Burma Times: 09 September 2015
IN the second quarter of this year, the Rohingyas’ irregular sea migration made the headlines across international media. The months of May and June witnessed thousands of malnourished Rohingya refugees arriving into the seas of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, in cramped boats abandoned by their skippers. During that period, it has been reported that thousands more were stranded on rickety boats off the coasts of these three countries, with dwindling supplies of food and clean water. In recent years, the Rohingya Muslims have struggled to attract attention to their plight, not only at the international level but also within the contemporary Myanmar political scene.
This occurred amid the seemingly celebrated “limited Myanmar reform”, which to date has trickled down nothing for the Rohingyas. This ethnic minority continues to be persecuted, ignored and rejected by their own countrymen. Questionable policies have been introduced, such as denial of citizenship to Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingyas, to severe restrictions on their movement, employment and access to education and healthcare, as well as a discriminatory law imposing a “two-child” limit on Rohingya families in their Rakhine state. Last year, the government even banned the use of the word “Rohingya”, insisting the Muslim minority that has lived in that country for generations be registered in the census as “Bengali”. The main argument to this is that the Rohingyas are a Bangladeshi tribe. Within all these developing issues, it is relevant for us to ask: where does the issue of the Rohingyas fit within Myanmar’s evolving governance reform and, pertinently, in its upcoming November 2015 election? Central to this notion is the involvement of Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), as the most well-known Myanmar political reformist.
As is now known well, she has been evasive. In May this year, when the issue made headlines across international media, Suu Kyi avoided providing critical remarks and suggested that the sensitivity of the issue needed tactful response. In a BBC 2013 interview, Suu Kyi blamed the violence on “both sides”, suggesting that “Muslims have been targeted, but Buddhists have also been subjected to violence”. Without the need to dissect deeper, it is obvious her move is political. Nicholas Farrelly, director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre, stated that “Aung San Suu Kyi and her strategists are looking at the electoral maths”. “They have long imagined that any perception the National League for Democracy (NLD) is too cozy with the country’s Muslims could lose them millions of votes”. For election sake, this seems to be a logical political move. In hindsight, Suu Kyi’s current approach may also trap her and NLD in following more or less the same vicious policy cycle towards ethnic Rohingyas and Muslims in the future — if granted the power to rule post November 2015 election — for the following reasons: The Rohingya Muslim issue is not Myanmar’s political cup of tea for two reasons: FIRST is the population ratio between Buddhists and Muslims. Between 89 per cent and 90 per cent of the population consist of Bamar Buddhists, while the Rohingyas and other Muslim ethnic communities occupy a minor four per cent of the total Myanmar population, as estimated by the Myanmar government’s latest census; and, SECOND, which more worrying is that a large population of Bamar Buddhists have little sympathy and tolerance for the Rohingyas. More pertinently, if one were to look closely at Myanmar’s emerging socio-political development, there seems to be an emerging passion towards dogmatised Buddhism, led by Ashin Wirathu — a leading extreme Buddhist and anti-Muslim nationalist. He has the potential to mobilise his Buddhist growing masses to pressure any ruling Myanmar government to exhibit zero tolerance for the Rohingyas or Muslims.
A little extra show of sympathy for the Rohingyas or Muslims in general may likely send a different message to this rightist group, which, in turn, could pull away their well-needed votes or the possibility of creating another violent chaos as in 2012. As a matter of fact, the current Myanmar political climate and election direction is so coagulated with anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment to a point where any perceived link with these two will be disassociated immediately. This is exactly what Suu Kyi’s NLD party did last month when the party leadership intentionally excluded over a dozen Muslims from its candidate list. The Irrawaddy news portal reported that about 15 to 16 people applied to be candidates, but were not chosen. Prevailing dogmas across the majority population plays an important role in realpolitik. And this is what Suu Kyi and her NLD party seem to be adhering to for election sake. Hence, taking the above into consideration, it is worth anticipating that if Suu Kyi or anyone in her NLD party is voted to be at the highest executive power in Myanmar, a drastic policy change towards the Rohingyas or Muslims is not to be expected. Politically, any immediate U-turn support or show of tolerance towards Rohingya Muslims is not a sustainable move in Myanmar, given the current political climate. This move can be capitalised by the opposition and nationalists alike, which, in turn, can result in a swift political suicide for NLD even after winning the election.
I am not discounting in entirety Suu Kyi’s audacity for change if NLD is voted in. However, even if a policy shift does happen, political sentiments and treatment towards Rohingyas and Muslims in general will not alter satisfactorily. Hence, it is imperative for the international community to begin reflecting on Suu Kyi’s or her NLD party’s practical commitment towards the Rohingyas, not only from a short-term perspective (pre-election) but also from a longer time frame. Whoever that will be Myanmar’s new government post-November will need to play along prevailing political sentiments for survival. Nevertheless, the broader lesson also is to understand that the responsibility to voice and highlight the plight of Rohingyas should not be primarily expected of any reformist party in Myanmar alone. This should also be shouldered by the international community in continuously applying external pressures on the Myanmar government to reverse its discriminative policies on the ethnic Rohingyas.
It is worth noting that such an approach may have been proven workable. On May 19, after receiving harsh criticism from the international community, pertinently from Asean members, Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut told foreign ambassadors that Myanmar would cooperate with regional and international counterparts “to tackle the ongoing boat people crisis, which is a consequence of human trafficking of people from Rakhine State and Bangladesh to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia”. Asean has, in the past, successfully assisted Myanmar in opening its door to the world and pushing the country towards slow but moving reforms. A similar approach can be applied, but with a need for a more robust diplomacy. The Rohingya issue is not unlike any domestic problem affecting Asean members. This involves the raw and critical humanitarian issues of the Rohingyas that will perpetually plague Asean if other members choose the usual slow and mitigated path in dealing with Yangon. The writer is a doctoral candidate for politics and international relations at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia