Rohingya crisis goes beyond condemning the military: Myanmar scholars

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Ongoing media coverage of the plight of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar (also known as Burma) has been heavy in condemning Myanmar military forces for allegedly attempting ethnic cleansing and forcing hundreds of thousands of them to flee across the border into Bangladesh. This resulted in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) forming an international body to investigate the country’s Rakhine State to collect evidence of the military’s atrocities and possibly prosecute responsible Myanmar generals. But what Myanmar scholars fighting for democracy shared with The Korea Times about the issue was unlike the tone taken by various international media outlets, which focus on how military officials are close to being subpoenaed to the International Criminal Court, and why the country’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t criticized her country’s military force severely enough.  The scholars, advocating human rights and political justice in a country governed for decades by a military junta, argued that the crisis cannot be simply wrapped up by prosecuting the culprits. Rather, the crisis resulted from an ethnically diverse country seeing conflict between the central military and minority groups in several regions, and the fledgling ruling party struggling to steer the country toward democracy.  “What I learned from the Rohingya issue is that we have our own issues as well,” said Seng Hkum Hpauna, a political activist and one of the co-founders of the Naushawng Development Institute, a democracy-promoting, nonprofit organization in Kachin State. “In Burma, what’s also important is the majority of people’s perception. They see the Rohingya community very differently (from how the international media have portrayed it). The NLD government cannot ignore these public opinions.” Many Myanmar citizens, according to the activist, support the military authorities. This is reflected by local media outlets ― they “don’t tend to” openly write about Rohingya issues while some even “tend to” support the government or military because they don’t want to differ from the majority. “That’s why the Burmese majority’s perception about the Rohingyas is very different from international communities,” Hpauna said.

The activist, with the other scholars, graduated from the Liberty and Leadership Program at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas, and visited Seoul in September to learn about the country’s transition from militarism to democracy. Victor Cha, a Fellow at the institute and a former candidate for U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, told The Korea Times he was “impressed by the dedication, earnestness and commitment of these young men and women to building transparent and accountable institutions in their country.” “The NLD government led by Suu Kyi must care about the majority’s perspective, especially now close to the 2020 general elections,” Hpauna said. “She doesn’t want to upset the majority. That’s why she cannot deny opinions.” Hpauna’s remarks shed light on the Southeast Asian country, where local media coverage of the crisis isn’t as critical of the military as that of international outlets. In contrast, the activist said the military has enjoyed wide support ― mostly from older people ― since the country’s independence from Britain.  “That’s what I see very dangerous for the country’s democratization process and media coverage of the Rohingya issue,” Hpauna said. “Extreme nationalism is growing bigger and bigger. It might stop the democratization process.” Min Aung Ye Htut Tin, a senior program specialist at the United States Institute of Peace Myanmar program, offered a holistic view. The historically complex country ― with multiple layers of politics, the military, the ruling party, Rakhine State (where over 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh are from) and other state bodies ― suffers from not having a government agency spearheading action to ease the crisis, he said.  “In Rakhine, there are lots of different narratives regarding the issue,” Htut Tin said. “Whenever rumors happen, it is very easy for communities to break up and fight each other. And there is no resilient mechanism to maintain cohesive community levels. We need common ground of infrastructure to mitigate this conflict.”

rohingya_displaced_muslims_02Democratization process

Myanmar’s response to the Rohingya crisis has been short of meeting global expectations of acknowledging the refugees, displaced since August 2017, as victims of genocide. There are further allegations that militants burnt down the Rohingya people’s villages, murdered many and raped women.  When 1991 Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi on Sept. 13 defended the Myanmar judiciary that on Sept. 3 jailed two Reuters reporters who investigated the killing of 10 Rohingya villagers by Myanmar security forces, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley described the remark as “unbelievable.” The democracy pioneer also drew Western criticism for failing to speak out against the military’s treatment of the Rohingyas.  Such “reluctance” of the Myanmar leader, from the international community’s perspective, likely derives from the country’s unique political state striving to strike a balance between the ruling NLD party and military authorities. Experts said Suu Kyi’s democracy-geared government had tried to make a clean cut from the previous military regimes that ruled the country from the early 1960s, but this faced many problems. Local news outlet The Myanmar Times said the revolutionary two-year-old administration “should handle very carefully” the Rohingya and other military conflict issues in Rakhine State as strong international criticism is escalating. The report said business leaders are worried about how the government could prevent possible economic sanctions this year, adding “a blind denial from the capital Naypyidaw of international accusations will not work.” There are other precursors to the country’s internal jaundice: signs of the increasing role of the military, proven by escalating conflicts in Rakhine State; a fragile public morality unable to accept diversity and social change; and press freedom under pressure.  “Burmese politics is like following the captain of a ship rather than the compass,” the newspaper report said.

