As the Rohingya face persecution, a solution is as far away as ever

Published on April 5, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Mitakshara Goyal

The National – April 5, 2017

The fate of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority has been in the spotlight for the many months, and it has caught the attention of governments and international institutions. There has been a constant quest for a solution but the problem is far from over.

Their suffering as stateless people is compounded by the differing approaches of major stakeholders: the Myanmar civilian government, the Myanmar military and the international community represented by the United Nations and the European Union.

The leadership of governing National League for Democracy (NLD) – and particularly its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – have put emphasis on the need to maintain the rule of law, implement developmental projects and to review the 1982 Citizenship Law, despite strong opposition from some Buddhist ultranationalist groups.

The NLD is pursuing a piecemeal approach of trying to gradually reduce the simmering tension in Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya live. While the Rohingyas feel that they are targeted or discriminated against because of their identity and religion, the other Rakhines, who are Buddhists, feel that their very existence is threatened by the fast-growing Rohingya population.

Since there is a strong dislike of the use of the word “Rohingya” among the Rakhines and the vast majority of the Myanmar population across the country who use the term “Bengali”, the government takes a middle path by using a more neutral term, “Muslims of Rakhine”.

It has established a nine-member state advisory commission, led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and including other foreign experts and members of Myanmar’s Muslim and Buddhist communities.

The formation of the commission was significant as other previous initiatives taken by the Myanmar government under president Thein Sein did not yield a concrete result. The idea was that because of the continued pressure from the international community, the participation of foreign experts would help bring some new thinking and fresh ideas which could potentially pave the way for a solution to the protracted problem.

The NLD government’s piecemeal approach met a severe blow when some Rohingya extremists attacked police outposts in Rakhine state in October last year which killed nine police officers. Despite its efforts, the NLD is criticised by the international community for doing too little too slow, especially in the aftermath of the incident. The NLD government has also been criticised for not expediting the citizenship verification process for Rohingya.

The Myanmar military has its own view and policy on the Rohingya issue: a fundamentally hardline approach. The military does not agree with the use of the term “Muslims of Rakhine” and its commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, wants people who identify themselves as Rohingya to be verified under the 1982 citizenship law.

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

The military leadership wants the Rohingya, who do not qualify to become citizens, to be put in special camps where they will be supported by international organisations until countries come forward to accept them for resettlement.

As for the international approach, on February 3, the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights released a detailed report of the widespread human rights violations against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces in the country’s northern Rakhine state, some of which it claims may amount to crimes against humanity. This report was subsequently followed by a call for sending an international fact-finding mission to Myanmar by the European Union. In response to the EU’s call, the 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva decided to send an independent, multinational team to investigate these reports.

Though this call for international investigation was objected to by both the NLD government and the Myanmar military, it invariably brings immense pressure on Myanmar as a country. Despite the slim chance of the mission actually being undertaken any time soon, the HRC decision serves as a serious reminder to the Myanmar leadership – both civilian and military – that the international community is not satisfied with their handling of the Rohingya issue.

Unless some major world powers or a coalition of governments decide to take a unilateral action, which is very unlikely, the voice of the international community will largely remain rhetoric, especially given the fact that two veto-wielding powers of the UN Security Council – China and Russia – do not support such approach.  There is a bleak picture of an amicable solution, at least in the near future.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Jindal School of International Affairs. Mitakshara Goyal is a law student at OP Jindal Global University.

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