By David L. Phillips
More than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State over the past four weeks. The UN calls it a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” The humanitarian emergency requires an urgent response. Historical dialogue can also shed light on the root causes of conflict, helping to resolve tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists.
According to Amnesty International (AI), “The situation on the ground is dire, the scale unprecedented, and the need to act – immediate and imperative.”
The Myanmar Government must allow immediate and unfettered access to humanitarian organizations to Rohingya areas so they can provide food, medicine and shelter, as well as protection.
The international community should help Bangladesh assist Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh is overwhelmed by the influx of Rohingya. It lacks the resources and capacity to manage the crisis, which is occurring during the floods of monsoon season.
UN agencies must register Rohingya arriving in Bangladesh, so there can be an orderly arrangement for their safe and dignified return to Myanmar in the future.
A UN fact-finding mission to Rohingya areas in Myanmar could help stabilize the situation. At a meeting yesterday in Naypidaw, Aung Saan Suu Kyi invited members of the diplomatic corps to visit Rakhine State.
It is important to think beyond the current crisis. Historical dialogue can help create conditions for peace-building and social harmony in the long term.
The dispute between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya goes back centuries. The Sultan of Bengal surrendered control of the Rakhine Kingdom in 1531. At the time, Rakhine extended from the Ganges to the Ayeyarwaddy River, including the Chittagong region in modern-day Bangladesh. The Rakhine Kingdom remained independent until 1826, when it was ceded to Britain after the First Anglo-Burma war.
In the Second World War, Rakhine became a battleground between Japan and Britain, with Britain arming the Rohingya and Japan siding with Rakhine. In the 1870s, unskilled Bengali laborers migrated to Lower Burma, modern day Myanmar. After the war, Britain imported more Rohingya workers. Their influx intensified after India’s partition in 1947, and with the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law only accords citizenship and identity cards to those whose parent or grandparent belongs to an “indigenous race.” Only those whose ancestry lived in Burma prior to 1823 or whose parents were citizens can themselves be citizens. Myanmar’s Rohingya were classified as stateless people, denied citizenship in Myanmar and rejected by Bangladesh. According to the UN “[Rohingya are] one of the most persecuted people in the world.”
I hosted Aung Saan Suu Kyi at Columbia University in September 2012. We worked closely with her National League for Democracy on Myanmar’s political transition. We advised the government and armed ethnic groups on political arrangements to resolve their differences. We also organized an inter-religious dialogue between Muslim and Theravada Buddhist leaders.
Capacity building can focus on current challenges. However, dialogue can also address historical legacy and memory. History is central to the formation of national identity. Violent conflict often arises when fear, hate, and animosity contribute to national identity.
Various approaches have been tried to deal with the legacy of violence and human rights abuse. Dozens of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) exist worldwide. The range of TRC experience shows that dialogue, truth-telling, and accountability can be complementary. South Africa’s expertise with truth and reconciliation could be an invaluable resource for Myanmar.
Aung Saan Suu Kyi wants help and understanding from the international community. Yesterday she spoke about the military’s role in counter-terrorism, lauding its security operations.
Terrified Rohingya have a different view. The current crisis requires an honest assessment. Historical dialogue about Rohingya in Burma over five centuries can contribute to national reconciliation.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He headed Columbia’s Myanmar Assistance Program, beginning in 2012.