abraha Desale

Events in north-west Rakhine state, Myanmar, since 2012, can be described as an attempt to bring about ethnic cleansing or genocide of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group who are marginalised, discriminated against, and denied basic rights and legal status in Myanmar. As a result of mass killings, sexual violence and attacks in Myanmar, over one million Rohingya refugees have already fled to neighboring countries, namely Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and Bangladesh, as well as to Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. Recent reports that the Malaysian military pushed back to sea 382 Rohingya in April 2020, contrary to the human rights of the Rohingya and international law, now remind us of the survivors of the May 2015 ‘boat crisis’, when countries in the region also refused to provide Rohingya with access to asylum.

In light of this context, the main purpose of this paper is to examine whether there is any potential to protect and ensure respect for the human rights of the Rohingya, not only by appealing to leaders of States and officials of international organization’s in the region, but also by using blockchain technology to create digital identities that could be used to overcome social challenges, with a focus on the restoration of fundamental human rights and justice.

The plight of the Rohingya and the issue of citizenship

Since independence 1948, the Rohingya were considered to be citizens of Burma. Yet, in 1982, the Citizenship Law was enacted and denied the Rohingya citizenship rights. Myanmar officially recognises only eight Major National Ethnic Races: the Bamar, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. The Rohingya people have been excluded from these major ethnic groups.

The Myanmar authorities have refused to accept evidence of Rohingya residency before 1823 or acknowledge the legitimacy of the Rohingya identity. The government states that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants. It refuses the very use of the word ‘Rohingya’ and does not allow it to appear on any identity documents, instead insisting that the people called ‘Rohingya’ are either Bengalese who entered what is now Myanmar during the time of the British Colonial Empire, or ‘illegal’ people who came after 1971 when Bangladesh won independence. However, the Rohingya claim that they once used to live in an independent kingdom of the Rakhine region (formerly known as Arakan), with the Sunni Muslim religion and a language originating from the Arabic script closely related to Bengali, which is entirely different from the official Burmese language in Myanmar. 

In 1991, the Myanmar government issued ‘White Cards’ as a temporary form of identification of Rohingya, granting them only the right only to vote on the constitutional amendments. These White Cards were, however, abolished in 2015, after which the Rohingya lost their time-honored right to vote and to be elected in their ancestral homeland. Also in 2015, the year of the Andaman Sea crisis, Rohingya were excluded from the UN-sponsored nationwide census. 

At the end of 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) party won the general election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate played an eminent role. She proceeded to tolerate attacks on the Rohingya by the Myanmar military, and refused to use or allow the use of the term ‘Rohingya’

Following a flare-up in violence in August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar, while more than 120,000 remained internally displaced and confined to camps in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, unable to leave or move freely. Nearly 24,000 Rohingya were killed by the Myanmar military and local Buddhists militia, and about 18,000 Rohingya Muslim women and girls were raped. In addition, 116,000 Rohingya were beaten and 36,000 Rohingya were thrown into fires set alight in an act of deliberate arson. Since then, Rohingya refugees have continued to flee Myanmar in large numbers, resulting in the largest human exodus in Asia since the Vietnam War. Aung San Suu Kyi again failed to act, instead saying that ‘the great majority of Muslims in the Rakhine state have not joined the exodus’ to Bangladesh and that more than half of the Rohingya villages remained intact.  

These waves of violence and displacement are closely related to and compounded by the denial of the Rohingya’s citizenship rights in Myanmar, including the rights of Rohingya children to acquire a nationality and preserve that nationality without unlawful interference.1 The lack of recognition of Myanmar citizenship is made worse by the fact that Bangladesh does not legally recognize the Rohingya as Bengalis.

In June 2018, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and UN Development Program (UNDP) announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Myanmar regarding the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine state. However, Rohingya leaders criticised the agreement, rejecting it and declaring that it did not fully address the concerns of their community. Of primary concern was the fact that each Rohingya would be asked to sign a national verification card (NVC) as a premise of repatriation. The NVC scheme has been condemned as part of a systemic campaign to erase the Rohingya identity, and renew the ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya in Myanmar. It is regarded as another process to ‘further marginalize the Rohingya’, because by signing the national verification card they must accept the status of ‘Bengali’, making them foreigners in Myanmar with restricted freedom of movement and limited rights to ownership of land and property. The NVC issue has turned out to be a significant barrier to Rohingya repatriation. 

