Rohingya Is More than a Human Rights Issue for Myanmar

By Aung Din

Portrait of a Rohingya refugee in Myanmar. Source: Steve Gumaer's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Portrait of a Rohingya refugee in Myanmar. Source: Steve Gumaer’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The majority of people in Myanmar perceive that the United States and the international community have been biased and one-sided when they approach the situation of the Rohingya, or Bengalis as they are called in Myanmar, in the western state of Rakhine. The United States should not only consider this to be a human rights problem, but should also recognize that it is an immigration and national security problem much like one that the United States also faces at home.

No one can deny that Muslims have been present in Rakhine State since the 17th century or even earlier. Their numbers increased after Myanmar was occupied by Britain, beginning in 1826. They came from Bengal, Chittagong, India, and other areas colonized by the British. Whether they call themselves Rohingya, Bengali, or something else, they are basically immigrants and not an indigenous ethnic group of Myanmar, such as the Karen or Shan.

The Rohingya therefore cannot claim indigenous ethnic rights. Many of them deserve citizenship because they have lived in Myanmar for many generations, but many others could be considered illegal immigrants who crossed from Bangladesh to Myanmar only in recent years.

For the United States to consider the situation of the Rohingya as a human rights problem alone ignores the complexities within the Rohingya community. Some have advocated for the use of violence, while others have demanded to divide Rakhine State into two parts, one of which would join Pakistan. There are other groups that are well-connected with international terrorists and have called for jihad, while others are under the influence of and financed by some fundamentalist Islamic countries.

As a result, the United States should avoid pressuring Myanmar to accept the Muslims in Rakhine state as an indigenous ethnic group and give them citizenship immediately. In Myanmar, neither the government nor the people will bow to such pressure, and changing their status to an indigenous people is not under consideration. Even in the United States, giving amnesty to all illegal immigrants is a thorny issue.

Allowing undocumented people to choose a path to citizenship is also complicated. In Myanmar, most Muslims in Rakhine State do not speak, write, and read the Rakhine or Burmese language, and do not care about the history of the country, let alone considering loyalty to it.

The incompetence and the lack of goodwill among many Myanmar government officials, combined with the lack of cooperation from the Muslim population, have and will continue to make the process of citizenship very difficult. Even for legal immigrants in the United States, those who cannot speak, write, and read English, and who do not know basic U.S. history, are ineligible for citizenship.

So what should the United States do? It should pressure the government of Myanmar to expedite the process of citizenship, prevent further violence, provide necessary assistance for those who are refugees, and allow international organizations and media access to refugee camps in Rakhine State without hindrance. The United States should also equally press these Muslim populations to abide by the laws of Myanmar, avoid the use of violence, respect the traditions of the country, study the Rakhine or Burmese language, learn the history of Myanmar, and be loyal to Myanmar if they want to call the country their home.

Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently living in the United States. He is now serving as Consultant for the Moemaka Multimedia based in San Francisco, and Adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a nonprofit organization based in Yangon with the vision of promoting the right to information and education – an imperative to get each and every citizen engaged in Myanmar’s transition towards the future where peace prevails and democracy prospers. Please see more information about OMI here.

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