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No long-term solution in sight for the Rohingya crisis
Author: Trevor Wilson, ANU > 22 September 2017
International media were overwhelmed at the end of August 2017 by reports of widespread attacks by Myanmar’s military forces against the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine state, near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. More than 400,000 Rohingya were reported to have fled to Bangladesh to avoid getting caught in the violence, but were reportedly turned back by the Bangladesh security authorities, or taken into detention. More than 100 are reported to have been killed in the various military operations that took place in Myanmar.
Violence in Rakhine State has occurred in the past, sometimes resulting in mass illegal movements of Rohingya into Bangladesh border areas. But this latest incident may have been the first time such violence was witnessed first-hand by international media.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s defensive public statements about the Myanmar military’s indiscriminate actions against the Rohingya population have also shocked many international observers. Her initial official statement on 6 September made no mention of what her government proposes to do specifically in order to remedy the Rohingya situation. Remarks a day later to the BBC about doing the best to maintain stability and to protect all people in the area are not especially reassuring. Even her formal address to the nation on 19 September avoided addressing the central issue of the legal status of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi may have her own reasons for continuing cooperation with the Myanmar military in their current power-sharing arrangement, but why wouldn’t she display some political leadership on behalf of the Rohingya? After all, even if an intervention by her was unsuccessful, she would be given credit for her courage and principles.
Remarkably, this latest flight of the Rohingya coincided with the 24 August release of the first report by the Kofi Annan Commission on Rakhine State appointed a year earlier by Suu Kyi. Indeed, the Myanmar government has not even had time to respond to the report.
Visiting Myanmar at the time, Annan took the opportunity to reinforce his call for the Myanmar government to accept the essentially practical, but generally short-term, recommendations of his report. Not surprisingly, the report is silent on the question of how a political compromise, or consensus, on the Rohingya inside Myanmar might be struck. It is hard to believe that the timing of these incidents was absolutely unrelated to the publication of the Annan Commission report.
Many leaders in Myanmar — including perhaps Suu Kyi herself — are becoming rather exasperated with the high-minded obsession that they see international agencies displaying towards the Rohingya. The Myanmar government as well as the Myanmar military have openly objected to the one-sided statements about the condition of the Rohingya made by some United Nations representatives, apparently influenced by the more vigorous campaigns by rights groups in recent years.
These campaigns may have considerable justification, as the Rohingya have long received dreadful treatment by the majority Burmese. But the insensitivity of the campaigns has certainly provoked Buddhist extremists, as well as disconcerting others. Some in Myanmar have also been upset when atrocities documented against Rohingya in neighbouring countries seem to be glossed over. It is well known in Myanmar that popular attitudes towards Rohingya in Bangladesh are also not positive.
But these reactions cannot excuse the wilful discrimination that has been practised against Rohingya in Myanmar without reason, for many decades or generations. Nor do they justify Myanmar not according basic civil rights to Rohingya, such as the right to citizenship or the right to seek permanent residence.