Rohingya: Sharing Responsibility

The root causes of Rohingya statelessness have not been addressed and it is high time to do so.
By Priscilla Clapp
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Rohingyas in Bangladesh.
Rohingyas in Bangladesh.

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.

Root causes

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.

Normalize status

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).

Comments (11)


from Bangkok

England is the root cause of the problem. Why dont England just take them there? Heartless England.

May 18, 2015 06:14 AM

Zayar Aung

from Maungdaw

We didn't come to Burma. But Burma came to us in 1784.

Sep 25, 2012 10:17 PM

naing win zahid

from drammen

There is Rohingya in Arakan state since you Rakhine and Bamma occupied before Mon Naingen(Mon Land).You and Bamma are same nation and same race 100%.You are Tibeto-Burman until 1784.Rohingya are not Tibeto-Burman but Aryan descender which you demand for.Actualy the name Rakhaing is become from Rokhang Bamma king Bhodaw called Rakhang and then became Rakhaing.Rohingya were Hindu and Budhist until 7th century when your fasit king Nazhao was in Tibet.Rohingya converted to Islam from Budhist 90% of it,s population in 1430.Rohingya were diveded by two part one in Chitagong and Arakan.You Rakhine (Bamma)came in Rokhang in 1404-1430 first time.King Naramikhla was Rokhingya Budhist and he converted to Islam. He was known as Sulaiman Shah.You Rakhine lived with Rokhingya in many hundread years with Rokhingya people untuil 1784.Rokhingya never immigrant to Burma but you and Bamma envaded to Arakan.Did you forget that you occupied Mon.???

Sep 12, 2012 05:16 PM


There is no rohingya history in burma(myanmar). Those guys are bengali from bengladesh. Bengaladesh gov systematically exposed their poor people to neighboring countries india and myanmar. Those begalis attacked bodo people at india and also attacked rakhine people in myanmar. Begaladesh should take their responsibility. Now, India is super power, so they send all bengalis back to Bangladesh but Myanmar cannot do because it has lesser power.

Sep 03, 2012 01:06 AM

Anonymous Reader

I don't wish to live together with Rohingya. They are not good for their own families and also their societies.So how about for different societies.You had seen, heard and read about their faith in the world events and news and I have also experience about their living ways. If they have good wish, first of all,they should show their good tendency,politeness,kindness and faithfulness to their neighbors and their staying country but now they had shown their bad ambitions. Same to their brothers also, showing their bully thoughts and acts to us. If they have good-mind, they should take them to their countries. UNHCR is also the budgets-puppets organization. It also has bias. UNHCR is also aimlessly or having knowing shamelessly doing to spoil the Myanmar now and for future. I don't think UNHCR is best organization for this events because they didn't know Myanmar people feeling ,may be not care of us.We are not arrogant persons in the World you know.Who show mercy Mynamar People.

Aug 15, 2012 01:40 AM

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