Thein Sein Under Pressure on Rohingya Issue Ahead of Bangladesh Visit

By The Irrawaddy 27 June 2012

RANGOON — As Burma’s President Thein Sein prepares to make a state visit to Bangladesh next month, many in Arakanese political circles are expecting him to take a clear stand on the status of the Rohingya, a people rejected by both countries.

“During his trip, the president needs to firmly state that the Rohingya are not a Burmese ethnic group, and I hope he will say that he will tackle the problem with a strong policy,” Dr Aye Maung, an MP as well as the chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), told The Irrawaddy.

“He already knows whether they are one of our ethnicities or not, but we don’t know if  he will say it during the trip. It’s up to him. But he has to move this time very seriously,” added Hla Myint, the Rangoon Division president of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), an ethnic Arakanese political party that won a landslide victory in Arakan State in the 1990 elections.

Voices on the other side of the issue were less outspoken. When contacted by The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, leading members of Muslim and Rohingya groups declined to make any comment on the president’s trip. Kyaw Khin, the chief secretary for the All Burma Muslim Federation, said he didn’t want to comment on the trip because it is a state affair.

Privately, however, some Muslims expressed hope that the president’s visit, coming a month after the worst communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in decades, would help to resolve long-simmering tensions between the two communities in Arakan State.

“We welcome it because it’s the right trip at the right time. There are already tens of thousands of Rohingyas in Bangladesh, and they are not welcomed by either side. I hope the president will do something for them as they are his people. They are Muslims born in Burma,” said Ye Naung Thein, a Muslim of Rohingya ancestry living in Rangoon.

“When the state disowns us we feel sad. In a racially and religiously diverse country, they should recognize the Rohingya as a race. It doesn’t make sense that Arakan is a place only for Buddhist Arakanese, not for Rohingyas,” he added.

Thein Sein will also come under pressure from his hosts to address the Rohingya issue during his July 15-17 visit to Bangladesh to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

“It is expected the Myanmar refugee issue will be discussed with more seriousness this time,” Maj-Gen Anup Kumar Chakma, Bangladesh’s ambassador in Rangoon, was quoted by AFP as saying.

Recently Bangladesh sent back boatloads of hundreds of Rohingyas trying to flee the violence in Burma, saying that it could not make room for more. Bangladesh is host to around 300,000 Rohingyas, including both registered refugees and others without legal status in the country.

According to Reuters, Muhammad Zamir, Dhaka’s chief information commissioner, argued earlier this month that, as a densely populated and poverty-plagued country of 150 million, Bangladesh has played its part and now it is time for Burma, as a democratizing country, to address the root causes of the chronic exodus of Rohingyas, and for the international community to put pressure on it to do so.

Geographically, Arakan State is sandwiched between the Arakan Yoma mountain range and the Bay of Bengal, and shares a 247 km long border with Bangladesh in the north. The Naf River serves as the boundary between them.

Aye Tha Aung, the leader of the ALD, said the the refugee problem is a result of dysfunctional border immigration in the area.

He explained that Bengalis originally came from Bangladesh in search of work and a better life in Arakan State, and the undermanned border security forces and widespread corruption among immigration officials  encouraged Bengalis to enter Burma and get Burmese citizenship ID cards.

“As time has gone by, their population has increased, and they have become the majority in border townships like Maungdaw and Buthidaung. They started to claim that they are native to Arakan State. That makes us really mad,” said the 67-year-old Arakanese politician.

Aye Tha Aung said some Arakanese politician tried to report the migration and its consequences to the government in the 1990s, but their warnings “fell on the deaf ears.”

“What happened recently is a wake-up call for the government. Even though Arakan State has a state government, it’s apparently toothless. If it had any authority, it could have taken some preventive measures during the unrest, at least to some extent,” he said.

The RNDP’s Dr Aye Maung said the party is thinking about submitting a proposal on forming a militia in Arakan State for regional security in next session of Parliament.

Both politicians agree that now is the time for Thein Sein government to review the citizenship law to make some reinforcements.

“The law must enable the authorities concerned to punish someone who has acquired a Burmese citizenship ID card by illegally means. On the other hand, it must has power to take actions against corrupt immigration officials, whether they are in service or retired, who are guilty of issuing ID cards to migrants,” said Dr Aye Maung.

Hla Myint of the ALD said they are not just lobbying for the Arakanese people but for the country’s sovereignty.

“Be mindful that what we have faced in Arakan State could happen in other parts of the country,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Aye Maung, who is in the Arakan State capital Sittwe to help with relief efforts, told The Irrawaddy that he prays for the success of the Thein Sein’s trip. He also had a strong message for the president.

“I hope the president’s trip will be productive. But one of the most important things on his agenda should be to let the world know that the Rohingya don’t belong to Burma. If he fails to do so, he will surely lose the hearts and minds of his people, especially those of three million Arakanese,” he said.