Resolving the Rohingya issue

The scholars suggested one of the keys to solving the Rohingya issue is existing laws and how they are implemented, especially the citizenship law enacted in 1982. Despite the law, the Rohingyas have been denied Myanmar citizenship, even though some families have been in the country for three generations.  “I think it’s a matter of implementing the current law impartially and neutrally,” said Aung Kyaw Moe, director of the Center for Social Integrity, an NGO promoting diversity and pluralism. “That would resolve a major root of the problem, being able to grant citizenship to about 60-70 percent of the Rohingya people. Just because they pray differently, they cannot be protected by the government from social dangers and cannot go to normal universities. These are not solutions. The government needs to ensure the rule of law exists at every level.”  For the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to return, the scholars pointed out the need to repair damaged Myanmar-Bangladesh ties.  At the U.N. General Assembly in September, Bangladesh President Sheikh Hasina accused Myanmar of not meeting its commitment to take back Rohingya refugees. Calling the military’s crackdown on the minority group “tantamount to genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” Hasina referred to U.N. reports that detailed the atrocities and appealed for international support for the 1.1 million refugees sheltering in her country.  “In resolving the crisis, the Burmese government signed agreements with the Bangladesh government as well as the U.N. Refugee Agency and the U.N. Development Program,” said Htet Htet Oo, a public information and communications expert in the humanitarian and development sectors at the U.N. “But the two governments blame each other and I don’t know which side is telling the truth. Regardless, they must realize that the Rohingyas are human. The first step for their repatriation is that the Burmese government, holding the primary responsibility, makes sure these people have enough protection and help they need.” “Bangladesh is a poor country with its own problems and resources are limited, so I don’t know how long they can cope (with the refugees),” said Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya. He was concerned that there might be a clash between the host communities in Bangladesh and the Rohingyas because of differences in language and tradition.  “There is a risk promoting the tolerance in Bangladesh, and supporting Bangladesh is not a universal solution,” he said. “The problem is in Burma. The Burmese government, if repatriation is to be taken, must create conditions that everyone is safe there to live. “

Regional conflicts

There are other issues affecting Myanmar. Domestic conflicts and civil wars over ethnic and sub-national autonomy are rampant in the states of Kachin and Shan. In Kachin, there are about 100,000 displaced people, 40 percent of whom live in non-government-controlled areas with limited outside access, including from humanitarian organizations. “The government technically allows access to inside the areas but the roads are actually blocked by militants for ‘security reasons,'” Htet Oo said. “Those 40 percent cannot get essential assistance, with food, sanitation and water getting really depleted. Of course the Rohingyas are a large number but the same problem is in other areas as well.” Lum Zawng, a political activist in Kachin and director of the Public Legal Education Department at the Kachin Legal Aid Network Group, said he faces a trial on a charge of defamation of the Myanmar military after attempts to rescue civilians in villages besieged by the military from March to May this year.  “Some 8,000 people in the Kachin capital protested to rescue people there, organizing demonstration camps for nearly 10 days,” Zawng said. “We had negotiations with neighboring state governments to pressure Kachin. Afterwards, I was charged by police. The Burmese military and government are not taking responsibility for civilians and regional conflict issues.” As to the 481 Yemeni asylum seekers who came to South Korea’s Jeju Island through Kuala Lumpur last June and a South Korea divided over whether to accept them, Kyaw Moe urged Koreans to “see things from a human perspective” and keep in mind that granting the status to the Yemenis is a “temporary solution.” “Bangladesh, although it is a less developed country than South Korea, has been an example to the world for absorbing and caring for large numbers of refugees,” the scholar said. “But still, international communities should rely on international laws and institutions to help find long-term solutions to the refugee crisis so people can return to their homes.”

By Kim Ji-soo

(Korea Times)

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