Extend citizenship to Rohingya


DISOWNED by their own country and despised by neighboring lands, the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in predominately Buddhist Myanmar, are the most unfortunate people in the world. But at least in one respect they are lucky: The world community continues to espouse their cause.

Last week, the highest-ranking United Nations human rights official called for the crimes committed against the Rohingya to be assigned to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Then dozens of British MPs signed a letter demanding that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the European Union sanction Myanmar over the campaign of violence going on against the Rohingya. Also last week, John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Angelina Jolie, a filmmaker and a co-founder of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative issued a joint statement calling on America to take the lead in saving the Rohingya.

By now everyone knows everything about the Rohingya except how to handle their tormentors. Tormentors include Myanmar’s Buddhist people and the government, whether it is military dictatorship or the present democratically elected one led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate.

All of Rohingya’s problems arise from the fact that they have no citizenship rights. Myanmar considers them interlopers from India’s Bengal province during the British colonial rule. Nearly all of 1.1 million Rohingya live in the western coastal state of Rakhine, close to Bangladesh. They have no access to education or health care and their freedom of movement is severely restricted. This affects their means of livelihood.

Although the latest wave of anti-Rohingya violence and refugee exodus began with Aug. 25, 2017 militant assaults on 30 police posts and an army base that killed 12 security officers, major attacks on Rohingya forcing them to flee to Bangladesh and other neighboring countries have occurred at least three times in the past 50 years: In 1977-78, in 1991-2 and in 2012 when hundreds of thousands fled across the borders following attacks by Buddhists.

Some 700,000 have left Myanmar since Aug. 25. They took shelter in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar where nearly a million are living in what has become the world’s largest refugee camp.

The camp lacks in basic facilities. There has been an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate them. But those at the main refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar have held several demonstrations to protest the repatriation process. Many say they would be happy to return to their homeland in Myanmar, but only if the country agrees to “return” them their citizenship and related basic rights and guarantees their safety. They must keep UN peacekeeping forces ready for their security before they return. Refugees must be allowed to return to their villages where they lived and get back their confiscated lands and compensate for their losses because of the military crackdown. Moreover, conditions remain unstable in the Rakhine state. They fear the government will force them into some new settlements away from the villages where they lived. Almost all of the around 300 villages of Rakhine, from where the Rohingya were driven away, have been set on fire in the past months.

The fact is repatriation scheme has been fundamentally flawed right from the start because both Myanmar and Bangladesh did not involve the Rohingya in the negotiations. UN or any other international organization was not involved to ensure that Myanmar honored the terms of the deal with Bangladesh.

Anyway, repatriation is only part of the solution. The ideal solution is to have a situation where nobody is forced to flee his or her home. The first step, as John McCain and Angelina Jolie said, should be extension of citizenship to the Rohingya people as recommended by former UN chief Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. They also want the US to lead efforts to resolve decades of ethnic strife throughout Myanmar.