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This article was first published 7 years ago  » News » EXCLUSIVE: No country for the Rohingyas

EXCLUSIVE: No country for the Rohingyas

By Archana Masih
March 02, 2017 14:39 IST
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‘Change has to come within Myanmar itself’.

‘I have called upon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to listen to her ‘inner voice’ and speak directly to the people of Myanmar.’

IMAGE: A Rohingya migrant child, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, eats chocolate while queuing up with others for immigration identification purposes inside a temporary compound for refugees in Aceh Timur regency, Indonesia's Aceh Province.

According to recent figures, an approximate 90,000 Rohingyas have fled the country in hope of finding a better home. 

Photograph: Beawiharta/Reuters

Imagine living in a country, but being denied citizenship.

Imagine being a part of a country, but being discriminated against by the majority community and atrocities being committed against you by the state. 

This is the deplorable conditions that the Rohingyas of Myanmar live in where they are cut off from their livelihoods and sources of income, unable to access markets, hospitals and schools, and have little or no access to relief aid.

In order to understand the situation and the genesis of the tragedy unfolding,’s Archana Masih speaks to Ambassador Vijay Nambiar, the former United Nations’ Chef de Cabinet (Chief of Staff), who had served a long stint with the UN in New York. 

Till recently, a Special Advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Myanmar, he provides an understanding of the human tragedy unfolding there.

Do read this exclusive!

I want to begin with a simple question and a worrying question: why is the world continuing to ignore/ or not doing enough against the human right violations of the minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar?

For over two decades, the United Nations has worked with member states and regional organisations like ASEAN to end military rule in Myanmar, usher in democratic reform, secure the release of political prisoners and assure human rights to its people.

The changes since the 2010 elections in the country under the U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi governments were, at least partly, the result of these efforts. However, the ‘institutionalised discrimination’ practised by the majority Buddhist community against minority communities, especially against the Muslims, over decades did not change.

We must recognise that apart from its human rights and humanitarian aspects, the Rohingya issue involves complicated questions of citizenship, status and identity that have a long and disputed history. Over decades, the military regime had politicised the communal situation in Myanmar. With political liberalisation, the country has witnessed sharpened animosities and popular stereotypes against minority communities, particularly after the outburst of violence in Northern Rakhine in 2012 (see box).

The 2008 Myanmar constitution recognises 135 ethnic or racial groups in the country, including some Muslim ethnic groups, but there is strong opposition among these groups to granting official status to the ‘Rohingyas’ as an indigenous ethnic group.

Over the past years, the UN and the international community have been pressing the Myanmar government to address the root causes behind the large scale internal displacements after the violent events of 2012 but these efforts have not yielded significant results mainly because of the lack of political will on the part of the government of Myanmar to take decisive action as well as the intransigent attitude of powerful elements within the majority community in Rakhine state as well as at the national level.

The outside world is not ignoring the plight of the Rohingyas. But change has to come within Myanmar itself. While raising its voice against targeted violence and to end discrimination against them, the UN has pressed the government to take effective measures to preserve communal harmony, resolve status and citizenship questions and work constructively with all citizens to ensure equal respect for the rights and means of livelihood of the Rohingyas alongside the other communities in the state.

This has required both strong public advocacy as well as quiet, patient and sustained effort at the ground level.

IMAGE: They flee their homes, hoping for a better future. However, in many cases, the Rohingyas are forced to live in squalid camps with no proper food, or aid. Photograph: Roni Bintang/Reuters

The UN has called the Rohingyas the ‘most persecuted minority group in the world’ -- and when former chief of UN, Kofi Anan, arrived in Myanmar with his team to look into the military crackdown on Rohingya, he was met by protesters, who were against foreign intervention. What are the UN’s challenges in dealing with this crisis?

I am not aware of the provenance or accuracy of the quote ascribed to the UN. But it is clear that in the early years of Burmese independence (1948-62), the country’s Muslim communities, including many who identified themselves as Rohingya, were recognised as citizens, given official identification cards and other documents and enjoyed the benefits of citizenship including voting and election to Parliament.

