Who can solve the Rohingya issue?

Published on February 4, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Foreign Policy Journal – February 4, 2017

It will be difficult for Aung San Suu Kyi to end the violence against the Rohingya without the approval or cooperation of the Myanmar military.

Conflict between the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, and the local Buddhist population has been an international concern since 2012 when violence first erupted.

The latest flare-up in violence started with a coordinated attack by Muslim militants on October 9, which killed nine police officers and wounded four others. In response, the Myanmar military launched “clearance operations” to track down the attackers and recover weapons taken from the police.

The operation has resulted in the death of more than 100 people, hundreds detained, and more than 150,000 people believed to have been displaced amid reports of rape, torture, and destruction of more than 1,500 homes.

Human rights groups and governments around the world, including the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have condemned the Myanmar government for its failure to end alleged discrimination against the Rohingya community. Media coverage has alleged that the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate and current Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has not done enough to end the violence.

Myanmar has been criticized abroad for restricting independent media access to the affected areas, hindering or denying humanitarian assistance, and the excessive use of force by the armed forces.

In response, the office of President Htin Kyaw has denied allegations of rape and said those killed were jihadists. The army has claimed that Muslim terrorists have been responsible for burning down homes in an attempt to frame the army for human rights abuses and to gain international assistance.

The larger question is who can realistically resolve the Rohingya issue? Many would like to put the responsibility on Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy government, which came to power less than a year ago.

Some believe that the intervention of the international community, including the United Nations, the OIC, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the government of Bangladesh, would help provide a solution.

The Role of the Military

Ultimate responsibility, however, lies with the Myanmar military, civil society groups, and the general public.

The Myanmar constitution, ratified in 2008, gives significant power to the military. Not only did it reserve 25% of the seats in the national and state legislatures for the military, but it also gave the armed forces control of three important ministries—home, defense, and border affairs.

The constitution also grants the military overwhelming security power by giving it a major role in the eleven-member National Defense and Security Council. The NDSC serves as the highest authority in Myanmar and the majority of its members are from the military or its appointees.

Since the military and the ministries in which it is in charge are directly dealing with the violence in the Rohingya areas, the views of the military commander-in-chief prevail over the NLD-led civilian government.

Moreover, because of the hybrid power-sharing structure between the military and the civilian government, it is tremendously challenging for Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw to prevail over the military establishment.

Beyond her reiteration of the importance of the rule of law and the formation of a state advisory council to investigate the Rohingya issue, it will be difficult for Suu Kyi to end the violence without the approval or cooperation of the military.

Considering the present governance system, perhaps the most effective and quickest way to end the Rohingya dispute would be if the military had a genuine desire to do so.

Civil Society Input

A second crucial component to finding a solution is the voice of civil society groups. Although independent civil society groups in Myanmar are not as organized or robust as in many other more democratic countries, they can serve as agents of change or as pressure groups.

Civil society groups dominated by the majority Burman ethnic group are unwilling or reluctant to act on behalf of the Rohingyas since they do not consider the Rohingyas as genuine citizens. The views of most of the Burman population have been influenced by those of the military and civilian elites and vice-versa.

The media, which forms part of the civil society, also needs to play a role. Although the independent media has given substantive coverage and objective discussion on the Rohingya issue, this has not necessarily been the case for the state-backed media.

The situation of the Rohingya community would have perhaps improved by now if civil society organizations, including groups from different religious backgrounds, had shown greater sympathy to their plight.

Opinion is divided in Myanmar on how the Rohingya problem should be resolved. Some hold the view that the Rohingyas should be sent back to Bangladesh or other nations that are willing to accept them. Others have a genuine concern for peacefully addressing the conundrum.

The role of the general public will affect the behavior of civil society groups. Had there been a mass movement or public pressure against the military leadership or the NLD government in support of the Rohingyas, the military and civilian elites could have responded by softening their approach toward the Rohingyas.

Though some think it is difficult or unimaginable to accept the Rohingya population, some of them have lived in the country for generations. It is important for the people of Myanmar to understand that without addressing the fundamental issues of the Rohingyas, such as identity or citizenship, Myanmar will continue to face the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The Rohingya issue could also continue to pose security and territorial threats and hamper the nation’s peace and development.

Citizenship Rights

The reason why the military, civil organizations and the public have not acted as much as they should begins with the contentious nomenclature for the minority Muslim population. Although they call themselves Rohingyas, the overwhelming majority of the Myanmar population calls them Bengalis, implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

In addition, Suu Kyi has gradually transformed herself from being an activist and democratic icon to a pragmatic politician who must consider the concerns of the overall electorate. Suu Kyi, who is a Burman, is making diligent efforts not to upset her party colleagues and the ethnic Burman population, which makes up roughly 60% of the country’s population.

While an independent commission led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is exploring recommendations for a peaceful solution, the NLD government is likely to continue a citizenship verification process in accordance with the 1982 citizenship law.

According to the 1982 citizenship law, there are three categories of citizenship: full citizen, associate citizen, and naturalized citizen. Full citizens are descendants of residents who lived in Burma prior to 1823 or were born to parents who were both citizens. Associate citizens are those who acquired citizenship through the 1948 Union Citizenship Act. Naturalized citizens are people who lived in Burma before January 4, 1948 and applied for citizenship after 1982.

The strict application of the 1982 citizenship law would mean that while some of the Rohingyas may qualify, many of them would be denied citizenship status as they will not be able to provide the required evidence or records.

Besides the Annan commission, the Myanmar government in December announced the creation of a commission to investigate the ongoing violence in Rakhine state and to examine the role of the army. The commission was headed by the military-backed Vice President Myint Swe, and included 12 other members.

The commission was entrusted to investigate the veracity of external reports of abuse during the military offensive, verify if the operation is being carried out in a lawful manner, and propose recommendations to prevent more violence. The commission was created after the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported spiraling attacks against the Rohingyas and said that many of them constitute serious human rights violations.

It is unlikely that the Bangladesh government will accept the Rohingyas. This was evident when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently told a visiting Myanmar delegation to take back Rohingya refugees.

A solution to the Rohingya problem rests in the end on their acceptance by the military, civil society groups and the general public.

International Support

While the Annan and the government-appointed commissions explore possible solutions, the international community should extend all possible help to the Myanmar government to help address the problem.

Though the future of the Rohingyas remains uncertain, one thing is clear that the longer the conflict remains unsolved, it could spill further outside Myanmar’s borders.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents: Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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