International responses to the Rohingya issue

In December 2015, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, said

‘Forced displacement is now profoundly affecting our times. It touches the lives of millions of our fellow human beings – both those forced to flee and those who provide them with shelter and protection. Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything.’

Unfortunately, neither the international community and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nor internal local authorities, have been able to promote sustainable peace and security by putting an end to the human rights abuses and violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Despite the hard work of relief agencies providing humanitarian aid, they alone cannot adequately support the Rohingya and ensure their human rights to shelter, food, clothing and healthcare.

Bangladesh continues to host Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, named the world’s largest refugee settlement in 2018. But there are also opportunities for other States and organizations in the region to work with the Myanmar government to promote peace and democratic reforms that address the stateless status and situation of the Rohingya. For example, Myanmar has recently attracted a great deal of international attention due to its radical democratic reforms – called the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (2018-2030) – according to which the government has begun to take steps to promote greater access to justice, individual rights, educational opportunities, and so on.

Furthermore, Myanmar engages with distinguished regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Forum, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership for East Asia, and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue. ASEAN and ASEAN countries should address the issue of the Rohingya with Myanmar directly, and take whatever steps they can to help resolve the immediate crisis – including, for example, by organizing an international campaign to protect Rohingya refugees. Non-ASEAN countries such as Japan and China should also reflect on their historical ties and investment relationships with Myanmar, and potentially act as mediators, exercising influence on the Myanmar government where they can. 

In November 2019, for example, António Guterres spoke at a summit with ASEAN leaders, at which Aung San Suu Kyi was present. Guterres commented on the plight of Rohingya, emphasizing that the Myanmar government needed to ‘create a conducive environment for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees’. The question of Rohingya repatriation or resettlement was reported to be a source of tension and heated debate between the 10 ASEAN member States, as well as participants China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, Russia and the U.S. Further progress on this issue is urgently required.

Regretfully, most countries in Southeast Asia, including those who could potentially influence Myanmar on the Rohingya issue, have not yet signed the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention). In this time of unprecedented displacement, it is hoped that they will reconsider acceding to this Convention, and ‘think beyond boundaries’ by showing political and humanitarian support for the stateless Rohingya refugees. 

The potential of blockchain technology 

Recent history has shown how our ways of life and standards of living can radically change due to the use of blockchain technology. According to Cathy Mulligan, a member of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and Expert and Fellow of the World Economic Forum Blockchain Council:

‘We are at a unique moment in history: our society is in transition from an industrial economy to one defined by a new set of technologies, ranging from digitalization to nanotechnology. Among the latest waves of digitalization is blockchain—a technology that many say promises to redefine trust, transparency and inclusion across the world.’

Blockchain is an open, distributed ledger or digital system of recording information that allows data to be stored globally on an entire network of computer systems. Any given ‘block’ in the chain cannot be altered retroactively without a record of that change appearing on all subsequent blocks, which requires consensus of the network majority, thereby making the entries generally unalterable and permanent.

In potentially redefining trust, transparency and inclusion across the world, blockchain could become an innovation comparable to the mobile phone revolution, which Mulligan notes ‘has placed computational power into the hands of just over 60 per cent of the world’s people’. 

The blockchain ‘ecosystem’ was originally designed in 2008 for use with digital cash or bitcoin, which turned into currency and online payments in 2015. This technology has now become a global phenomenon for its mathematically ensured cyber security technology. The characteristics of blockchain technology are decentralised, paper-to-paper, transparent and cryptographically secure, as this system is not monopolised by any entity such as a government or a bank, which means that no single party can compromise or tamper with what is contained and preserved digitally. This digital system thus enables us to skip what used to be an intermediary, allowing us to work directly in a peer-to-peer system. By contrast, nearly 80% of today’s IT capacity is still centralised, with data mainly controlled by a central authority or a limited number of companies. This means that our information is not kept strictly private, even though efforts are made to preserve and protect it within the protocol of privacy policy, so serious problems related to privacy and security can arise.

