Since Myanmar’s gradual opening up after 2011, the situation of its neglected Rohingya minority has gained greater attention both inside and outside the country. This has led to unexpected international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, initially for what was seen as ‘silence’ about the plight of the Rohingya, and now for not being more determined to bring the Myanmar military into line over the Rohingya.
Rohingya Muslim refugees hold a banner and placards during a protest against what organisers say is the crackdown on ethnic Rohingyas in Myanmar, in New Delhi, India, 19 December, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi).
The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law conspicuously did not list ‘Rohingya’ as a national minority eligible for citizenship. From 1988 to 2010, Myanmar’s military government implemented a policy of segregation in Rakhine State, whereby ‘recent’ Rohingya arrivals were confined to areas of northern Rakhine State where ordinary Burmese could not enter. Rohingya there were restricted in certain activities, denied residents’ rights and consigned to a life of poverty, although they received considerable international humanitarian assistance.
As the western-most region of Myanmar, with a history of uncontrolled cross-border movements and abutting India’s secessionist-minded north-east, Rakhine State has generally been ruled directly from Myanmar’s capital. Yet Buddhist Rakhine people, or Arakanese, are one of Myanmar’s most highly integrated ethnic groups and are almost indistinguishable from the majority Burmans.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the Rohingya suffer extreme discrimination and deserve whatever sympathy and extra assistance can be mobilised. But this does not mean that their plight will be an urgent priority for the current Myanmar government.
Myanmar government authorities changed their approach to Rakhine Rohingya groups in 2012, allowing them to move to other parts of Rakhine state and encouraging many of them to leave Myanmar by boat. This coincided with the emergence of an extreme form of Buddhist nationalism led by the influential monk Ashin Wirathu. Widespread communal violence ensued in June of that year. Large numbers of Muslims and others were displaced, and new Muslim enclaves emerged in places such as the Rakhine State capital Sittwe.
Large scale international humanitarian assistance was deployed, but the lifting of freedom of expression restrictions as part of wider reforms led to social media becoming a tool to exacerbate communal tensions. Myanmar’s Buddhist political leaders were politically unable to restrain Buddhist extremism, and local security authorities — military and special border security forces — overreacted as they sought to restore law and order.
Leading into the November 2015 general elections, voting rights for Rohingya and many other Muslim residents were withdrawn and most political parties distanced themselves from Muslim candidates. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy fell in line with other political parties in Rakhine State who were anxious not to inflame community tensions any further. Making matters worse, in 2014 Myanmar’s first national census in three decades formally reaffirmed the exclusion of Rohingya from Myanmar’s list of minority groups.
After her election to parliament in April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was asked by President Thein Sein to chair a parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into developments in Rakhine. The July 2013 report from the commission stopped short of identifying a long-term response to the Rohingya issue. Aung San Su Kyi passed up opportunities to commit further support for the Rohingya.
The seriousness of the communal violence also ensured that this matter was brought to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2013. Significantly, the UNHRC determined that what was happening in Rakhine State was not ‘ethnic cleansing’, genocide or a ‘crime against humanity’, despite the vigorous advocacy of various international activist groups. Some humanitarian organisations with more knowledge of the Rakhine situation through long involvement with the Rohingya communities — such as Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Arakan Project — were conspicuous in not joining the most vocal critics.
By September 2016, more than 140,000 internally displaced peoples lived in Rakhine State. Since 2015 the situation there has deteriorated markedly, with armed attacks against Border Security forces, and weapons being discovered from October 2016. Whether this really amounts to what some have called ‘a new Muslim insurgency’ remains to be seen.
In August 2016, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed to chair a ‘Rakhine Advisory Commission’, established to make recommendations about the Rohingya with the explicit endorsement of Aung San Suu Kyi. Quite substantial US assistance has also become available for a propaganda campaign through Radio Free Asia to manage (rather defensively) the diplomatic manoeuvring around the Rohingya issue as international criticism of Myanmar has increased.
But neither of these initiatives is likely to generate a solution to the Rohingya problem. The Rakhine Commission has not yet undertaken much substantive work. And most international involvement in handling the Rohingya problem draws criticism from one or more domestic Myanmar groups, indicating that Myanmar is still far from finding a consensus on how to resolve the issues in a satisfactory manner.
Aung San Suu Kyi has herself consistently refrained from making any concrete commitment to improve the situation of the Rohingya. While often restating her priority to improving the rule of law and democratic processes, she has not lent her support to any aspirational goals for the Rohingya. While this may be a realistic acknowledgement that the army still effectively controls Rakhine State, it is nevertheless disappointing for those with great expectations of Suu Kyi.
But what of the Rohingya themselves? Nobody has yet produced worthwhile proposals to regularise the situation of the Rohingya. Should the Rohingya abandon their renunciation of armed struggle, Suu Kyi and the Myanmar government may have an even more dangerous situation on their hands in Rakhine State.
Trevor Wilson is a Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.