RANGOON — According to Burma’s government, the Rohingya do not exist. Denied citizenship by an internationally criticized 1982 law, the stateless “Bengali immigrants” have in the past faced pogroms, persecution from the Burmese government and more recently from other Burmese.
Thousands of Rohingya have fled to countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand over the past year, giving Burma’s neighbors and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) an ostensible stake in addressing the Rohingya crisis.
But despite launching a new human rights body at the most recent Asean summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012—including a surprise clause acknowledging “universal” human rights norms—the group has largely stuck to its non-interference mantra.
Since June 2012, over 220 people have died in what has widely been described as sectarian fighting between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma, with most of the deaths in Arakan State in the country’s west, where most of Burma’s estimated 800,000 Rohingya live.
In Arakan State last June, mobs of Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya clashed after the May rape and murder of a young Arakanese woman, a crime for which three Rohingya men were arrested. Arakanese retaliation quickly spread to Myanmar’s other Muslim groups, with ten pilgrims lynched by a Buddhist Arakanese mob in June—a crime for which nobody has been charged.
There were more Arakanese-Muslim clashes in October 2012, and in March this year, 43 were killed—some gruesomely and most of them Muslims—in central Burma, after which the sole arrests, to date, have been 3 Muslims who were involved in a shop row at the outset of the violence.
What at first looked like local sectarian fighting later took on the form of a vicious anti-Rohingya and then anti-Muslim campaign, with rabble-rousing monk Wirathu at the forefront. Burma’s current government has not only not done enough to prevent or stop the violence; it has been complicit, according to some.
The Rohingya say that they have lived in what is now Burma for generations. The Burmese government says they are illegal immigrants. Many Burmese, including senior members of the long-feted opposition National League for Democracy, men who themselves spent years in jail as political prisoners, also regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants.
Asked last October whether the Rohingya should be granted Burmese citizenship, Tin Oo, a senior NLD figure, said that “those who are not legal citizens of this country cannot stay,” adding that it was difficult to establish how many Rohingya could be entitled to Burmese citizenship.
“This is a difficult problem to solve,” he said. “When I was a young man, there were no Rohingya in Burma.”
Tin Oo’s party colleague, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been criticized for her apparent reluctance to discuss anti-Muslim violence in Burma.
Breaking this silence in Japan last week, Suu Kyi called for a revision of the citizenship laws.
“There is discrimination among citizens in our country,” she said. “We should also determine if certain laws are a hindrance to equal rights among citizens in the country, and revise them if we can.”
Mentioning a meeting she had recently with Burmese Muslim leaders, she lamented the state of inter-faith relations in Burma, saying that “this is a very sad state of affairs. We must learn to accommodate those with different views from ours.”
There has been scant regional pressure on Burma to treat the Rohingya in a more humane way. Asean’s two biggest Muslim-majority member-states—Indonesia and Malaysia—have raised the Rohingya issue with the Burmese government and have sent diplomatic and humanitarian missions to Burma and to Arakan State. But they have for the most part shied away from blunt public condemnation, as is often the way in dealings between Asean countries.
However, the bloc as a whole has been reluctant to single out Burma. Speaking at the most recent summit in Phnom Penh last November, then-Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said that member states told the Burma delegation that “if the issue is not handled by the Myanmar government, there is a risk of radicalization and extremism in that region.”
Speaking on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Vientiane on Nov. 6, a spokesman for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak expressed unease about the plight of Muslims in western Burma.
“Malaysia remains extremely concerned about ongoing tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State of Myanmar,” he said.
For the most part, that is as far as Asean or its member states have gone in public, with the one exception being Indonesia. Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa told The Irrawaddy at the ASEM summit that “one core issue in resolving the conflict is citizenship, and this is a matter the Myanmar government must address in the future.”
However, Burmese President Thein Sein told the Democratic Voice of Burma recently that the law would not be changed.
If they were of a mind to, the Burmese government could issue some sharp “heal thyself” type retorts to Jakarta or Putrajaya, in any case. Indonesia has been accused of letting anti-Christian and anti-Ahmadi sentiment get out of hand. Malaysia’s governing parties have dabbled in some sectarian brinkmanship in the run-up to the May 5 election. Hardliners linked to the government threatened to burn Bibles in an unwitting parody of the Rev. Terry Jones, that Perkasa, the group involved, said was in response to a row over whether Malaysia’s Christians should be allowed use the word “Allah” in their literature.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has been much more assertive than Asean with Burma over attacks on the Rohingya, which the OIC deems “genocide.”
Both Indonesia and Malaysia are part of an the OIC’s 11 country “Contact Group,” which has pushed Burma for greater humanitarian access to the roughly 100,000 Rohingya stuck in fetid camps in Arakan State.
The other nine members of the group are Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Djibouti, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Turkey, some of which have a torrid history of human rights abuses directed at ethnic and religious minorities.
Burma will, for the first time, chair Asean in 2014, another factor that will likely restrain the bloc’s members from tackling the Rohingya issue head on. Burma had to forego its turn as chair in the past, as Asean feared this would affect the groups’ relations with Western countries.
Next year will be a crucial one for Asean, the final year before it is scheduled to form a regional economic community, and arrangements for Burma’s role as Asean chair will likely take precedence over political or human rights concerns.
In late March, a United States-Asean meeting, looking ahead to Burma’s chairing of the association, gave the Burmese government every encouragement possible.
US Ambassador to Asean David L. Carden said: “I have every confidence Myanmar will be a leading contributor to Asean integration, including economic integration. We are pleased to see the government and private sector are focused on the road ahead and that other Asean member states are showing strong support.”