Blockchain technology can store the data safely, practically with ‘zero error’, on thousands of devices on a distributed network of nodes where information and data are inserted and made easily accessible, at the same time as preserving privacy admirably well. Thereby, this technology can keep a secure stable record of all items and data, since confirmed blocks are very unlikely to be reversed, as it is extremely difficult to remove or change what has been registered over there. Moreover, this blockchain ecosystem is characterised not only by its own security, transparency and immutability, but also by efficiency in business and high speed. 

The blockchain ecosystem could be deployed effectively to store such sensitive data as health records, intelligence information, or legislation and regulation-related records. Bitnation is a good case in point. Bitnation is called the world’s first Decentralied Borderless Voluntary Nation (DBVN) and is based on Ethereum blockchain technology, which is an open platform that lets anyone build and use decentralised applications that run on the system. It was founded in Switzerland in July 2014 by Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, with the collaboration of Jason M. Farrell. Tempelhof had grown up in Sweden as the immigrant child of a Polish father and a French mother. Witnessing first-hand her father’s experience, she said: ‘My father was stateless for several years, and that triggered me to analyze the nation state oligopoly, and how unfair these arbitrary borders were’. Her family’s experience made her ponder what the concepts of ‘nation’ or ‘citizenship’ meant and wonder why every one of us should have to be bordered within a nation.    

The purpose of Bitnation is to ‘free humankind from the oppression and sanction of pooled sovereignty, geographical apartheid and the xenophobia and violence that is nurtured by the Nation State oligopoly’. This purpose has special relevance to the current global refugee crisis. Bitnation represents ‘a voluntary nation’, members of which live in a borderless area allowing them to register vital records (such as birth certificates, marriage contracts, refugee emergency IDs, and records of other legal matters) using blockchain technology. There are already more than 10,000 users all over the world, and Bitnation has been considered and highly commended by mainstream media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal. Bitnation’s Refugee Emergency Response (BRER), which provides a blockchain ID for stateless people, won the Grand Prix and Award for Best Idea at the UNESCO NETEXPLO 2017.

Another example of an innovative blockchain institution is Tykn, founded in 2018 by Toufic Al-Rjula, a refugee of Syrian descent, born in Kuwait, whose birth certificate and other important documents were destroyed when Kuwait’s civil registries were burnt down during the Gulf War. He had no means of proving his own birth, making him feel as if he had become ‘invisible’. Al-Rjula moved to the Netherlands as an economic migrant in 2011, and when his work permit expired five years later he sought asylum there. It took a further two years for him to receive his positive refugee status determination. His experiences in a Syrian refugee camp allowed him to meet many other ‘invisible’ people, including refugees and displaced people. He realised the magnitude of the problem of people not having official documents, such as birth certificate, passports, academic records or land contracts, and that stateless people did not have access to social services like healthcare, education, employment, and financial means. Instead, they are forced to live on the fringes of society, at risk of becoming victims of exploitation and trafficking. 

Al-Rjula’s Tykn aims to ‘support the Self-Sovereign Identity movement, so that no one need ever be “invisible” again’. It is described as ‘the digital identity management system for less bureaucracy and faster aid’. Each Tykn user is provided with an application program and a digital identity wallet, allowing them digital access to services provided by public and private institutions. Tykn has not yet developed ‘Cash Based Assistance, ‘a more efficient and dignified means to deliver assistance, empowers people in need and fosters local economies’, but it intends to do so in the near future. This blockchain technology has been well supported by numerous humanitarian partners, such as the Netherland Red Cross, and in 2018 Tykn won Best ICO Pitch at the Blockchain Innovation Conference and some other prizes, as well. 

