Burma must act to stop the Rohingya crisis now – or it may be too late

Published on September 1, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The Washington Post – September 1, 2017

Satellite imagery of northwest Burma this week shows a landscape dotted with the fires of burning buildings. 18,000 Muslim Rohingyas have fled ethnic violence to nearby Bangladesh, while thousands of others remain stuck at the border. The government says that at least 109 people have died in clashes around Rakhine State, home to most of Burma’s 1.1 million Rohingya population.

The latest round of killing started on Aug. 25, when Muslim militants staged coordinated attacks on 30 Burmese police posts and an army base. The military responded with counterinsurgency operations of its own. The Rohingyas aren’t the only ones fleeing, either. The violence has also forced thousands of Rakhine Buddhists to leave their homes.

This is the second attack conducted on the security forces by Rohingya insurgents since October 2016. The leader of the group behind the attacks, which calls itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), claims that hundreds of young men have joined it to defend the Rohingya population from atrocities committed by the Burmese security forces.

The situation in the region, especially in the northern part of Rahkine State where the Rohingya population is concentrated, is extremely tense. Rather than addressing long-standing ethnic divisions, local and national officials have left them to fester, and the consequences of this official neglect are now making themselves felt. The Burmese government and the insurgents need to act immediately to forestall further violence. If they don’t, there is a high probability of a rapid downward spiral into further bloodletting.

It is not only Burma’s internal stability that is at stake. The conflict also has repercussions for the country’s relations with the international community, particularly its immediate neighbor Bangladesh and the Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, that have expressed concerned over the Rohingyas’ treatment in the past. The religious component of the conflict could potentially inflame tensions around the region, and even contribute to new terrorist activity.

In the short term, efforts should focus on restoring law and order. The Burmese military should move to guarantee full protection to all innocent civilians. The civilian government, led by the National League for Democracy, should move to provide urgently needed aid to affected communities.

Everything must be done to prevent the conflict from spreading to other parts of the country. If there is no restraint from both sides, there is a worry and even a danger that the violence could spread to other areas of the country where the Muslims and Buddhists live together. The insurgents must cease their attacks.

The Aug. 25 attack occurred just hours after the advisory commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan released its official report advising the government on long-term solutions for the violence-riven state. The report provides sound guidelines for future policy toward both the Rakhine and Rohingya peoples.

The commission recommends above all that the government take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The government must find ways to end division of the area’s population along ethnic or religious lines. The Burmese government has long denied citizenship to many Rohingyas, which it often characterizes as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations. The authorities have also imposed restrictions on the free movement of the Rohingya community. The government must do whatever it can to end these practices, above all by facilitating the process of granting citizenship to long-time residents who do not already have it.

The report also suggests the end of official impunity for those who violate human rights, and also advises unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine. The government must enforce accountability for individuals and groups that have been involved in human rights violations. The government should also stop smearing international humanitarian aid groups as terrorist sympathizers. Such accusations compromise the safety of aid providers, making it harder for them to supply those in need.

The commission also offers advice on fundamental problems, such as socioeconomic development in the impoverished state, bolstering the rule of law, bilateral relations with neighboring Bangladesh, drug trafficking, and cooperation among local communities, Rakhine state, and the central government.

It may be hard for many Burmese, including the military and Buddhist ultranationalist groups, to accept the Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. But it is undeniable that many of them have lived in the country for generations. It is important for the people of Burma to understand that without addressing the fundamental issues of the Rohingyas, such as identity and citizenship, the core of the problem in Rakhine will remain unaddressed. The Rohingya issue will continue to pose security and territorial threats and hamper the nation’s peace and development.

Ultimately, reconciliation will have a chance only when the Rohingyas and Rakhines are willing to compromise on their differences by respecting each other’s identity and culture. More importantly, the government of Burma and the general public must be ready to embrace the Rohingyas if any genuine reconciliation is to be achieved.

The international community, including the United Nations, should condemn the attacks by the militants. At the same time, however, it must extend all the help it can to end the violence.

Nehginpao Kipgen is executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India. He is the author of three books on Burma, including “Democratization of Myanmar.”

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