Suu Kyi, Rohingya plight and three steps to a solution

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize and the Plight of the Rohingyas.

The problem

On rare occasions, the Nobel Peace Prize is given to someone with an eye to the future in the hope that he or she will live up to its lofty expectations. In 1991 it was given to Aung San Suu Kyi, a young, well-spoken, charismatic politician from Myanmar, for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. She led and pitted her party against the established military junta and won. Myanmar, under her stewardship was poised to come out from military repression and join the world community as a budding democracy. It was an auspicious beginning. But, how soon perceptions change when faced with real events on the ground.

A little history

Myanmar, once known as Burma, is a country of 53 million. It is a tropical paradise of dense forests, wide rivers and golden pagodas. The vast majority of its population is Buddhist. It became part of the British Empire when the British subjugated the Arakan and adjoining kingdoms. From the 17th century, the Empire had imported laborers from Bengal (now Bangladesh) bordering the Rakhine province of Myanmar to work in the fields, forests and ports of Rakhine. Many came voluntarily and settled in Rakhine because there was work to be had. Their descendants and others are the Rohingyas, Muslim by religion and now over 1 million in number.

The Rohingyas are possibly the world’s most persecuted minority and the largest single group of stateless people. They are not accepted as citizens of Myanmar even though many have lived there for generations. They are considered outsiders, interlopers, ‘Bengalis’ who came from Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Bangladesh does not consider them its citizens either and so not its problem.

Myanmar has over 100 official ethnic groups but ‘Rohingya’ is not one of them. Consequently, Rohingyas have very few rights. Myanmar law does not protect non-citizens (read Rohingyas). They live on the fringes of society often without access to education or health care. In 2012 tensions boiled over and communal riots broke out between the Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas. There were charges of ethnic cleansing and genocide as close to 140,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee and now live in squalid refugee camps around Cox Bazar in Bangladesh. Over 25,000 fled by boat to Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia with the inevitable human trafficking and exploitation that accompanies the exodus of desperate humans. Hundreds drowned in the process. Militant Rohingyas retaliated against Myanmar border guards and this was followed by the inevitable, heavy handed crack down by the army. There were credible reports of gutting of villages, killings and rape by the army.  The sad story continues, but the goal of this article is not to chronicle them but to explore avenues for a solution. Here are three points worth considering.

Three steps towards a solution.

  1. Aung San Suu Kyi should speak out more forcefully on the Rohingya issue, but she avoids using the term ‘Rohingya’ because it is “controversial”, not ‘official”. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on human rights. She now has to prove she deserved the honor. To do this, she has to use some political capital and stand up to the army and the ethnic Rakhines. This is politically unpopular, she knows that she needs the army’s blessing to stay in power. But sometimes one has to choose what is right over what is expedient. Rohingyas who have lived in Myanmar for generations do have a right to citizenship. She has to speak up, her silence is deafening. The good news is that talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh have begun, a first, welcome step. But they cover only 65000 Rohingyas while over 500,000 have fled to Bangladesh.
  1. The international community should exert pressure on the Myanmar government to find a solution to the Rohingya problem. The international press has been woefully negligent. Only when the bright light of the press is focused on the problem and international condemnation is brought to bear will the ruling party in Myanmar agree to address this issue. Only when Syrian refugees started to trek into Europe did the Western press start reporting on it. Only then did it become a big refugee crisis with discussions in the UN with plans and resources to combat it. World news in the US and Europe show Asian refugees being rescued in the Mediterranean and UN refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece. That is good. The Rohingya problem is as severe if not more but receives a fraction of the press coverage. President Obama has visited Myanmar, Miss Suu Kyi was fêted in the White House and sanctions were lifted. Perhaps that was premature.
  1. A solution to a problem of this magnitude requires copious funds. The UN and rich Gulf States should chip in. It is time Gulf States showed solidarity with their Muslim brethren. Proper tents, food, water, medicine and sanitation are urgently required for the thousands of displaced Rohingyas who have lost everything. As a first step, the United Nations Refugee agency, UNHCR should open and supervise more refugee camps for the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Lady, speak up

Solving the problem of the stateless Rohingyas will not be easy; similar problems persist throughout the globe e.g Palestinian refugees and Middle Eastern refugees in Europe. But world attention is focused on these problems and there are slow, halting steps towards mitigation. There is very little focus on the Rohingyas.

Is Miss Su Kyi willing to spend the political capital necessary to take on the army, the native Rakhines, and the militant Buddhist monks to find a solution? She may be tempted to kick the can down the road rather than take a principled stand that may lower her popularity in Myanmar.

The carrot and the stick.

This could have unintended consequences. The large number of young, poorly educated Rohingyas with no jobs and no future could turn to Jihadism. Their cause could attract Islamic militants from across the globe. So far that has not been the case but that could change. It is best that Miss Su Kyi address this problem expediently and the world community keep the pressure on her and the Myanmar army. If not, economic sanctions should follow and development aid should be linked to concrete progress on granting statehood to the Rohingyas. A carrot and stick policy often yields results.


This article, in abridged form first appeared as a Commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 25, 2017.

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