Blockchain technology is regarded as an innovative technology for the storing of data related to legal contracts, personal records and information. Refugees’ personal data can be stored securely, hidden via complex cryptography that hides their real identities. The potential of this blockchain technology seems to be infinite. It can expand beyond the scope of our analog world, providing huge benefits to refugees, asylum-seekers and other displaced people with identity issues.

While the technology itself seems complicated at a glance, its underlying premise is simple: it establishes trust between independent parties, allowing them to share trusted information without any intermediary organizations. As a new model in companies and humanitarian communities, the blockchain ecosystem needs to be promoted in many ways to support refugees and other NGOs in forming personal identity, facilitating payments, data protection and access to equitable social services and local businesses.

Refugees in Malaysia and digital identity

Malaysia is one of the largest refugee-populated states in Southeast Asia, despite not being a State party to the Refugee Convention.  As of April 2020, some 177,800 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, among whom the majority are from Myanmar and some 46,450 are children below the age of 18. As a Muslim-majority country, Malaysia has beena destination country of choice for a significant Rohingya Muslim diaspora. Without any legal status, however, most Rohingya are not allowed to work legally and do not have access to education and affordable healthcare. They have to rely totally on humanitarian assistance provided by the UN and other sources. As such, they are obliged to live on the margins of society. 

In 2017, however, a local NGO called The Rohingya Project, located in Kuala Lumpur, was launched with the ambitious goal of uplifting and empowering stateless refugees in Myanmar by providing them with digital identities and financial inclusion. 

The founder of this blockchain-based organization is Muhammad Noor, an important Rohingya activist with a rich background in computer science, who has also been actively involved with UNHCR, the International Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration as well as several embassies. He has published two books, entitled The Exodus – A True Story from a Child of Forgotten People and Born to Struggle: The Child of Rohingya Refugees and His Inspiring Journey. Noor’s new work, the Rohingya Project, seeks to respond to the challenges of stateless Rohingya by enabling them ‘to own their personal identity online and offline’, to promote the enjoyment of a viable economic and social life. This project can also benefit Rohingya children and subsequent generations, who would otherwise remain stateless and ‘invisible’ as a result of not having their births registered because of their parents’ lack of legal identity. 

With their legal identity digitally registered, Rohingya refugees have ample opportunity to learn, equip and empower themselves, using ‘a community Crypto token’ called ‘R-Coin’, which they can receive for community service with the support of UNHCR and other social agents across Malaysia. This blockchain-based project received the Malaysian National Fundamental Recognition Award, under the Sustainability Project category, in January 2020. This technology aims to function as a social incentive device and increase the social volunteering spirit among Rohingya and other refugees. 

Thanks to this blockchain technology, Rohingya people, both young and old, have access to their own identities and social inclusion.

Advances in communication and technology have already been deployed to create new opportunities for refugees, especially in terms of livelihoods and businesses (see, for example, the Fab Lab in Za’atari Camp in Jordan). The next frontier is the deployment of blockchain technology to assist millions of refugees and stateless people, allowing them to launch businesses and engage in entrepreneurship, as well as access all the benefits that come from having secure digital identities. In this regard, States, international organizations, NGOs and other organizations should also be encouraged to take action to support digital identification for the benefit of stateless people, and to facilitate their status as full and active members of modern society. 


Abraha Desale Tesfamariam is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies (GSAPS), Waseda University, Japan, in the Department of International Development and International Human Rights. He is the founder of Japan Refugee Right Network (JRRN), one of the founding members of the Asia Pacific Network of Refugees (APNOR), and a member of Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN). He has been working actively for various refugee-leading NGOs as a counsellor, translator and interpreter in Tokyo. He studies how Information and Communication Technology (ICT) may be applied to support viable economic and social futures for refugees and other displaced people, with a focus on health issues and communicable diseases in refugee camps and refugee hosting communities. Currently, his research work lies in the creation of a secure and international blockchain-leveraged ecosystem of digital identity for stateless refugees. He works as a Teaching Assistant at Waseda University and has published various articles related to refugee rights and global health.


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  • 1. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), arts 7 and 8. Myanmar acceded to the CRC in 1991.
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