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Myanmar’s Rohingya need tomorrow’s fairer world today

By Ronan Lee
September 9, 2016

Myanmar’s appointment of a Kofi Annan-chaired commission to look at Rakhine state is a positive step for the country’s Rohingya Muslims, but cannot be allowed lead to another year of waiting for action. Steps should be taken immediately to ensure the Rohingya’s human rights are guaranteed, Ronan Lee writes.

This week former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will do what around 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims cannot – travel freely around Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Punitive travel restrictions have been forced on this Muslim minority for decades meaning generations of Rohingya have needed costly official permits to travel, even to adjacent villages. This impacts every aspect of daily life. The Rohingya are also subject to restrictions on their ability to marry, have children and own property.

Long-term mistreatment of the Rohingya was compounded when communal violence engulfed Rakhine state during 2012. This violence left 192 people dead and 140,000 displaced. The vast majority (120,000) have not been able to rebuild or return to their homes, victims of a government strategy designed to prevent future violence by keeping Buddhist and Muslim communities separated.

The Muslim population suffered most in 2012 and, accounting for the overwhelming majority of the displaced, have been forced to endure the bulk of the government’s ‘solution’. My fieldwork confirms travel restrictions in particular are having a devastating impact on the Rohingya’s ability to access healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya has led to criticism and calls for action from human rights advocates, the UNand US President Obama. Myanmar’s neighbours are also losing patience because of the large number of desperate Rohingya boat refugees arriving on their shores, as many as 25,000 during the 2015 sailing season alone. In 2015 the International State Crime Initiative ominously concluded that genocide is taking place, warning of the danger of “annihilation of the country’s Rohingya population”.

Let’s be clear – the Rohingya are forced to endure deplorable human rights abuses and this needs to be immediately addressed.

At the core of the Rohingya’s lack of rights is a dispute about the legitimacy of their claim to citizenship. The Rohingya claim a centuries-long connection to Rakhine but this history is disputed by many in Myanmar including the government, which considers them to be Colonial-era migrants who are therefore not entitled to citizenship rights as an indigenous ethnic group. Myanmar’s government has treated the Rohingya as resident aliens and objects to using the name “Rohingya”, instead calling them “Bengali”, a name seen as indicating their recent migration.

Matters are further complicated because the interests of the ethnic “Rakhine” – Buddhists who make up the state’s majority – are often presented by their political elites as opposed to those of the Rohingya Muslims. This means even small steps towards safeguarding the Rohingya’s human rights can be cause for protest from ‘nationalists’ claiming to represent Rakhine/Buddhist interests.

Rakhine state is one the poorest places on the planet. The UN estimates its poverty rate is 78 per cent, around twice the national rate with average annual household income of just US $500. Only 37.8 per cent of people have access to improved drinking water, 31.8 per cent access to improved sanitation and just one in eight (12.8 per cent) have electricity for lighting.

Myanmar’s new government, dominated by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under domestic pressure to address Rakhine state’s economic woes and under international pressure to address the Rohingya issue. Suu Kyi built her international reputation as an advocate for democracy and human rights but surprised many with her attitude towards the Rohingya. Her party, the National League for Democracy even sought to placate Buddhist nationalists by fielding no Muslims among its 1090 nationwide candidates despite Muslims accounting for 4 per cent of the country’s population. The current national parliament is Myanmar’s first since independence without a single Muslim lawmaker.

Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya has been the cause of significant international reputational damage to the country. However, Suu Kyi is showing herself to be a wily politician – two weeks prior to her scheduled meeting with President Obama in Washington, when the Rohingya’s situation will undoubtedly be on the agenda – she avoided embarrassment by announcing a high-profile commission to examine the situation in Rakhine state.

The advisory commission of nine is made up of six Myanmar members representing the government, ethnic Rakhine Buddhist and Myanmar Muslim communities plus three international members including Annan as chair. Unsurprisingly, nationalists objected to the inclusion of any foreigners and immediately criticised the commission including debating it in parliament. The commission is tasked with considering humanitarian and developmental issues, access to services and basic rights and the security of people living in Rakhine state. Fieldwork carried out in northern Rakhine state with Anthony Ware during 2015 indicates that Annan and his commission members are likely to find surprising reserves of goodwill among both the ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya communities. These two groups want to live peacefully and were better off economically before their communities were separated.

But the Annan commission is not scheduled to make its recommendations until the second half of 2017, with any implementation to follow after that. For many Rohingya who today struggle to access basic healthcare services, this will simply be too long to wait.

The commission’s appointment is undoubtedly a positive move that can bring Rakhine state closer to a long-term peace while safeguarding everyone’s rights. The timing of its appointment indicates the value of continued international pressure on Myanmar to live up to its human rights obligations.

The challenge for the international community is not to lose sight of the urgent need to address the Rohingya’s human rights situation. Travel restrictions that prevent Rohingya accessing medical care and education can and should be removed today. The Kofi Annan Foundation works “Towards a fairer, more peaceful world”. This is a worthy goal but one Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims need to see realised sooner rather than later.

Ronan Lee is researching the impact of Myanmar’s political and economic liberalisation on the Muslim Rohingya. He is a PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University.

This article is a collaboration between New Mandala and Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s leading platform for policy analysis and debate.

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