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Burma must address its ‘Rohingya problem’

Royhingas at IDP camp in Burma

Rohingyas at an IDP camp in Sittwe, Burma. European Commission DG ECHO under a Creative Commons Licence

How do you solve a problem like Burma’s Arakan (Rakhine) State, where violence is almost a daily fare for the men, women and children in the impoverished area?

The solution is not a simple one, but the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Burmese government must acknowledge that the problem is affecting the whole region, and act swiftly.

Riots erupted last year between the Rohingya Muslims and the ethnic Rakhine people at the Rakhine State of Burma, killing about 170 people and displacing roughly 140,000 mostly Rohingyans, according to the United Nations.

‘It’s clear that the ethnic violence in Arakan (Rakhine) state is having a direct impact throughout the region, because over 35,000 Rohingya fled Burma and Bangladesh last year by boat. Those Rohingya are landing in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and demanding protection and the right to survive and work,’ says Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for Asia of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The problem will worsen in the coming ‘sailing season’, when the Andaman Ocean storms abate and the rickety Rohingya fishing boats can sail, Robertson explains.

‘They are fleeing deprivation, dispossession and violence, in some cases leaving with little more than the clothes on their backs. At the moment, there are over 150,000 Rohingya confined to internally displaced persons camps in Arakan state, suffering from violence and abuse at the hands of security personnel, and an incredible lack of basic food and other services. It’s a real disaster.’

The human rights watchdog believes that ASEAN as a regional organization should be doing more to address the problem, ‘but they apparently are not,’ says Robertson.

‘ASEAN should be organizing its affected members, working alongside other concerned nations like Australia, the US, Bangladesh, and others, to demand that the Burma government recognize the Rohingya as citizens, and promote reconciliation and peace between them and the ethnic Rakhine.’

If the problem continues, it could hobble Burma’s reform efforts.

But Burma is reluctant to have neighbours involved in addressing the ongoing tension between Muslims and Buddhists across the country when it takes its turn as Chair of ASEAN next year.

Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said in a press briefing that Burma is stepping up efforts to improve its human rights situation, but that the problem of the Rohingya Muslims in the Rahkine State remains a national issue and not a regional concern.

‘No, it will not be in the ASEAN agenda,’ said Htut, when asked if it would be among the priority issues in ASEAN when Burma is Chair. ‘This is our problem, not a regional one,’ he said. 

The statement runs counter to efforts by ASEAN and its members, such as Indonesia, which have been calling for a regional approach to the problem.

But outside pressure is mounting on Burma to address the issue as tensions continue to simmer.

Eva Kusuma Sundari, president of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, says the issue is a problem not just for Burma but for the ASEAN region as well. 

Burma, which is currently in the midst of an historic transition to democracy after half a century of military rule, cannot hide behind the non-interference principle, she insists: ‘Human rights are every human and every nation’s issue. The Rohingya [problem] has affected others in the region, especially Malaysia and Indonesia.’

Sundari believes that international pressure would help ensure reforms in the country in its journey to democracy.

At the same time, she says that ASEAN countries remain soft on human rights violations despite the regional ramifications: ‘International pressure is still seen as key to ensuring reforms are more than just superficial.’

UN Special Rapporteur for Burma Tomas Quintana agrees that the problem is affecting not just Burma but other countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, two major destinations for Rohingya refugees.

‘Of course it is a regional problem. I hope this doesn’t develop into other forms of violence and spread through the region,’ says Quintana, who is preparing an updated human rights report on Burma to be released in October.

‘The challenge is to address the problem not mainly as a religious problem but to look at the other factors. There are questions of land property and questions of jobs, so it is important to stop seeing the problem just as a religious conflict.’

Sundari believes third-party mediation may also help and that for national level peace talks to be effective and binding, they need to be in a neutral environment hosted by a neutral third party. Quintana agrees:

‘It’s important to find space for dialogue. In order to start a process of dialogue it’s necessary to build trust. That’s our challenge and that’s our hope. I don’t see any other way.’

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