The violence between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in Western Burma,
which initially erupted in June, has not abated. The simmering tension erupted
into violence again on October 21. The government said on October 31 that 89
people were killed, 136 wounded, more than 32,000 made homeless and more than
5,000 houses were burned down from October 21-30.
Questions have been
asked as to why the conflict has not been resolved when Burma has such
overwhelming support from the international community – from east to west. Is it
because the government has no serious intention to resolve the conflict, or is
it because the government does not have adequate resources and the experience to
handle such violence? Recent developments indicated that both the Rakhine state
and the central government have taken certain initiatives to end the violence,
including the state government’s issuance of article 144 of the criminal code of
law in some townships, and President Thein Sein’s declaration of state of
emergency. Are such measures adequate to bring peace and harmony in the state?
While analyzing the conflict in Rakhine state or elsewhere in the country, one
must understand that they are a consequence of inherent ethnic problems which
successive central governments have failed to address since independence in
The complexity of Rohingya problem fundamentally lies in the fact
that they are not considered citizens of Burma.
This makes the case
unique from the rest of conflicts in the country. While other ethnic minorities
demand autonomy under a federal system, the Rohingyas struggle to be recognized
as one of the ethnic groups of the country.
Some have suggested that had
President Thein Sein resolved the Rohingya problem, he could have won a Nobel
Prize. Some others have the opinion that the opposition leader, Aung San Suu
Kyi, has not been very vocal about the conflict for fear of a backlash in the
upcoming 2015 general election.
While the conflict in Rakhine state
should not be viewed an opportunity for individual glory or for acquiring
political advantage, both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi have
important roles to play for the emergence of a durable solution.
Burmese society, including the Rakhine people, cannot accept Rohingyas as fellow
citizens. In fact, the government uses the term “Bengali” to refer to them.
Under such circumstances, is there a room for dialogue? If so, where should it
begin? Another broad perception within Burmese society is that the Rohingyas are
illegal Bengali migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. However, such assertion is
rejected by Bangladesh, which already hosts about 300,000 Rohingyas as refugees
inside its territory.
Both governments of Burma and Bangladesh should
promote dialogue to address the issue amicably. If no bilateral agreement can be
reached, perhaps both governments could approach a neutral party such as the
United Nations for mediation or for an alternative arrangement.
Thein Sein had once suggested resettling the Rohingyas in third countries, which
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres rejected.
Recently, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human
rights in Burma, suggested that the Burmese government should pursue a policy of
integration and reconciliation between the Rakhine and Rohingya
International institutions can offer suggestions, but ultimately
the responsibility lies with the Burmese government.
If no third
country(s) comes forward to accept the Rohingya population, the government of
Burma would have to come up with some sort of solution now or later.
President Thein Sein’s government and the national parliament could possibly do
is review both previous and existing citizenship laws to assess the conditions
under which one is granted citizenship. Those eligible should not be denied
their citizenship rights.
Aung San Suu Kyi could use her status as
opposition leader and chair of the rule of law committee in the parliament to
help advance the reconciliation process. Such an initiative would have to be
supported by other committee members and the parliament.
reconciliation program will succeed when the Rakhines and the Rohingyas are
willing to compromise on their differences by respecting each other’s identity.
More importantly, the Burmese government must be ready to embrace the Rohingyas
if any genuine reconciliation is to be realized.
Burma has adequate
resources and the experience to handle ethnic violence.
in the country remain unresolved largely because of the indifference and lack of
commitment toward minority problems by successive central
The problem in Rakhine state needs to be addressed
simultaneously with ethnic problems in other parts of the country.
Burma begins to experience a fledgling democracy, the international community
should continue to extend support and provide necessary assistance.
the international community is rallying behind its democratic reform process,
Burma should seize the opportunity to address the inherent problems of ethnic
minorities, including the Rakhine problem.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general
secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His general research
interests include political transition, democratization, human rights, ethnic
conflict and identity politics.
His research focuses on the politics of
South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar. He has written
numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and nonacademic analytical articles on the
politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published internationally.