What can we do about the Rohingya?

Ansar Uddin Mohammad Anas

Myanmar can no longer ignore its Rohingya population. Future generations deserve to be educated, and treated as equal citizens

  • A Rohingya Muslim family, whose members have all fallen sick, poses in a village at Maungdaw
  • Despite their cries for help, the Rohingya remain a persecuted people in Myanmar
    Photo- Bigstock

The number of people forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution crossed 52 million worldwide in 2015, the highest total recorded since World War II. This is the worst refugee crisis in its generation because of the war, conflict, religious persecution, and extreme poverty.

Historically Muslim, the Rohingya community finds itself as a minority amongst an Arakanese Buddhist majority. There are approximately 1 million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; roughly 5% of the total population. Though not the only Muslim population in the country, they make up the largest concentration in any single region. The capital of Rakhine state, Sittwe, once boasted a Muslim population of 73,000. Today, fewer than 5,000 remain.

This demographic shift in the capital is representative of the whole region. This begs the question, where have these people gone?

Since 1978, Bangladesh has experienced an upward trend of Rohingya refugees taking shelter in Bangladesh. Receiving almost half a million Rohingya refugees in the eastern region of the country, Bangladesh is now standing as one of the ten highest refugee receiving countries of the world, despite its poor economy and high population density.

Alongside this, we are approaching an increasing concern for national security in Bangladesh, with emerging cases of human trafficking and drug smuggling through maritime routes in the Bay of Bengal. What we do know is that it is a relentless upward trend of refugee influx unlike what we’ve seen in decades.

Wherever they go, these refugees are met with mixed receptions. Thailand, also a Buddhist majority country, has documented problems with its own Muslim minority population in its southern provinces. Moreover, although its immigration facilities are allegedly saturated, Thailand has been accused of sending away boatloads of Rohingya asylum seekers back to a hazardous fate at sea. A large mass grave has been discovered recently in the Thai sea coast, which indicates the pathetic journey to the end for thousands persecuted in Myanmar periodically.

Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim-majority countries, offer sympathy to their fellow Muslims, but nevertheless shrink at the idea of opening their doors to an influx of stateless refugees.

A generation is thus stuck in a cycle of poverty, absence of human rights, and lack of opportunity not only in Myanmar, the country they have called home, but also in other countries as they don the mask of the refugee.

In the aftermath of large-scale communal violence between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists in 2012, the plight of the Rohingya has held moments of attention in the international media spotlight.

This spate of violence, however, represented only the tip of the iceberg. The problem has been brewing for decades. The country’s 1982 citizenship law, put in place by the ruling military junta, set standards requiring one’s ancestors to have resided in the country prior to 1823. As a result, it has been difficult for Rohingyas to obtain full rights as citizens.

The general view of the Arakanese is that they are the sole original inhabitants of the area; Rohingyas are considered illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who settled in the Arakan province during British rule of Burma. The Rohingya claim of being one of many legitimate ethnic entities of Myanmar is thus painted as irrelevant. But contrary to the claim of majority, there is proof that there have been Muslims in the area since at least the 15th century.

Either way, the majority of Rohingyas is currently stateless. Those who attempt to escape to Bangladesh are forced to turn back, and whilst those who remain in Myanmar can, in theory, obtain citizenship so long as they meet the criterion of being third generation ”immigrants,” the requirements state dubiously that they must “be of good character” and “sound mind.”

The bleak situation of Rohingyas has become an issue of international discussion since 2012 when a mass persecution and ethnic cleansing took place by Burmese state sponsorship. According to the Myanmar government, 211 people have been killed in Rakhine since June 2012; although Rohingya activists estimate the number to be closer to 1,000. There are 140,000 internally displaced persons, 94% of whom are Muslim.

The majority of these people now reside, in refugee camps that lack sufficient humanitarian aid, offering refugees little more than a hopeless situation. International charitable organisations fear working in these camps as harassment and violence against those aiding Rohingya Muslims are common.

The government’s response to problems, which include proposing to support the resettlement of Rohingyas in other countries, has not contained the violence, which is instead spreading to new areas and spilling across borders. Meanwhile, Rohingya refugees in Rakhine are forbidden to leave their camps.

Because of the uproar over migrant trafficking in the Mediterranean and refugee crisis in the coast of Europe, the dire plight of tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing Burma by sea has passed largely unremarked by the international community so far.

However, it remains difficult to say what exactly the international community can do. Economic sanctions have been enforced in the past by the US, EU, and ASEAN countries. But in 2013, the US administration pointed out that economic sanctions were not constructive in stopping human rights violations or encouraging the democratisation of the country. However, this is not to say that the international community cannot have a positive effect on Myanmar, but this would perhaps best be done by engaging in socially responsible investment and social initiatives, rather than economic punishment.

The future of Rohingya Muslims is currently hard to predict, but the solution to work towards should be normalised pluralism. The Rohingya Muslims first need to be properly incorporated into a modern Myanmar as citizens with equal rights.

Myanmar can no longer ignore its Rohingya population. Future generations deserve to be educated, and treated as equal citizens. Their current stateless situation will only fuel the creation of a fully marginalised population stuck in a cycle of poverty, social and economic exclusion, and potential sparks of religious extremism.

The international community cannot ignore that Myanmar’s open denial of citizenship to the Rohingya is a pre-planned conspiracy of genocide. The UN is urged to handle the matter with firm hands.

This is the time to ask Myanmar to behave as all other member countries of the UN, and this international body should come forward against this barbarism. It is high time for us to rethink our approach to this crisis.

Source: Dhaka Tribune