By Murray Hiebert & Phuong Nguyen —
Two months after the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office, State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi embarked on a process to start addressing the plight of stateless Muslims in Rakhine State, one of the most intractable — and internationally contentious—challenges facing Myanmar. In a joint press conference with U.S. secretary of state John Kerry on May 22, Aung San Suu Kyi asked that she be given “enough space” to tackle the problem.
The new government announced May 31 that a 27-member Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi and including ministers at both the union and state levels, has been established. Seven members of the committee took their first inspection tour of Rakhine State on June 1 to visit camps housing internally displaced persons, meet with community leaders, and take stock of the infrastructure and living conditions across the state. Approximately 1 million self-identified Muslim Rohingya live in the impoverished state in western Myanmar.
The committee is organized into four working groups focused on security, peace, stability, and rule of law; immigration and citizenship verification; resettlement and socioeconomic development; and cooperation with the United Nations and other international organizations.
The press conference with Kerry marked the first time Aung San Suu Kyi had used the word “Rohingya” in public. She had been the target of human rights groups, which have long criticized the democracy icon for not coming out in support of the disenfranchised group. In Aung San Suu Kyi’s own words, “Emotive terms make it very difficult for us to find a peaceful and sensible resolution to our problems.” Many Buddhists in Myanmar see the Muslim Rohingya as a threat to the country’s mainstream identity and call them Bengalis, suggesting they descended from illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
At the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi publicly said that her government recognizes the need to address the problem of citizenship for Muslims in Rakhine State, and to do so without forcing them to self-identify as “Bengali.”
By contrast, the previous government insisted that Rohingya do not exist in Myanmar, and it required undocumented Muslims in Rakhine State to identify themselves as Bengalis if they wanted to undergo citizenship verification or be counted in the national census.
Yet, like its predecessor, the new Myanmar government has refused to include the Muslims in Rakhine in its list of 135 official ethnic groups, or “national races,” in the country, as laid out in the 1982 citizenship law. Not being listed as a national race means they have fewer rights and less access to government-provided services, and are often widely discriminated against. After communal riots erupted in Rakhine in 2012, during which more than 100 people died, about 125,000 Muslims were forced out of their villages into tightly controlled camps, where they depend on international aid for food and health care. Rakhine Muslim communities have looked to Aung San Suu Kyi to improve their bleak situation by allowing them freedom to move and leave the camps for their old homes.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to prioritize the difficult Rakhine issue — in addition to putting an end to decades-long conflicts with armed ethnic groups — as part of her national reconciliation agenda deserves to be recognized.
In the midst of rising Buddhist nationalism and a climate of distrust among different ethnic and religious groups despite recent democratic reforms, the new committee will have to proceed very carefully to make sure that any economic development projects in Rakhine will deliver for both local Muslim and local Buddhist communities, and that moves toward providing citizenship to Rakhine Muslims will not result in a widespread nationwide backlash spearheaded by nationalist elements.
According to the 1982 citizenship law, residents whose forefathers lived in Myanmar in 1824 qualify as full citizens if they are part of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Those who came after 1824 qualify as associate citizens with fewer rights than full citizens. Herein lies the muddled controversy surrounding the issue: while many Rohingya claim ancestry that dates back at least to a 15th-century kingdom in Rakhine State, most of Myanmar’s Buddhists regard them as foreigners brought over from Bangladesh when British rule over parts of then-Burma began in 1824. An unknown number of Muslims who had come from Bangladesh under British rule also settled in Myanmar for successive generations.
Rights groups have long called on Myanmar to amend its laws, which create different categories of citizenship and exclude groups like the Rakhine Muslims from full citizenship. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has not said whether it will try to amend the country’s citizenship law and bring it more into line with international practices. A fair number of Muslims in Rakhine State who had undergone citizenship verification under the previous government had trouble producing documentation dating back or prior to 1824. This same problem is expected to confront the new government’s Rakhine efforts.
For Aung San Suu Kyi and the international community, addressing the plight of the Rakhine Muslims would need to involve, as she put it, “practical solutions” in Rakhine State. The NLD government has allocated an initial $5.9 million to develop and address communal tensions in Rakhine State. Minister of Border Affairs Lt. Gen. Ye Aung, who also sits on the committee, said the government is ready to mobilize more resources to go toward improving the situation in Rakhine in the future if necessary.
To be sure, a lot could still go wrong in an environment fraught with decades of violence and animus. As a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic efforts and Myanmar’s ongoing reform process, the U.S. government should find ways to support this process.
A first step might be to look beyond the terminology, whether “Rohingya” or “Bengali.”
Use of the word “Rohingya” in Myanmar sets off Buddhist nationalist sentiment, distracts from rational conversations about solutions, and does little to improve the plight of people in Rakhine State. Likewise, describing the situation with inflammatory descriptions such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” does nothing more than fan emotions on the ground against Muslim communities. Avoiding emotive words, of course, does not mean that the United States tolerate abuse.
Just as importantly, the international community has a role in helping the poor among the Rakhine Buddhist population in the country’s least-developed state as a confidence-building measure to demonstrate that the outside world does not pick one side over the other in this conflict.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. Ms. Phuong Nguyen is an associate fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.