In recent years, no minority has drawn as much international attention as the Muslim community in Myanmar’s southwestern state of Rakhine, facing the Bay of Bengal. Even its name is shrouded in fierce controversy: the Myanmar government and majority Buddhist groups describe the community as ‘Bengalee’, whereas its own spokesmen insist on calling themselves the ‘Rohingyas’. The debate centres on the question whether the million-strong community is an ethnic group belonging to Myanmar (as its leaders insist it is) or one of South Asian origin and, therefore, belonging to Bangladesh (as the Myanmar authorities will have the world believe).
Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has visited all her immediate neighbours, except Bangladesh. The country’s deputy foreign minister, who also visited it recently, managed to raise all bilateral matters for discussion without uttering the ‘R’ word. Several ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar suffered discrimination at the hands of successive military governments. The latter, together with the Bamar or Burman community, as the ethnic majority is known, have had their own grievances As a result, even nearly 70 years after independence, the building of Myanmar as a nation is far from complete.
Many Rakhine Muslims fled to neighbouring Bangladesh after decades of oppression, causing a series of crises in Myanmar-Bangladesh relations in the 1970s and 1990s. About 30,000 currently live as registered refugees; besides, an estimated half a million have settled in Bangladesh due to previous inflows.
The year 2012 witnessed Muslim-Buddhist communal clashes in Rakhine that led to the Rohingyas suffering considerably as the authorities intensified their policies of discrimination. With tough measures triggering another major outflow of scared people, a large section took boats to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, three ASEAN member states where a sizable number of Rohingyas now live.
The latest crisis, though, showed the first signs of a Muslim insurgency, with a violent attack on Myanmar border security posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships on 9 October 2016. This resulted in the killing of nine security personnel and eight attackers. More attacks and counter-attacks followed in subsequent days, leading the Myanmar authorities to unleash a series of anti-insurgency measures against the perpetrators of the attack, and the Muslim population, in general, in several towns. Once again, the Muslims fled to Bangladesh in large numbers. But this time international media, human rights groups and a few western and ASEAN governments took up the Rohingya cause vigorously, criticising Naypyitaw and urging remedial measures.
Developments in the Rakhine state became a serious public issue in Malaysia and Indonesia. The Malaysian PM publicly mocked the Myanmar government over its plea that it was an internal issue that could not be discussed with foreign countries. The Malaysian foreign minister spoke of reports from many sources, alleging arbitrary arrests, extra judicial killings, burning of Rohingya villages, and destruction of homes and places of worship. He portrayed the issue as “a regional concern”.
The Rohingyas’ legal status in Myanmar is a vexed issue. The community has been in the country for generations, but was never integrated into the mainstream. Access to full citizenship was denied by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which nevertheless gave them “white cards” and recognition as temporary residents.
In 2014, the government undertook a national census. Responding to intense pressure from Buddhist groups, it denied permission to Muslims to be registered as ‘Rohingyas’. In February 2015, the government cancelled temporary identity cards, thus barring the Rakhine Muslims’ participation in the elections that year. This is at the root of the Muslims’ discontentment in the Rakhine state.
Recognising the gravity of the issue, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government took two steps to deal with it in the past 10 months. It appointed an advisory commission under the leadership of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, and another commission to investigate the recent violence, which was headed by the country’s Vice President Myint Swe. The latter commission evoked little confidence: as expected, it reported that the security authorities acted legally in their response to the attackers.
The Myanmar government believes that the attack on their security posts was masterminded by an insurgent group, named Harakah al-Yakin (Hay or Faith Movement) which is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia. Independent experts have portrayed the emergence of “this well-organised, apparently well-funded group” as “a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges…”
Daw Suu Kyi was constrained to cancel her visit to Indonesia. Instead, the Indonesian foreign minister visited Myanmar and persuaded it to convene an emergency meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to discuss the subject. The meeting, held last month, saw Naypyitaw accept the proposal to grant necessary humanitarian access and keep ASEAN members informed of further developments. The meeting and its outcome represented a rare departure from ASEAN’s policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member-states.
Mr Annan, who visited Myanmar in December 2016, expressed “deep concern” about reports of human rights abuse. He urged that civilians be protected at all times during security operations and security services act in compliance with rule of law. Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, said after her latest visit to the country that the government was being defensive about charges against it.
Neighbouring Bangladesh, though deeply sympathetic towards fellow Muslims fleeing oppression in Myanmar, has not been welcoming of them as the chances of their return to Myanmar were minimal. A Bangladeshi policy analyst made a plea to India to respond to the Rohingya crisis “as a regional leader” and “consistent with the moral and spiritual values with which it identifies.”
A few thousand Rohingya refugees have reportedly found their way into India, but for clear diplomatic reasons, South Block has not commented on the issue. New Delhi is strongly committed to a vigorous counter-terrorism strategy, with terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan as well as from Myanmar soil. Myanmar would perhaps like New Delhi to believe that the terrorist dimension of the ‘Rohingya’ problem is the pre-eminent one.
To aim criticism at Aung San Suu Kyi is misplaced because in security matters, the military – not she – calls the shots. Her options are limited even as she awaits the Kofi Annan Commission’s recommendations before crafting her government’s response. This is a time when she has her hands full with other pressing challenges, including her top priority: national reconciliation by piloting the 21st century Panglong Conference to fruition.
Finally, there is the hard political reality that much of the Buddhist Burman majority in the country, not just in the Rakhine state, is opposed to the Rohingyas being accepted as full citizens. The road ahead looks bleak.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador to Myanmar.
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 International Crisis Group, Myanmanr: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016, accessed on 1 February 2017, <https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/283-myanmar-new-muslim-insurgency-rakhine-state>
 Khasru, Syed Munir, “Speak up for the Rohingyas”, The Hindu, 26 December 2016, accessed on 1 February 2017, <http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Speak-up-for-the-Rohingyas/article16941975.ece>