Conundrum of the Rohingyas

Since May of this year, Burma has witnessed an escalation of simmering tension between two groups in Rakhine state.

August 29, 2012 21:55
3 minute read.

ROHINGYA PEOPLE from Myanmar 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Since May of this year, Burma has witnessed an escalation of simmering tension between two groups in Rakhine state. The violence between the Rakhines (Arakans) and Rohingyas has led to the death of 88 people (official figure as of August 22) and displacement of thousands of others.

Unofficial reports, however, put the number of deaths in the hundreds.

The immediate cause of the violence was the rape and murder of a Buddhist-Arakan woman on May 28 by Rohingyas. This was followed by the retaliatory killing of 10 Rohingyas by ethnic Rakhines on June 3. It must be noted here that the tension between these two groups has existed for decades.

Questions have been asked as to why little has been done to resolve the conflict and if there is a possibility of permanent solution to the protracted problem. Much of the blame has been assigned to both the Burmese government and the opposition.

As the international community is at the stage of promoting their own national interests in this fledgling democracy, sectarian violence such as this has not been paid serious attention to, especially by the Western powers.

While Human Rights Watch criticized the Burmese government for failing to prevent the initial unrest, nations such as Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia criticized alleged discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims because of their religious belief.

The sensitivity of the issue has prevented many, including the mavericks, from discussing it publicly. Even the internationally acclaimed human rights champion and leader of the Burmese opposition Aung San Suu Kyi has made only brief comments emphasizing the need for establishing proper citizenship law to address the problem.

THE ROOT of the problem begins with the nomenclature itself. Although they call themselves Rohingyas, the Burmese government calls them illegal Bengali migrants.

Since the governments of both Burma and Bangladesh have refused to accept them as citizens, the Rohingyas automatically become stateless people under international law. Under such circumstances, are there any possible solutions? President Thein Sein suggested that the United Nations Refugee Agency should consider resettling the Rohingyas to other countries. Although such proposal may sound ideal, there are challenges facing its implementation.

For example, will there be nations willing to welcome about a million Rohingyas? Moreover, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) chief, Antonio Guterres, has rejected the idea of resettlement. Even if the agency reconsiders the case, do the UNHCR offices in Burma and Bangladesh have adequate resources to process such large number of refugees? One possible solution is for the governments of Burma and Bangladesh to reach an amicable arrangement to integrate the Rohingya population into their respective societies. Currently, there are approximately 800,000 Rohingyas inside Burma and another 300,000 in Bangladesh.

Similar to the first, this proposition has its own challenges. Will the indigenous Rakhines accept Rohingyas as their fellow citizens and live peacefully with them? On the other hand, will the Bangladesh government be willing to offer citizenship to the Rohingyas? Another possible solution is that Burma can amend its 1982 citizenship law to pave the way for the Rohingyas to apply for citizenship.

Under existing law, there are three categories of citizenship: full, associate and naturalized. In addition the governments of Burma and Bangladesh need to secure their porous international borders to prevent illegal movements.

None of the above suggested policies are simple or easy to achieve. Despite the challenges and difficulties, the problem of Rohingyas cannot be ignored for too long.

Without addressing the crux of the issue, the May incident could possibly be one of a series of events that would trigger greater consequences.

Before a solution is achieved, international institutions such as the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must put pressure on the Burmese government to resolve the problem. The conundrum needs to be addressed holistically rather than inciting hatred along religious or racial divide.

The writer 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.

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