Rohingyas and the Democratization in Myanmar

11/02/2012 05:42 pm ET

We are again bombarded by photographs and news of renewed violence in Myanmar's Arakan region (officially Rakhine state). Meanwhile, at the UN in New York, the delegates listened to the report of UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Myanmar Mr. Quintana. While recognizing the democratization efforts in the country, he underlined that it was vital for the Myanmar government and all concerned to prevent further violence, to defuse tensions between the Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities, and to address the underlying causes of inter-communal unrest.

Like Mr. Quintana, many continue to be concerned with the lack of an articulated policy by the government for integration and long-term reconciliation between the two communities. However, at the moment, preventing further violence, saving lives, and providing emergency humanitarian relief is the priority.

During the past days, Rohingya villages in the Rakhine state came under coordinated attacks by the so-called Rakhine vigilantes. Satellite images of totally destroyed Rohingya villages did not leave any doubt about what had really happened. Rohingya sources reported that from October 21 to 26, over 30 Rohingya villages and 5,086 houses in Kyauk Phyu, Kyauk Taw, Minbyar, Rambray, Pauktaw, and Myauk-U townships in Southern Rakhine state were torched.

Observers reported that the security forces were overwhelmed and could not control the Rakhine Buddhist groups. There are again allegations of assistance by some elements in the local police to the Rakhine mobs. Rohingya leaders give credit to the Union government and the army's timely interventions. Resolve of the security forces must have protected Rohingya villagers from potentially much wider massacres and further attacks. Since the May-June riots, the army was resolved not to allow any more violence, even at the expense of restricting movement and separation of Rohingya communities. However, the situation was not sustainable without a real reconciliation, and under the incitement of extremists, violence recurred.

The Rohingya diaspora cries for an international rescue operation for the escaping Rohingyas stranded on precarious floating boats at sea. They estimated a total of 9,000 Rohingyas were at sea, in the forests, and on open ground without food or basic necessities. There were already around 70,000 registered Rohingya IDPs in the camps before the recent violence. Wounded and sick Rohingyas are afraid to go to hospitals.

Rohingya community leaders suspect that an ethnic cleansing campaign was conceived on September 27 at the Rakhine National Congress which took place in Rathedaung where reportedly the formation of a 6,000 strong Rakhine youth force was agreed upon. They point out that extreme local political forces in alliance with local monks are behind the recent attacks. They insist that well organized and coordinated anti-Rohingya protests by the youth, women, and monks and poisonous social media campaigns were signs of a malign intent that was instigated and orchestrated by the racist and ultra nationalist local Rakhine political forces.

While Rakhine nationalists irrationally blame the Rohingya population for conspiring against the interests of the Rakhine majority by having a higher birth rate and for being outsiders or descendents of outsiders, Rohingya leaders lament that they might have underestimated at the time when news came out of the Rakhine National Convention that so-called Rakhine forces would be coordinating attacks to drive Rohingyas out of their villages towards the North and border areas with Bangladesh.

Rohingyas are not among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups of Myanmar and lost their citizenship rights due to an undemocratic 1982 Citizenship Law. They still vest their hopes on the Central government and Burmese army in providing protection to them and establishing law and order. They are worried that local Rakhine officials reportedly lodged complaints about the army units who shot at the rioting Rakhine mobs. They are dismayed by the removal of the army units and commanders who protected Rohingyas, after the complaints from local Rakhine politicians.

It seems that this time the army's resolute action and President Sein's warning to the trouble-making, local, nationalistic forces have given a ray of hope to Rohingyas though addressing their fundamental rights is still a political taboo for both the government and opposition politicians.

Indeed, it is encouraging that on Thursday, President Sein's office warned that manipulators behind the recent violence would be exposed and legal action taken against them. Diplomats reported that the President also reached out to the Rakhine elders to seek their assistance to calm down the youth.

The Government is apparently under the siege of the extreme forces. Some explain the recent agitation as an attempt by the extreme Rakhine forces to prevent or derail the issuance of the Internal Investigation Commission's report or manipulate its findings.

The mandate of the Commission includes identifying the root causes of the inter-communal unrest, though there is not one single Rohingya among the 27 members of the Commission but there are some Rakhine extremist politicians. Rakhine extremists who look determined to cease the movement towards a "final solution," apparently are worried that the report could give legitimacy to President Sein to address the citizenship problem of Rohingyas.

When I visited Sittwe in early September heading an OIC observer team to Myanmar, it was obvious to me that the inter-communal conflict was not primarily a religious one but caused by deep rooted inter-ethnic resentment. I was particularly appalled by two things. Firstly, Rakhine locals whom I talked to all hated the UN and the NGOs. When I asked the question why, the answer was "I don't know, this is what we are told". Secondly, the high level of resentment and hatred expressed by the Buddhist monks against the Rohingya ethnic minority was also quite intriguing. However in a meeting with the Rakhine elders and businessmen pragmatism prevailed. I heard appeals for development and creation of employment opportunities. One Buddhist businessman requested assistance for provision of desperately needed rice crop machines. President Sein's recent statement that Myamnar would need assistance also from the Muslim countries was also a positive development.

Communities suffer most when extremists manipulate the populations by creating imaginary internal and external enemies. We should all encourage the democratization process in Myanmar and support the government's efforts to tackle the challenge posed by extreme Rakhine nationalists. However, we should not withhold asking the question whether Myanmar can build democracy without addressing the fundamental rights of the Rohingyas. It is time that Rohinhyas are given a prospect for their future as loyal and equal citizens of Myanmar and hatred against them should not be allowed to simmer.