A disconnect in the Rohingya conundrum

Published on September 13, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The Japan Times – September 13, 2017

International pressure should be focused on Myanmar’s military leadership, not Suu Kyi

As of last Friday, the United Nations refugee agency said 270,000 Rohingya have crossed the border since the Myanmar Army launched clearance operations in northern Rakhine state on Aug. 25, following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on police posts.

The number roughly equals a third of the country’s Rohingya population, although the Myanmar government has not released an official figure. The violence has also forced several thousand Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus to flee their homes.

The scale of violence and the hapless situation of innocent civilians have made international headlines since its start. Fortunately or unfortunately, emphasis is given to the plight of the Rohingya, who are stateless and considered to be among the world’s most persecuted peoples.

The Rohingya conundrum has two important dimensions: the international community’s approach and that of the Myanmar government.

The recent upsurge of violence has also led government leaders, heads of international organizations and Nobel laureates to speak up on the issue, including U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai.

The core of the conundrum lies in the identity of the Rohingya. While they identify themselves as Rohingya, neither the government nor a majority of the population in Myanmar, including Rakhine Buddhists, accept this claim. Instead they refer to them as illegal Bengali immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

The problem is that neither the Bangladesh government nor its people are willing to accept them as their own. Instead, in several instances Bangladesh’s security forces forced back many of the Rohingya who fled to its shores. The Bangladesh government has also contemplated the idea of temporarily resettling the Rohingya on a low-lying island in the country – a plan that many condemn.

The international community has been unable to find a solution. For example, some Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have been vocal in their criticism of the Myanmar government, but they themselves are unwilling or reluctant to take in Rohingya refugees in large numbers.

The U.N. has also been vocal about the plight of the Rohingya, but so far it has been unable to find countries to resettle the refugees, who fear for their lives or are unwilling to go back to Myanmar.

Partly because it’s the world’s largest democracy and home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population, many had hoped that India may come forward to help the refugees. But this is unlikely to happen as the Indian government is considering the deportation of illegal foreigners, including the approximately 40,000 Rohingya refugees it is hosting in different parts of the country.

India is wary of taking a strong stance on the Rohingya issue primarily for two reasons. It does not want a strained relationship with Myanmar at a time when New Delhi is exploring ways to enhance its presence and influence in Myanmar and the Southeast Asia region through its Act East Policy. The ongoing efforts to strengthen ties between the two countries were emphasized during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-day visit to Myanmar from Sept. 5 to 7.

There are also concerns in some quarters in India that Islamic terrorist groups may expand their networks through hardline Rohingya.

While the international community’s criticism is targeted toward the Myanmar government in general, the de facto leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been singled out.

There is an ongoing online petition at change.org calling for the Norwegian Nobel Committee to revoke Suu Kyi’s peace prize over the Myanmar government’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslims. But the committee has ruled out any such move, saying that only the work that led to the award of the prize is taken into account.

The heavy criticism of Suu Kyi is largely due to the exceedingly high expectations of her and the NLD government, which assumed office after decades of military rule. The main criticism of Suu Kyi is that she has been reticent and even unwilling to speak out on the plight of the Rohingya. The other related criticism is that she has not taken any substantive measure to address the long-standing issues of the Rohingya, such as identity and citizenship.

But many around the world tend to ignore or downplay the significance of the Myanmar political system. First, Suu Kyi is prevented from holding the office of the presidency, which is the highest office of the land. Second, her NLD government is in a power-sharing arrangement with the country’s powerful military, which controls, among others, the three most important ministries related to security matters – home, defense and border affairs.

The power-sharing nature of the hybrid system is such that the military can simply choose to ignore or not cooperate with the NLD-led civilian government. The possibility of another military takeover cannot be ruled out in the event there is a real threat to national sovereignty and territorial integrity, regardless of what the constitution says.

Many knowingly or unknowingly assume that Suu Kyi could and should take bold steps to protect the Rohingya, despite the strong opposition from the military and Buddhist ultranationalist groups.

Moreover, many don’t seem to realize that Suu Kyi is no longer the activist and human-rights advocate that she was during the years of her pro-democracy movement. Many also fail to understand that Suu Kyi, like many other politicians, wants to stay in power for now and for the foreseeable future, which necessitates her to take into account the sentiments of the majority of voters. This is evident in the fact that the NLD did not field any Muslim candidates during the 2015 general election.

Instead of directing its anger and frustration toward Suu Kyi and the NLD government, the international community, including the U.N. and the powerful Western democracies, should put pressure on Myanmar’s military leadership, in particular on commander in chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to end the violence and work toward achieving a peaceful resolution of the Rohingya problem.

Despite the apparent difficulties and challenges, Suu Kyi and her NLD government should work with the military, Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhist leaders, and the international community to end the violence and resolve the conundrum. To pave the way for peace, the ARSA should not engage in further armed attacks on the country’s security forces.

All political stakeholders should work toward ending the simmering tension and the cycle of violence, to prevent a further loss of life and property, to restore law and order, and to prevent communal tensions and violence from spreading to other parts of the country.

A long-lasting solution should focus on the implementation of the Kofi Annan-led state advisory commission’s recommendations, including ending enforced segregation of Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, and expediting the citizenship verification process for the Rohingya.

Meanwhile, moderate leaders from both communities – Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhist – should take all possible initiatives to build mutual trust and the spirit of peaceful coexistence.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is an assistant professor and executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, India. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including “Democratization of Myanmar” published in 2016.

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