HAVING had the opportunity, as part of the UN multi-agency assistance programme, to extensively interact with the Rohingyas in Myanmar and in the refugee camps, I have come to know the Rohingyas as a highly resilient, intelligent, skilful and hard-working people. They have survived for many years on meagre resources, extreme limitations and in the face of danger and exploitation.
The Rohingyas are descendants of those from the undivided Indian subcontinent who settled
in what’s now the Arakan region of Myanmar. It was only several hundred years later when the borders of Burma and later Bangladesh were drawn, that the Rohingyas found themselves on one side or the other. However, those who had settled for generations in what then became the Rakhine state remained there until the Rakhine Buddhist community began to see them as “outsiders”.
Soon the differences between them escalated, and with the involvement of the Myanmar military junta led to the systematic persecution and violence against the Rohingyas with thousands of them fleeing to nearby countries.
The Rohingyas in Myanmar, under a law passed almost 30 years ago, are termed as “residents” and do not qualify as citizens since they are not Myanmar by ethnic ancestral birth. As such, they cannot own land or enjoy the right to any health or education benefits or engage in economic activities.
Several thousand Rohingyas who fled Myanmar, live in ghettos and refugee camps in Bangladesh (approximately 300,000) and in areas along the Thai-Myanmar border (about 100,000), while they are also refugees in Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. As refugees, their plight in many of these countries is as dire.
For the past four decades, the Rohingya issue has been discussed, without any concrete outcomes, while their predicament has worsened to the point of being one of the worst humanitarian calamities of our time.
Many well-meaning solutions have been put forward, ranging from persuading, or even compelling, the Myanmar government to accept the Rohingyas as citizens, to their resettlement in third countries.
There are even calls for Aung San Suu Kyi to demand the right of citizenship for the Rohingyas. Suu Kyi has made it clear that every genuine refugee must have the right to return and be treated in accordance with international law. But, more than that, she has said that everyone concerned must continue to work actively with Myanmar for a solution.
Let’s be clear. No refugee return in history has succeeded on the basis of compelling a country, against its wishes, to accept the refugees back. Even if the present Myanmar government is willing, there is no guarantee that the Rakhine Buddhist community will accept the Rohingyas to live on equal terms with them.
As the Myanmar government has shown its willingness to consider those who can be granted citizenship status and rights, it would be prudent for the international community to pursue that option, ensuring that Rohingyas in Myanmar and those who return and be accepted as citizens, are afforded the same privileges as other citizens.
The Rohingyas whom the Myanmar authorities will not accept for whatever reason, will have no choice but to be assisted for third country resettlement.
It is imperative that the international community, in particular the UN and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) address this humanitarian crisis with urgency and find a workable solution to this progressive extinction of the Rohingyas.