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It's way past time to stop mistreating Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar

A Rohingya Muslim man who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape religious violence cries as he pleads from a boat after he and others were intercepted by Bangladeshi border authorities in Taknaf, Bangladesh, in June 2012. Bangladesh had been returning thousands of Rohingya Muslims, according to human rights groups. (Anurup Titu / AP)

By Syed Hamid Albar
April 20, 2016

There are more refugees and displaced people today, driven from their home by war, persecution, poverty, and climate change, than at any time since World War II. In America, perhaps, it is the Syrian refugee crisis that earns the most attention. But there is another crisis which also speaks deeply to the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, and to the Muslim world: the plight of the Rohingya.

The Rohingya are the indigenous people of southwestern Myanmar, or so-called Rakhine State. For years now, they have taken to overcrowded and leaky boats on the open sea, submitted to dangerous human trafficking networks, and seen their families split apart in a desperate bid to find safety somewhere, anywhere. Like many of the world’s refugees, they are Muslim.

But Myanmar is not Syria, torn apart by civil war. Last year, Myanmar’s economy was the fastest-growing in the world. Myanmar is entering a widely heralded new era of democracy, under the direction of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Some of the praise she and her country receive is deserved. But much of it overlooks the unacceptable treatment of her Muslim citizens, who have suffered an ongoing and accelerating process of "otherization" and dehumanization that is deeply frightening to watch.

Boats of Acehnese fishermen (in front) tow a boat of Rohingya migrants in their boat off the coast near the city of Geulumpang in Indonesia's East Aceh district of Aceh province before being rescued on May 20, 2015. Hundreds of starving boatpeople were rescued off Indonesia on May 20 as Myanmar for the first time offered to help ease a regional migrant crisis blamed in part on its treatment of the ethnic Rohingya minority. (JANUAR / AFP/Getty Images)

For decades, the Rohingya have been subject to strict restrictions. Since 1982, they were summarily rendered stateless. Today they have been herded into detention and internment camps, stripped of their valuables, denied freedom of movement, and left impoverished and lacking in even basic healthcare. It is no wonder that so many thousands make such risky journeys across treacherous waters. The plight of the Rohingya may not be well known in the West, but it is well known in the ASEAN and Muslim world.

In fact, it is one of our highest priorities.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, the world’s second largest intergovernmental organization after the U.N., has appointed me as special envoy to Myanmar. It is a sign of how seriously we take the systemic Islamophobia of Myanmar’s government, and the inexplicable silence of Aung San Suu Kyi--otherwise a champion of the dispossessed and distressed--over this treatment.

Last week in fact, heads of state from more than 30 Muslim countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Pakistan, among others, and delegations from the remaining OIC member states, gathered in Istanbul for the 13th Islamic Summit. They reiterated their support for the Rohingya and called on the new government of Myanmar, under Aung San Suu Kyi, to begin a national reconciliation process, to restore to the Rohingya the rights they deserve, to honor the potential and promise of this new era in their history.

Syed Hamid Albar is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation's special envoy to Myanmar. (OIC Today)

Indeed, national reconciliation and reintegration of the Rohingya is the only feasible, practicable way of addressing the humanitarian crisis created by years of discriminatory policy and exclusion. Should Myanmar truly wish to re-enter the international community, and realize the full potential long denied it by years of isolation and exclusion, then the question of the Rohingya must be addressed. The country has much to lose, and much to gain.

We hope the lessons of the past years, and the potential of years ahead, encourages the government of Myanmar to move in the right direction. For our part, the OIC is committed to leveraging the full diplomatic, economic and political resources of the Muslim world to that end - a commitment that was also made at last week’s Islamic Summit in Istanbul.

We remind the government of Myanmar, too, of all the ways in which they have worked with, benefited from, and built ties to our member states.

Myanmar is already a member of ASEAN, which groups 10 Southeast Asian countries together, forming what would be the world’s seventh-largest economy, and third-largest country. Three of ASEAN’s members are OIC member states--Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Of these, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country and largest economy. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims live in the Asia Pacific area, meaning that Myanmar is at the heart of a growing region, and a fast-growing Muslim market, which is developing strong links between the Gulf region and Southeast Asia, for which Myanmar could be a potential hub.

We hope, too, that the government of Myanmar can see the undeniable benefits of a long-term partnership with the Muslim world. A resolution of the status of the Rohingya would open the door to deeper ties with the Muslim world, which bring political, economic and national security benefits to Myanmar. A close relationship between Myanmar and the Muslim world is common sense. As Myanmar opens to the world, it welcomes investment, trade and tourism. The Muslim market would look to Myanmar, given its location between South Asia, Southeast Asia and China. These are not abstract aspirations.

In 2015, during catastrophic floods, the Royal Brunei Armed Forces provided emergency humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. On the election of Myanmar’s first civilian president, Indonesia’s (also elected) president, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, called for increased cooperation between these two Southeast Asian democracies, “especially in the fields of economy, trade and democratization.” Bilateral trade was $500 million in 2014, and businessmen from both countries have met to discuss doubling that amount in this very year.

Malaysia, in turn, imports $303 billion worth of goods from Myanmar, while trade between these two countries is also accelerating. Malaysia is the seventh-largest investor in Myanmar; for example, OCK Group, a Malaysian telecom provider, is planning to build 900 cellphone towers in the country.

These relationships are natural, beneficial and critical. But should the Rohingya crisis continue, Myanmar may find that many of its neighbors--including Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest Muslim countries--will be closed for business, for assistance, and for political engagement and long-term relationships.

No country should be so isolated. The choice to gain new partnerships, new relationships, and to benefit from the region in which it lies, or to descend into ever more discriminatory and violent policies, belongs to Myanmar. We hope Myanmar will make the right decision, and we stand ready to work with Myanmar to finally bring the Rohingya peace and provide them the citizenship, prosperity and security they have so long been denied. It is the better thing to do. It is also the right thing to do. Let us work together to make it happen.

Syed Hamid Albar is the OIC special envoy to Myanmar. He is former foreign minister and minister for defense for the government of Malaysia.

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