Myanmar has been in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis for over 25 years. Thousands of ethnic Rohingya are fleeing persecution. Their escape is dangerous as they leave on overcrowded boats with no real destination in sight. They usually travel to countries (Bangladesh, Thailand, Philippines, or Malaysia) that are ill-equipped or do not want to help them.
In the last few months, a newly assigned task force, headed by former United Nations (UN) General Kofi Annan, has once again thrown light on the unrelenting issue in Myanmar. While the commission aims to put an end to the inexorable issue, unless the Myanmar government and its citizens work towards resolving the issue, the Rohingya population will continue to remain state-less people, ostracized by every community.
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority group in a Buddhist majority country. The UN estimates that there are about 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, including people of Bengali heritage who settled centuries ago as well as those who entered the country in recent decades.
The problem arises with regard to the law in Myanmar which considers those who settled in the country post-independence as illegal immigrants. The mass exodus of illegal immigrants who fled persecution and went to Bangladesh in the 1980s and 1990s further aggravated the situation.
They hail from the country’s northwest province and speak a Bengali dialect, in contrast to Burmese, which is spoken by a major proportion of the population. Almost all of the Rohingya live in Rakhine, one of the poorest states, with a population of three million. About 140,000 Rohingya in the Rakhine state live in ghetto-like camps and cannot leave without government authorization.
Myanmar’s former President Thein Sein did little to pacify the issue, rather he aggravated the issue further by increasing the anti- Rohingya sentiment in the country. In October 2012, amid violent riots, he asked the UN to resettle the Rohingya in other countries, saying, “We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingya who came to Burma illegally are not of our ethnic nationalities, and we cannot accept them here.”
While many hoped that the change in political tide in Myanmar would offer some respite to the Rohingya, no one from the National League for Democracy (NLD) has addressed the issue. Not even Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who fought for decades for democracy and reform in Myanmar.
For the first time, the Head of the new Myanmar government, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the issue that has plagued the Rakhine state. The Nobel Laureate and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been criticized in the past for her silence regarding the issue. During her historic speech at the United Nations earlier this month the icon, who was put under house arrest for years by a military junta, took the rostrum to speak for Myanmar.
Suu Kyi pledged to back a commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan that was recently set up to advise on the situation. She promised to stand firm against “the forces of prejudice and intolerance and is determined to persevere in our endeavor to achieve harmony, peace and prosperity in the Rakhine state.”
The primary task of the Kofi Annan-led commission is to conduct and present its findings and recommendations to the Myanmar government within a time frame of 12 months. The commission commenced with Annan visiting Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine state, from September 5-7, 2016. At Sittwe, he met with local leaders and visited the Thet Ke Pyin Squalid refugee camp. The camp hosts 140,000 internally displaced Rohingyas living in dire humanitarian conditions.
The commission, which consists of Kofi Annan as the Chair and includes three international and six national members was met with disruptive protests. This is an unprecedented move, as Myanmar has never allowed foreigners in any government commission. Protestors ranged from angry Buddhists, to supporters of the Arakan National Party (ANP), and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). They argue that the conflict in Rakhine is Myanmar’s internal issue and no foreigner should be allowed to engage with it. The lack of representation from the Rohingya community could pose a hurdle for the international experts to find an appropriate solution.
A major downside to the commission is the lack of power regarding recommendations. The commission’s statement of purpose highlights the importance of “finding the best possible solution to prevailing problems”. Despite the lack of optimism held by most, there seems to be a very thin ray of hope for the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state of Myanmar.