Burma should seize the opportunity

As Burma begins to experience a fledgling democracy, the international community should continue to extend support and provide necessary assistance.

Ruined neighborhood in Burma 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ruined neighborhood in Burma 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 1948.
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.
Many in 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.
President 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 groups.
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.
What 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.
Such a 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.
Ethnic conflicts in the country remain unresolved largely because of the indifference and lack of commitment toward minority problems by successive central governments.
The problem in Rakhine state needs to be addressed simultaneously with ethnic problems in other parts of the country.
As Burma begins to experience a fledgling democracy, the international community should continue to extend support and provide necessary assistance.
While 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.