Indeed, for a brief period in the ’60s, the areas of Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and parts of Rathedaung in northern Rakhine were even administered separately by the centre. It was only subsequently, by enacting legislation in 1974 and the 1982 revised citizenship law, that the military rulers reversed this situation and stripped this community of its rights, restricted them from travel, denied education, government assistance, land ownership, and even restricted their right to marry freely or have more than two children.

Inside Rakhine, they were portrayed as interlopers snatching economic benefits and opportunities from the majority Buddhist community.

When communal violence irrupted in Rakhine in May 2012 and tensions affected other parts of the country, the UN interceded strongly with the authorities, both at national and local levels against making this a religious or communal issue and stressing the need for public mobilisation to counter hate speech and incitement by hardline elements as well as action to overcome prejudice, mistrust and suspicion that festered among the communities.

It was UN pressure that resulted in the setting up of the Inquiry Commission in 2012. I was personally one of the first foreign nationals to visit northern Rakhine after the outbreak of violence there. Since then, I visited Rakhine almost a dozen times to call on leaders of both communities to abjure violence, respect law and order and promote inter-communal contacts.

The UN also worked steadily and quietly with the authorities to improve access to humanitarian assistance for more than 140,000 affected internally displaced persons. The UN also promoted the setting up of an independent Centre for Diversity and National Harmony. This body has done significant work over the past four years to defuse the animosities between the communities and bring them together at the local level outside the public gaze.

What happened in Rakhine in 2012?

In 2012, waves of deadly violence engulfed parts of the western Rakhine state.

It began in June 2012 when widespread rioting and clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, largely thought to be Rohingya Muslims, left 200 dead and displaced thousands. It was the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman which sparked off that deadly chain of events.

Violence between Muslims and Buddhists broke out again in late October. According to the government, more than 80 people were killed, more than 22,000 people were displaced, and more than 4,600 houses burnt.

However, despite reassurances to the international community, the government was not able to take meaningful action to improve the desperate humanitarian situation affecting the IDPs or to resolve the substantive issues of status and citizenship for the Rohingyas.

In fact, some measures such as the enactment of the four ‘race and religion protection’ laws in the Parliament in 2014 had the opposite effect, as did the government orders cancelling their temporary IDs and denying them voting rights immediately before the 2015 elections.

In my successive meetings with senior ministers of the previous government, I had warned that the continued denial of such basic rights and lack of official attention to their plight risked radicalising the local population and the resurgence of violence in the State. We are seeing this happening now.

Despite the high hopes generated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s success at the 2015 national election, inside Rakhine state, the local Arakan National Party, which won the largest share of seats, has remained steadfastly opposed to any improvement in the situation for the Muslim minorities.

Unfortunately this sentiment was shared by many Buddhist groups across the country. On her part, Daw Suu spoke out strongly at the UN General Assembly in September 2016 in favour of ‘standing firm against the forces of prejudice and intolerance’ and reaffirmed her ‘faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.’

Indeed, her setting up of a national Advisory Commission on Rakhine state under the chairmanship of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was a sign of her determination to address this issue from a larger perspective.

Considering this, in my own report to the UN General Assembly last year in October, I had asked the international community to allow more space and time for the new government to tackle these priority commitments. Privately, the UN and other international partners had continued to stress very strongly to the new government that urgent action was needed to provide reassurance to the affected minority communities. Sadly, these pleas did not receive sufficient attention from the authorities.

IMAGE: Thousands of Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh seeking a brighter future. 

Dhaka estimates 400,000 Rohingya refugees are living in the country, including nearly 73,000 who fled a military crackdown across the border since October.

Photograph: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

The most recent and widely condemned attacks of early October and November last year by armed elements against army border posts in Northern Rakhine marked a new stage in the growing communal cleavage in the country. These attackers were apparently trained and organised with outside help, chose predetermined targets, used new tactics and techniques directed mainly at the security forces than civilian populations and orchestrated their violent attacks with strong messaging in the social media.

