The President, the Lady, and the Plight of the Rohingya
AUG 2, 2012
By Gregory Poling and Prashanth Parameswaran
Myanmar continues to pursue reforms at an impressive pace, but the plight of the country’s Rohingya population remains a disgrace for a state seeking to engage the international community. That disgrace is not the government’s alone—it is shared by the opposition movement, including its leader Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the country’s neighbors and the international community.
The more than 800,000 Rohingyas that live in Myanmar today, most in western Rakhine state, are denied citizenship by the government and face a range of abuses including forced labor, marriage restrictions, and unlawful detention. Their suffering is so severe that many have sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh, while others have fled on dangerous voyages by boat to Thailand and Malaysia. Amnesty International July 20 noted that both security forces and Buddhists in Rakhine state have been carrying out “primarily one-sided” attacks, including massive security sweeps, detentions, and killings, against the Rohingya in the weeks after a wave of communal violence erupted between the area’s Buddhist and Muslim populations.
During the recent communal violence, the country’s news outlets engaged in base fear-mongering, equating Rohingyas with “terrorists,” and the government did nothing to dispel these assertions. Officials and most commentators from Myanmar’s majority Burman ethnic group insisted that the Rohingyas are recent migrants from Bangladesh and do not qualify as one of the country’s roughly 135 ethnic minorities. Immigration Minister Khin Yi said this week that they will not be included in the country’s 2014 census. Popular Myanmar News Journal has reported that he told Bangladesh’s ambassador to Myanmar that Rohingyas are not citizens because they only began migrating to the country after 1824.
The impossible situation in which Rohingyas find themselves has been on display since the eruption of violence nearly two months ago. Many have attempted to flee to Bangladesh with their families, where they have been stopped at the border and refused entry. Those who made it across the border face detention and deportation back to Rakhine state. Myanmar’s president Thein Sein announced that only those Rohingyas with proof of citizenship would be permitted to return to their homes, but the government has long denied Rohingyas the right to legal documentation of any kind. The president said Myanmar will not accept “illegal immigrants” and has requested that the United Nations refugee agency either place the Rohingya in refugee camps or deport them to a third country, which the UN understandably refused.
On the opposition side, the widely respected Aung San Suu Kyi has avoided the subject. During her June trip to Europe, which coincided with the outbreak of communal violence in Rakhine state, she said only that the country must clarify its citizenship laws. Whether such clarification would embrace or dispossess the Rohingya was left unclear. In her first parliamentary speech July 25, Suu Kyi spoke of soaring poverty rates and other roots of violence in “ethnic states,” but did not mention the deadly violence in Rakhine state or the government’s treatment of Rohingyas. Other leaders of her National League for Democracy have made clear that they are of one mind with the government in declaring the Rohingya squatters on their own land.
Some international commentators argue that the opposition’s position is to be expected since the issue is politically sensitive and most citizens hold extremely hostile views toward the Rohingya. But that is no excuse for silence in the face of killing, rape, and abuse of a helpless people. Some have argued that Suu Kyi herself has her arms tied now that she is an elected member of parliament from a conservative district. This wildly underestimates the influence of “the Lady.” Suu Kyi is much more than a parliamentary opposition leader; she is the scion of the nation’s greatest hero, the symbol of resistance to what was until recently one of the world’s most repressive regimes, and to many of her countrymen a bodhisattva, one on the path to enlightenment and Buddhahood.
The government of Myanmar needs to snap out of its denial and confront the Rohingya issue head on. The nearly million Rohingyas in Myanmar are the country’s responsibility, and proper rights must be accorded to them. President Thein Sein should also have a frank and practical discussion about repatriation issues with his Bangladeshi counterpart during his upcoming visit to Dhaka.
Aung San Suu Kyi must break her silence on the issue. She cannot change the collective opinions of an entire country over night, but her voice is critical in getting the ball rolling. Even if the government tomorrow decreed the Rohingya citizens of Myanmar, most of the population would still see them as intruders. Only Suu Kyi’s opinion can carry enough weight with the Burman majority to make a dent in that prejudice.
The international community also should play a stronger role. It is encouraging that ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan has taken a “personal interest” in the issue and spoke directly to Myanmar and Bangladesh during ASEAN meetings in Cambodia in July. However, the organization and its member states can do much more to facilitate a solution. A good opportunity will be at an upcoming international conference on the Rohingya in August, where progress can hopefully be made toward allowing access for aid that is currently being blocked by the government. The conference was announced by the Malaysian International Islamic Cooperation Institute, but the exact location remains undecided.
Other concerned actors ranging from the United States to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) should also hold Myanmar’s feet to the fire on this issue since it remains an enormous blemish on the country’s path to reform. The United States and Europe have spent decades condemning the treatment of the country’s other minorities, particularly the Karen and, more recently, the Kachin. Their response to the plight of the Rohingya has been, by comparison, remarkably muted. At the very least, they should support the call by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for an international inquiry into the widely reported abuses against the Rohingya by security forces in Rakhine state.
UN special rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana traveled to Rakhine state this week to assess the situation. He was told dismissively by Immigration Minister Khin Yi that “this is just a regional but not an international issue . . . so I don’t think the government will accept the call to open an inquiry as if this were an international issue.” The international community must make clear that the problem will not simply go away. The plight of the Rohingya may well constitute crimes against humanity, according to a June report by respected researchers at the Irish Center for Human Rights. Myanmar’s civilian government, its democratic opposition, the country’s neighbors, and the global community all have an obligation to confront this reality and ensure that it is rectified. (This Commentary first appeared in the August 2, 2012, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th and K Streets.)
Gregory Poling is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Prashanth Parameswaran is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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