Since the dramatic outbreak of violence a couple of months ago between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims living in Burma’s Rakhine State, a great deal of international attention has been devoted to this problem.
This is entirely appropriate, because the Rohingya are among the world’s most deprived and forgotten people, consigned to stateless status wherever they live and treated by their host countries with utter contempt.
This is not a new problem.
The Rohingya have been living this way for generations, if not centuries, in Bengal and Bangladesh, in Burma, and more recently in other Southeast Asian and Persian Gulf countries, where they have fled to escape poverty and persecution.
In response to an outbreak of violence that sent a large number of Rohingya from Burma into Bangladesh in the early 1990’s, the Burmese government eventually allowed the UNHCR to return the majority of them to their homes in Maungdaw and Buthidaung.
With generous funding from the United States and other donor governments, UNHCR has continued to assist and protect the returnees in Burma for the past twenty years, as well as the approximately 200,000 Rohingya who remain in refugee status in Bangladesh.
The root causes of Rohingya statelessness, however, have not been addressed and it is high time to do so.
Somewhat unfairly, much of the international concern for the Rohingya in recent months has been leveled at Burma and its political leaders, as if to suggest that after generations of ethnic animosity against the Rohingya in Burma, they can simply wave a wand, articulate a just policy, and make the animosity disappear.
Yet we know that life doesn’t work this way.
Burma is in the midst of a dramatic political transition from decades of autocratic military government to a modern democracy and the international community clearly wishes above all to contribute to the success of this process.
With international support, the new government has already undertaken an ambitious program to make peace with its many minority nationalities, even though it does not yet have the institutions to implement agreements that are likely to come out of the peace process.
After generations of harsh repression, Burma’s population has almost no experience in mediating and resolving social and political differences, because military leaders saw cooperative efforts among different minority groups as a threat to their authority and control.
Thus the government preferred to keep them at odds with each other. As a result, even many Burmese who have devoted their lives to the cause of democracy and human rights seem to have no tolerance for the Rohingya.
And the worst kind of prejudices have been allowed to govern the behavior of the country’s military and security forces.
There is no question that Burma must take its share of the responsibility for the Rohingya living in Burma, and President Thein Sein’s suggestion to the UN that they should be resettled in other countries is certainly not the answer. It is totally inconsistent with the spirit of the democratic reforms he is promoting.
A central part of the solution will be for Burma to undertake a comprehensive program leading to normalization of the status of the 800,000 or so Rohingya living in the Rakhine State and making it possible for them to prosper in a peaceful environment.
Right now, however, the absence of institutions and experience to manage social mediation and interethnic harmony make this very difficult, if not impossible, without an international framework and the support of an international authority mandated to take a holistic approach to the problem.
In other words, a just solution to the plight of the Rohingya living in Burma should be part of a wider international effort to normalize the status of Rohingya in all those countries where they currently reside.
In the overall scheme of things, the Rohingya are not a large population: probably not many more than one million people. No matter how large a country’s population, the Rohingya can easily be accommodated.
The United Nations and its agencies have wide experience with various solutions for much larger refugee problems and, with support from key donors, should be able to help governments design and implement programs to normalize the status and living conditions of Rohingya.
In the final analysis, international leaders—including governments, non-governmental organizations, and media—are not serving the long term interests of the Rohingya by pointing the finger only at Burma’s political leaders and, in the process, oversimplifying and misrepresenting the facts of this highly complex and deep-rooted tragedy.
Well-meaning international observers should instead be helping to develop a constructive, humane, and workable international framework for providing a lasting solution to Rohingya statelessness and the affected governments should be cooperating in this effort.
Priscilla Clapp was a former U.S. chargé d'affaires to Burma (1999 to 2002) and deputy assistant secretary of state for refugee programs (1989 to 1993).