After sustaining severe initial losses, Myanmar’s security forces responded with swiftness and severity. Repelling the immediate attacks, they then launched combing operations covering the entire region of northern Maungdaw, which was declared an ‘operation zone’ sealed to all outsiders.

From early October last year until late February this year, the army and police forces carried out systematic clearing operations pursuing attackers and suspected collaborators and engaging them directly. While, unquestionably the security forces were justified in launching these operations, the extent to which the local civilian populations were affected by the severity of the government response was unclear and disputed.

It was obvious that during the operations, entire villages lived in an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and tension. Many reports suggested outright reprisals and depredations against civilians with local villagers alleging that security forces had torched villages to flush out attackers and subjected locals to severe excesses including egregious acts of violence against women and children.

'Within Myanmar, all communities must jointly oppose the violence, disunity and division that are being instigated by a small group of criminal elements'

Though the state government as well as the official investigation commission denied the veracity of these reports, a recent flash report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights which collated credible accounts from direct sources that had fled to Bangladesh contains horrific descriptions of actions by the security forces that the UNHCHR declared could possibly amount to ‘crimes against humanity’.

While the local authorities in Rakhine continue to deny these allegations, it is significant that the central government of Myanmar has promised to look into the specific allegations raised by the UN and the official Investigation Commission has also agreed to go into these allegations with a view to holding the perpetrators accountable.

Notwithstanding the widespread revulsion within the international community to these alarming reports, however, do not seem to have produced within the authorities any deep sense of circumspection or willingness to address the root causes of this problem.

As Chair of the nine-member Advisory Commission on Rakhine, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has sought to focus on these root causes. In early December, when he visited the state, he also called on the government to follow up on its assurance to allow increased and unimpeded humanitarian and media access to all communities in the region.

While he recognised the justification for continued security operations, he stressed that the protection of civilian lives should be a priority and called on government forces to act fully in compliance with the rule of law. He was, however, wary in responding to media allegations of ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ saying these were serious charges that required legal review and judicial determination.

IMAGE: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar. 

Heinous crimes such as stabbings, slaughtering are perpetrated against the Rohingya children, a claim that has been repeatedly denied by the government. 

Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Has the silence of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on the Rohingyas diminished, even damaged her image? She has been criticised for not speaking out. What do you see as the reasons for her lack of adequate response? Why is she not championing the Rohingya cause?

As special adviser to the secretary-general, I had underlined that the refusal by the authorities to take a strong stance against the hardliners and the adoption of generally defensive rather than a proactive approach to providing security to the local population had sent wrong messages both to these elements as well as internationally.

I feel that only by responding directly and concretely to the concerns of the local population will the government be able to send a clear message to them and preserve its international standing.

I have called upon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to listen to her ‘inner voice’ and speak directly to the people of Myanmar. She must ask her people to rise above their ethnic, religious and other differences and advance human dignity, harmony and mutual cooperation between all communities.

Within Myanmar all communities must jointly oppose the violence, disunity and division that are being instigated by a small group of criminal elements. I have also appealed to Daw Suu to visit Maungdaw and Buthidaung and reassure the civilian population there that they will be protected. 

PLEASE READ: The 'nowhere people' of Myanmar

Furthermore, a reiteration of her promise to address the root causes affecting the local population, namely that of citizenship and status, and to provide relief to the internally displaced since 2012, would go a long way to relieve tension and promote realistic and sustainable solutions. 

While the UN and the international community must continue to strongly voice their concerns, ultimately it is the people of Myanmar and their leaders who will have to resolve both the immediate and longer term issues afflicting their communities and impeding their progress through joint, inclusive and cooperative action under national ownership.

While, like other national political figures Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has her own specific perspective on Myanmar’s citizenship and status issues, I am convinced she has both the moral authority and political clout to bring about this important change.

