International community press solution for Rohingyas


The Daily Star, 8 Aug 2012

by Barrister Harun Ur Rashid,

During the past two decades, Bangladesh accepted and sheltered more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees, who not only stayed back but also put heavy economic and social burden on the world’s most densely-populated nation.

After violence erupted in the Rakhine state in early June, Bangladesh refused giving shelter to any Rohingya. Although the refusal drew criticism from human rights activists, it has attracted the attention of the international community to the Rohingya issue.

It is worthwhile to note that the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has launched a major international campaign to put an end to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the Rakhine state of Myanmar and protect their legitimate rights. OIC offices in Geneva, New York, and Brussels are making intense efforts to foster international intervention in the issue.

The OIC is believed to be in touch with the United Nations, UN Human Rights Council, European Union and other international organisations to halt the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeledin Ihsanoglu strongly condemned the situation which has resulted in deaths of innocent civilians, burning of their homes and forced eviction from their homeland. Ihsanoglu further hoped that the Myanmar government would respond to the concerns of the international community in a positive and constructive manner, so that all its Rohingya Muslims are able to return to their homeland with honour, safety and dignity.

Furthermore, the issue was raised at the recent Asean Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Cambodia. The Asean is seeking an explanation from member state Myanmar about recent ethnic violence targeting minority Rohingya group. "There will be a full explanation from Myanmar because this is an important and critical issue for Asean as a community," Asean Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan reportedly said.

On July 28, it was reported that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Judge Navi Pillay, called for an independent investigation following claims of abuses toward Rohingyas by security forces in Myanmar.

On July 25, Aung San Suu Kyi called for new laws to protect Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups, highlighting one of the country’s most challenging issues as it opens up to the outside world.

She urged the government to pass "necessary laws or amend laws to protect the rights of ethnic nationalities," and said protecting minority rights required more than just maintaining ethnic languages and cultures. "The high poverty rates in ethnic states clearly indicate that development in ethnic regions is not satisfactory and ethnic conflicts in these regions have not ceased," she said. She didn’t, however, mention the recent violence in the Rohingya area.

Ms. Suu Kyi called for an end to discrimination against ethnic minorities as part of the "emergence of a genuine democratic country," the Associated Press reported. By focusing on the country’s ethnic divisions in her first parliamentary address, Ms. Suu Kyi rightly drew attention to an issue that needs to be resolved speedily and peacefully.

While, in May, Suu Kyi met thousands of Myanmar refugees at a Thai border camp and promised to try as much as she could to help them return home, she was conspicuously silent on the Rohingya issue. During the recent trip to Europe, she talked about need for "the rule of the law" in the country and avoided the Rohingya issue, which disappointed many human rights organisations overseas.

Human-rights groups, meanwhile, have criticised Ms. Suu Kyi for failing to speak out more in favour of the Rohingyas, whom most people in Myanmar consider "illegal settlers" in Myanmar.

In mid-July, Myanmar’s president told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres: "We will take responsibility for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas, who are not our ethnicity," according to the president’s official website. However, the UN high commissioner reportedly did not agree with the views of the president on the Rohingya issue.

Since its independence, Myanmar has suffered from intense ethnic divides. More than a half-dozen ethnic groups claim autonomy from the centralised government system dominated by the Burman ethnic group.

At least one group, the Kachin, is waging a low-level war against the government, while violence in western Myanmar in early June between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state (Arakan) left at least 78 people dead and led to the declaration of emergency in the state by the government.

The administration of President Thein Sein is to be credited as it has reached cease-fire deals with some restive minority groups, but peace with the Kachin has yet to take place. Many analysts say more radical changes are needed, including enactment of new laws to recognise the ethnicity of minorities in Myanmar.

It is important to note that many of the groups occupy areas crucial for the country’s economic plans because they are home to large portions of Myanmar’s rich natural resources, including natural gas and mined commodities.

Although Myanmar authorities have focused recently on trying to steer more economic development into ethnic areas, many investors remain wary of sinking money into regions where conflicts could flare up. The Rohingya conflict, in particular, has reportedly unnerved investors and upset rights advocates who fear the violence could escalate and destabilise Myanmar.

Myanmar will chair Asean in 2014 and, given that perspective, analysts say the Myanmar government needs to sit down for a dialogue with all ethnic groups including Rohingyas to grant equal rights and autonomy in Myanmar’s political system. The deal with the ethnic groups in the late ’40s (so-called Panglong Agreement) collapsed after late General Ne Win took power in a 1962 coup.

The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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