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Myanmar's Muslims: A long way down Aung San Suu Kyi's to-do list

Myanmar's Muslims: A long way down Aung San Suu Kyi's to-do list
Published 16 Aug 2016 

When Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy finally came to power in Myanmar last year, there was much scepticism among ethnic minorities as to whether the nobel laureate would speak up for their rights. So far, the new government has not done much to change this view, particularly among the Rohingya minority whose lack of citizenship and poor living conditions are a recurring theme in refugee movements around the region.

No-one in Myanmar has any doubts as to Aung San Suu Kyi's central role in government, even if she is constitutionally barred from becoming president. Her titles include state counsellor, foreign minister and minister of the office for president; her responsibilities include international relations and internal peace negotiations with ethnic minority groups.

Outsiders might assume such minority groups would include the Rohingya. After all, there are around 1.3 million Rohingyas in Myanmar (total population around 53 million), concentrated in Rakhine, one of Myanmar's poorest states located in the northwest of the country. However, while there was anger among Rohingyas that Aung San Suu Kyi has opted to treat them as foreigners staying unlawfully in Myanmar who have no role to play in the internal peace process, there was not much surprise. The new government has also decided to no longer use the term 'Bengali', instead favouring 'Myanmar Muslims'. This has been met with a mixed response. One Rohingya activist I spoke to based in the Myanmar capital of Yangon is pleased the pejorative 'Bengali' has also been dropped. A Rohingya leader based in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, however, sees it differently. He claims that by grouping Rohingyas and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar together, the new government intends to discriminate against all minority Muslims in Myanmar. He cites as evidence the recent displacement of Kaman Muslim population in Rakhine.

About one third of the Rakhine population are Rohingya. The state's economy has been stagnant for some time; there are not enough jobs, and there are no substantial industries. The Chinese pipeline project at Kwaukpyu and the Indian company developing the Sittwe port are the only visible source of foreign investment; their actions have not benefited the local economy. The locals depend on fishing and agriculture for subsistence. Tourism may grow, but it would require Yangon to invest in infrastructure and training, which does not seem likely in the near future at least.

Rakhine streets are largely safe with no soldiers or police patrols. There are some areas where foreigners cannot go without permission, but otherwise they are allowed to move around as they please. Rohingyas, however, cannot. Much of what was once their land has been confiscated. Their mosques are abandoned. Most live in designated areas, largely in northern Rakhine, near the border with Bangladesh. These are highly restricted environments with little support from Yangon. Groups like the UNHCR, the UNDP and other NGOs try to fill the gaps in education, training and healthcare. Measured against a developed country standards, the IDP (internally displaced person) camp conditions are appalling.

Often Rohingyas have no option but to travel to Bangladesh for basic services including health. Yangon is highly suspicious of these cross-border movements which it believes could provide entry points for Islamic radicalism into Myanmar. Rohingya leaders reject such allegations. UNHCR Myanmar staff also doubt the government claim, saying the harsh living conditions make radicalisation unlikely; even basic resources are scarce.

The Rakhine Rothingya in poverty with no official state and appear to have no means of support beyond international aid. The reality, however, is a little more complicated. [fold]

Rohingya communities are very hierarchical. Their leaders are all men, highly revered, internationally connected, and well-organised. Some are quite entrepreneurial. Rohingyas who are settled in developed countries can connect to Rohingya in Myanmar through social media and by phone. They can even guide foreigners through tours of the camps, with or without state authorisation; a half-day visit costs around 110,000 kyats (US$100). At every checkpoint, visitors pay 10,000 kyats.

Always, it seems, there are people who can make money out of misery and in this case some Rohingyas are among those making money out of Rohingya misery. This obviously poses a moral dilemma for those who work with refugees; some of those who appear to be in need of international protection are also corrupt, abusive, law-breaking and dismissive of gender equality.

Some in Yangon believe that if Rohingyas’ movements remain restricted, their citizenship revoked, and their lands confiscated, they will either move en masse to Bangladesh (where many believe they originated from), or their ethnic identity will fade eventually. In fact, the opposite is likely to occur. The Rohingya population will continue to grow and, with no basic healthcare, there will be more irregular movements to Bangladeshi, Malaysia and Thailand, and more illicit activities in and out of the semi-permeable boundaries. This could create serious security challenges for Myanmar and beyond.

Myanmar is now in transition to democracy after decades of military dictatorship. It could still choose to recognise Rohingyas as citizens (or at least permanent residents with rights equal to those of citizens), and offer proper education and training while seeking a regional solution for those in Malaysia and elsewhere. In the longer term, this could lead to economic opportunities for the state of Rakhine and for the country as a whole.

There would be plenty of global support for such move. Myanmar’s institutionalised discrimination against Rohingyas has prompted international campaigns that have spurred considerable and widespread sympathy. The UN has identified them as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. With their stateless status, they have been able to apply for asylum in many developed countries which actively promote Rohingyas’ right to identity. However only a tiny number have been accepted as refugees. The majority remain internally displaced. This too could change, with some considerable acts of collective will.

In Malaysia for example, as of June 2016, there were about 55,000 Rohingya asylum seekers. Since Malaysia treats them as illegal migrants, they don’t have a right to work. The UNHCR Malaysia office receives 600 applications every day, many from self-claiming Rohingyas, and has suggested the Malaysian government allow Rohingyas to work. This would seem to be a win win as Malaysia's fast-growing cities need manual labour in industries such as construction. Empowering the Rohingya diaspora in Malaysia could also help Myanmar’s marginalised Muslim communities, and eventually contribute to regional development. This would be a sensible, realistic and mutually beneficial solution for both the state and asylum seekers. Whether Malaysia has the necessary political will remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya remain a long way down Myanmar's to-do list. One retired government official in Yangon said Aung San Suu Kyi 'has a very difficult job to do. She’s better sort out the easy ones first, and the most difficult last'. He thinks Rakhine and Rohingyas should stay in the too hard basket.

But Aung San Suu Kyi also has a huge reservoir of goodwill to draw on. Inside the new Myanmar, many are hoping for compassionate, inclusive and democratic leadership. She also has strong international support. Judicious combinations of foreign aid, direct and joint investment, with more relaxed trade regulations and visa restrictions could see Myanmar become a leading country in Southeast Asia once again.

Photo courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO

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