We must continue to trust her to do the right thing and provide space for her to do so while functioning within the given political environment. In this volatile situation, it is everyone’s responsibility to avoid incitement, provocation or rumour that could cause further violence and unrest. 

In recent weeks, Daw Suu’s has convened an ASEAN regional meeting, responded constructively to initiatives from Indonesia and even Malaysia and her colleagues have reached out to Bangladesh.

However, cautious and measured these moves may appear, they are positive signs. With the formal ending of military operations in northern Rakhine, I am hopeful the process of healing can start.  

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are around 9,000 Rohingyas registered in Delhi and thousands more unregistered living in other parts of the country. However, the response of India and ASEAN have been seen as rather disappointing. As a mature democracy -- what should India’s role be?

While much more can be done by each of the neighbouring countries at different levels, I would not describe the response of India and ASEAN as disappointing.

Similarly, the overall response of Bangladesh to this very difficult situation has been mostly constructive and needs to be commended and encouraged.

Some observers believe (external link) that the international community is shying from putting pressure on China -- Myanmar’s close ally -- because it would raise questions about its own human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet?

While the international community as a whole will need to work steadily and persevere in encouraging greater adherence to rule of law and accountability in Myanmar, I am not sure a mere approach of pressure, censure or sanctions against the government in Naypyitaw is likely to be productive in this case. Like other countries, China should also counsel Myanmar to be more responsive to international concerns.

IMAGE: For most part, the Buddhist community in Myanmar has discriminated against the Rohingyas and have also protested against using the term Rohingyas. Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

There is concern about the possibility of a breeding ground for religious terrorism as a response to Myanmar’s brutality. What are the dangers of this becoming susceptible to Jihadi elements and terrorism?

Though radical movements have appeared in northern Rakhine in the past, they have not enjoyed much local support. In the present desperate and deteriorating situation, there is clearly the danger that such support to radicalism could increase.

It is evident that in carrying out its October attacks, the self-styled Harakah al-Yaqin has depended on some local support, either voluntarily or by intimidating elements within the local population. There are also reports of threats and provocations from other radical groups across the world in support of the cause of the Rohingyas.

In such a situation, the recourse by the security forces to indiscriminate or disproportionate force against the local population or any attempt by local politicians to allow the issue to assume a communal colour can only exacerbate the situation.

The recent events seem to have compounded anti-Muslim sentiment around the nation and it is the responsibility of the government to reverse this trend. This is why I feel the top national leadership must proactively reach out to all communities in the country.

A visit by Daw Suu to northern Rakhine will, for example, go a long way to reassure the civilian population there. I feel such a move would help her reach out to all communities and publicly declare the government’s determination to provide safety, security and protection to all communities against criminality and lawless behavior.

Only through such overt action will the exodus of villagers from the region be stemmed and those who have already fled be provided the assurance to return to their homes.

How do you assess the response of the Muslim countries to the plight of the Rohingyas?

While the Rohingyas have received strong public support from the international community and there has been virulent criticism of the actions of the Myanmar government in the press and the social media, the responses of the various governments have been much more measured.

Some Organization for Islamic Cooperation countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey have reached out with humanitarian assistance and practical help to the Myanmar government, which has responded positively to these gestures even where it has strongly repudiated anything perceived as interference in its internal affairs.

Within the UN, the OIC has also been similarly measured in its response even while it has strongly criticised the government of Myanmar. At the forthcoming meeting of the Human Rights Council of the UN in Geneva, the UN Special Rapporteur Dr Yanghee Lee is likely to report on her recent visit to Myanmar.

The meeting is likely also to discuss the flash report of the UNHCHR. This will almost certainly result in a fresh outpouring of criticism against the authorities in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the fate of many Rohingya refugees who have sought asylum in many Muslim countries has not been much better than the region they have fled from. Many remain segregated, discriminated, desperate and uncertain as to how long they can continue in their new countries of asylum. 

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