The latest development on this issue is that Myanmar and Bangladesh — the two countries most directly implicated in the Rohingya problem — have agreed to repatriate the more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh to escape atrocities by Burmese security forces. The plan calls for their formal registration, preparatory to their restoration to their villages and homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
This addresses a major concern expressed in the strongly worded draft resolution of the human rights committee of the United Nations that is due to be submitted to a plenary vote. But as timely as it is, the Myanmar-Bangladesh bilateral agreement remains silent on the question that is at the core of this crisis: Does the government of Myanmar have the duty — moral, political, or legal — to grant citizenship status to the Rohingya?
Without firm guarantees they will be treated as human beings entitled to dignity and basic rights, the Rohingya rightly fear returning to their communities in Myanmar. They would prefer to be resettled elsewhere — perhaps the United States, Canada, Australia, or Western Europe. Clearly, they also believe that, since they are regarded as stateless persons, such guarantees are best secured and enforced by an international authority like the United Nations.
The status of stateless people is far from being a simple issue. The UN believes it has the obligation to call out and sanction any member-state that oppresses, commits violence against, or violates the fundamental rights of individuals and peoples within its jurisdiction — regardless of their nationality or citizenship status. But, it is debatable whether any world body has the right to instruct or order an independent state to grant citizenship to any group of people it deems entitled to citizenship. Myanmar reasonably believes that the grant of citizenship is a sovereign prerogative of states.
The Rohingya problem is typical of all border peoples. At one time, there were more than half a million Filipino nationals living in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Seafarers from Mindanao freely crossed the Sulu Sea long before modern nation-states were formed in these parts. They settled in Sabah and raised their families there like natives of the place. When Malaysian authorities cracked down on these migrants, the Philippine government instantly acknowledged them as its nationals, and repatriated them at its own expense, even if most of them had no Philippine identity papers. That is what is expected of a modern nation-state.
No doubt, what complicate matters for the Rohingya are their race and religion — two sources of identity that stand out sharply against the backdrop of extreme poverty and economic insecurity. The Rohingya are Bengali by ethnicity and Muslim by faith, unlike the 135 other tribes that inhabit Myanmar. Buddhist nationalism in recent years has exacerbated Burmese fear that outsiders are flooding their country. Yet, even this is only a reaction to something larger and more complex.
The ordinary Burmese do not recognize the term “Rohingya.” To them, there are only Bengali migrants who entered their country illegally from Bangladesh at various times. This belief ignores evidence showing that Rohingya Muslims have lived in the northern part of Rakhine long before Burma achieved its independence from Britain. But, the reference point that Myanmar insists upon is the 1982 citizenship law, crafted by the previous military regime, which explicitly excludes Rohingya Muslims from the list of its nationals.
On a visit to Myanmar last year, I had an unforgettable encounter with a tourist guide in Yangon. In the course of his talk about the different tribes that constitute Myanmar, I inquired about the Rohingya. In an instant, his friendly demeanor gave way to a defensive coldness. “No such people by that name in Myanmar,” he sternly declared. “Not Burmese but Bengali,” he snorted.
I shrugged this off as a hangover from the autocratic ways of the reclusive military regime that had ruled Myanmar for decades. I looked forward to the enlightened leadership of the human rights icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party was then poised to take over the leadership of the new government. My optimism was, however, doused by subsequent conversations I had with some members of the Burmese intelligentsia. Many politely declined to talk about the Rohingya, steering the discussion instead toward the need to strengthen Burmese democracy and build modern institutions. They were very conscious of the need to protect their country’s independence in this new era.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the plight of the Rohingya has indeed been a disappointment to those who mobilized worldwide public opinion on her behalf when she was being persecuted by the military. But, I now wonder whether her silence proceeds from fear of displeasing the military, or whether it is a reflection of her own reading of the popular sentiment and a strong inclination not to contradict it.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has accused Myanmar of engaging in “ethnic cleansing.” The rest of the world may not judge so harshly, but the consensus seems to be that Myanmar must take full responsibility for the Rohingya.
But, to be fair, I doubt if there is any country today that is adequately equipped to manage a problem of this magnitude. The Rohingya are a people that have fallen through the cracks of globalization. In an ideal world, the protection of their rights must be the principal responsibility of a global polity. Alas, the United Nations is far from being that entity.