The United States is working with the international community to find a resolution to the troublesome Rohingya issue, including possible citizenship for members of the Muslim minority group in Burma, officials say.
But rights groups do not see significant moves under way by the Burmese government to fully address the problem, even in efforts to pave the way for the return home of thousands of Rohingyas displaced by deadly violence in northwestern Rakhine state in June.
State Department refugee expert Kelly Clements said that recent talks between the U.S. and Burma have “explored how the international community can assist the Burmese government in long-term recovery efforts” following the violence, in which more than 80 died and 75,000 were displaced, mostly Rohingyas.
Additionally, an end to the Rohingyas’ stateless status must be found for those members of the group who can make valid claims to citizenship, Clements said on Tuesday at a forum held by the Open Society Foundation in Washington.
“We explored how the international community can assist the Burmese government in long-term recovery efforts and the development of a path to citizenship for those Rohingya with claims.”
“Peace is possible in Rakhine State only through economic development, poverty alleviation and ensuring basic rights for residents,” Clements said.
The Rohingya are not recognized as an ethnic group in Burma even though many members of the group have lived in the country for decades. They have been classified by the U.N. as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Clements said citizenship is often the gateway to a person’s ability to realize a range of human rights and basic services, including freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination and arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to vote, access to education, and property ownership.
“Citizenship is a core concept that defines the relationship between a state and an individual—each has obligations to the other.”
The Rohingya, a people whose ethnic identity and origin are highly disputed, were rendered stateless in Burma by the passage of the 1982 Myanmar Citizenship Law.
Clements said that some historical accounts note that Rohingyas have been indigenous to Rakhine since the 9th century.
Rakhine was at one time the kingdom of Arakan, which also occupied southern parts of modern Bangladesh. Burma's 800,000 Rohingya speak a dialect similar to one spoken in Bangladesh, where some 300,000 Rohingya also live.
Other accounts claim that the Rohingya migrated to the region during the British colonial period, Clements said.
“This latter claim has consistently fueled anti-Rohingya sentiment, leading to periodic tension and violence against the Rohingya by the former military regime after Burma gained independence.”
Clements said that peace in Rakhine state, where more than 80 died in the June violence by official count, and where about 75,000 from both the Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhist communities remain displaced, will be restored only through economic development, poverty alleviation, and guarantees of basic rights for residents.
The U.S., she said, is working closely with the international community and countries affected by Rohingya displacement to reach a “comprehensive, sustainable, and just solution to their plight.”
“Our commitment to resolving this intractable problem is clear,” Clements said.
'Nothing on track'
Despite talks between the United States and Burma, though, rights groups do not expect any resolution to the issue soon.
While discussions on bringing peace to Rakhine have taken place, “nothing that needs to happen is on track to happen,” said Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director John Sifton, also speaking at the Open Society Foundations.
“The current situation is intolerable,” Sifton said.
“Huge amounts of political pressure need to be placed on the Burmese government to make things happen, and that’s pressure that the United States government and the EU [European Union] will have to bring to bear.”
Following the June violence in Rakhine, Burma’s national government seemed to have no plan to return people to their homes, Sifton said.
“Unfortunately, [this] still seems to be the case.”
The United States and other concerned countries should ask the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to set up an office in Burma to serve as a “neutral arbiter of facts and recommendations,” Sifton said.
Though Burma now receives regular visits from U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Tomas Quintana, an established office could fully monitor the post-violence situation in Rakhine, the release of Burmese political prisoners, and cease-fires negotiated with Burma’s other ethnic groups, Sifton said.
“So from the beginning, we’ve been raising this as a thing that needs to be done and could have a huge impact for all of Burma.”
Reported by Richard Finney.