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Rohingya are an indigenous people of Burma: OIC Sec-Gen

Secretary-general of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Prof. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. (PHOTO: OIC)

By Colin Hinshelwood
December 11, 2013

The secretary-general of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Prof. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, spoke with DVB about his recent trip to Burma where he pledged OIC assistance to all communities in Arakan state – Buddhist and Muslim alike. We asked him about Rohingya rights, Rule of Law, and the path to a peaceful future.

Q: Several figures in Burma/ Myanmar have expressed opinions that the major reason for sectarian violence or anti-Muslim riots in the country is a fundamental lack of rule of law. To what extent do you believe law enforcement (or a lack thereof) is to blame? And, is this the major reason for the violence? If not, what is?

A: From 13-17 November 2013, a seven-member OIC Ministerial Contact Group Delegation visited Myanmar at the invitation of the President to assess the situation on the ground and toured camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The Delegation held discussions with government officials, members of civil society organizations and political parties, which enabled the OIC to obtain a better appreciation of the local conditions and causes of the communal tensions on the ground.

While Myanmar is making tremendous steps towards democracy there is still a need to strengthen institutions and maintain enforcement of the rule of law, particularly in Rakhine [Arakan] state. However, the inter-communal tensions that erupted stem largely from fundamental misunderstandings and misconceptions amongst different communities about each other. There is fear, suspicion and mistrust driven by false propaganda against Islam and Muslims on social media and by some extremists. The Government recognizes that this lack of trust that pervades the community makes reconciliation and harmonious living difficult and the OIC has made itself available to play a role, if requested, in this regard.

Q: Several politicians in Burma, including President Thein Sein, have openly suggested that a solution to this ongoing problem of religious violence is to request Muslim nations and third countries to accept the Rohingyas as refugees. Is this proposal open to debate? Under what circumstances? If not, why not?

A: The Rohingya people have been in Arakan state for centuries and this is a matter of historical record. The Muslim political influence can be traced back to 1784, when the Burmese King Bodawpaya conquered Arakan.

As for the Rohingya refugees who have been pushed out of their territory, there are around 2.5 million refugees spread around the world, particularly in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE [United Arab Emirates], Thailand and Malaysia. The OIC acknowledges that much more reforms are needed to solve human rights and citizenship issues and to ensure the safe return of Rohingya refugees to their ancestral land. The Rohingya are not an alien people to the land of Arakan. There is currently a process of verification underway by the Government for those living in IDP camps and the OIC hopes that this process can be completed soon so that the government can proceed to rectify the status of those who have a right to citizenship.

Q: Much of the rhetoric coming from the anti-Muslim or anti-Rohingya voices in Burma focuses on the notion that in the 1830s, 135 ethnic groups were identified and recognised in Burma. Do these voices have a valid point? To what degree is Burma bound by international norms to accept an influx of people such as the Rohingya?

A: During our visit to Myanmar, we did encounter protesters who were influenced by such anti-Muslim rhetoric propagated by a small minority of extremists. However, this is fuelled by a great deal of misunderstanding about Islam and fear of cultural differences, which are driving the tensions. In fact, the Rohingya are an indigenous people of the land and should be accorded their legal rights. In previous years Rohingyas living within the borders of Myanmar faced severe human rights violations by the military junta such as revoking of their citizenship, refusal to reinstate, restriction of travel, denial of marriage and education, confiscation of lands, forced cheap labour, as well as rape and extortion. Under the leadership of the President and a democratic and pluralistic government we would like to see prosperity, development and social harmony be achieved in Rakhine state for the benefit of all people there and in Myanmar more generally.

Q: What is your opinion on whether the 1982 Citizenship Law should be amended to accommodate the Rohingya community and other groups?

A: From the earliest days of the modern Burmese state, the Rohingya enjoyed recognition of their language, their culture, and their right to citizenship, which was stripped from them by the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of the 1982 Citizenship Law. The discriminatory provisions of this law have been used to deny citizenship to most Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups, and should be amended. The Law recognises not one, but three categories of citizens: citizens, associate citizens and naturalised citizens. The latter two categories of associate or naturalised citizens can lose their citizenship for very minor reasons. It should be noted also that just two weeks ago the Human Rights Committee of the UN General Assembly passed a resolution urging Myanmar to give the stateless Rohingya minority equal access to citizenship and to crack down on violence against them and other Muslims in the Southeast Asian nation.

Q: During your last visit to Burma, the OIC pledged to help both or all communities in Arakan state. How do you envisage OIC’s role in providing humanitarian aid and to a larger degree, helping to establish peace in the region?

A: At the conclusion of the visit a joint communiqué was issued which expressed the common understanding of the way forward for OIC-Myanmar relations. The joint communiqué outlined the framework of cooperation; it was agreed that coordination of activities would take place through OIC ASEAN member states (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei) specifically for the delivery of humanitarian aid. In addition, the need for interfaith dialogue, reconciliation and building mutual trust was identified and efforts are underway to develop programs that will bring peace, stability, and economic prosperity for the benefit of all communities in Rakhine state.

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