Interview with Selçuk Çolakoğlu, USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies
What does the current situation in Myanmar imply?
First reports of the trouble in Myanmar (formerly Burma) may have given the impression that this was another routine ethnic or inter-communal dispute of the kind commonly encountered in places like Asia and Africa. But when details of the incidents became clearer, it became apparent that the drama through which the Arakan (Rohingya) Muslims are living is not a simple communal conflict but a process extending much further, towards ethnic cleansing. The situation’s gravity is increased by the fact that the Myanmar authorities seem to be inflaming the troubles. Consequently it does not seem to be limited just to an attack by the local Buddhists on Muslims but rather a policy enjoying state supports.
Even more important, the President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, has declared that the only responsibility which the United Nations (UN) should assume in regard to the Muslims is to collect them into concentration camps and have them sent to other countries. The political meaning of such a declaration by a head of state is to make the Muslims target for all state institutions, the security forces, and the Buddhist majority. It was almost the start rocket for ethnic cleansing. This approach is reminiscent of the genocides in Bosnia Herzegovina and Rwanda in the first half of the 1990s. Just as the Serbs and the Croats in Bosnia Herzegovina tried to exterminate the Bosniacs and the Hutus tried to wipe out the Tutsis in Rwanda, so now the Burmese Buddhists in Myanmar view the Rohingya Muslims as people who must be got rid of. The message going out to the Rohingyas is for all of them to depart from the country or be killed.
Does the international context help to marginalize and intimidate the Burmese government to stop the ethnic cleansing?
Another misfortune for the Rohingyas is that the international conjuncture is completely against them. Myanmar has long had very close relations with its neighbor China. Its other large neighbor India is also developing its relations with Myanmar in order to counter-balance China. Myanmar has been a member of ASEAN since 1997 but because that organization’s other members all have problems with their own minorities, it does not ask questions about Myanmar’s policies towards minorities. The Western countries have normalized their relations with Myanmar following various reforms which it carried out after 2010. The USA established diplomatic relations with Myanmar in early 2012 and the countries of the EU have lifted the economic sanctions which they had applied to it. Myanmar is very strategically important for the eastern Indian Ocean and at a time when all countries seem to want to get on well with it, its authorities have been emboldened sufficiently to try and liquidate the Muslim community.
What steps can be taken to put an end to the repression of these people in Myanmar?
First and foremost, the Rohingyas live under threat to their lives. The first step has to be to end violence incidents against the Muslims here. The government of Myanmar may claim that they are just part of an inter-communal dispute between Muslims and Buddhists but the situation is clearly reminiscent of state-supported ethnic cleansing.
It is not because of the weakness of the state in Myanmar that the Rohingya are exposed to violence: they are being directly targeted by state-supported Buddhist militias. Consequently the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State must be opened up to the rest of the world and seen more clearly. Independent international media organizations and international human rights organizations need to be able to operate freely in the region.
The second step is to get humanitarian assistance to the Rohingyas, both those in Myanmar itself and those in Bangladesh. International aid organizations must urgently go into action in the Rakhine State under the supervision of the United Nations. The fundamental problem for humanitarian aid there is that the Myanmar government is not easily opening up the Rakhine region to the rest of the world, while the government of Bangladesh is not permitting aid to reach the camps where the Rohingya refugees live because it fears that this might cause an influx of more refugees.
Thirdly, the Myanmar government has to be convinced that basic rights, including citizenship, must be given to the Rohingyas. It seems that the Myanmar government does not want the Muslims to live in the province of Rakhine State which is of great strategic importance for the western coast of Myanmar. Furthermore this appears to be the common view held not just by the military rule but by all Burmese Buddhists. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of the opposition has remained silent about the tragedy of the Rohingyas and this is an indication that even if there is a transition to democracy, not very much will change in the situation of Myanmar’s Muslims.
What role can Turkey bear regarding the preservation of the basic rights of these people in Myanmar?
It would appear difficult to get the Myanmar government to abandon its policies of trying to wipe out the Rohingyas until a strong country exerts direct political pressure on Myanmar or there is an effective international pressure. Turkey’s relations with Myanmar are virtually non-existent. Until now there have been virtually no political or economic relations between Turkey and Myanmar. Ankara only opened its embassy in Myanmar in March 2012 as part of its new Asian strategy. Myanmar still does not have an embassy in Ankara. Consequently the role which Turkey might be able to assume regarding this topic is one of leadership in mobilizing international organizations and efforts to have this tragedy stopped.
The priority must be to mobilize bodies such as the UN, the EU, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and ASEAN. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International could take a more active role in the process. Beyond that, there could be one on one discussions with state officials of countries which are capable of exerting pressure on Myanmar, notably the members of the UN Security Council and they could be asked to go into action to halt this human tragedy. Despite all that is happening, Turkey should use constructive language with the Myanmar government and should only try to encourage that country to take positive steps by going through international organizations.
Is it possible that growing public awareness worldwide on the severity of the tragedy taking place in Myanmar may indeed compel the international community and organizations to take action at last?
Public opinion and the support of the media for the Rohingyas are very important in this process. In today’s media world and communications age, the social media influence even the foreign policies of governments. Countries like the USA, China, and India may be forced into action by the pressure of international public opinion. Turkish support is very important for media activities which will boost international public opinion and publicize the problems of the Rohingyas through the publications of English-language news, broadcasts reports, and books. At present there is very little information on the market about the problems of the Rohingyas, something which makes it necessary to support the media and broadcasters in creating international public opinion on the matter.
How is that possible to inspire the global public, including Muslims and non-Muslims as well for the sake of the humanitarian aspect of the issue, to exert pressure on Myanmar government?
When seeking the support of international public opinion, objective legal discourse must be used, taking human rights as its reference point. Because the problems which the Rohingyas have to ensure are sufficiently tragic in terms of basic human values, all that is necessary is to get the support of international public is to bring to attention the human dimension of the problem. In order to dispel the perception that this is a clash between the Buddhists and the Muslims, there needs to be dialogue with the world’s leading Buddhist religious leaders and provocative anti-Buddhist expressions need to be carefully avoided. Calls from Buddhist religious leaders to the Burmese Buddhists to show moderation will be much more effective in stopping the violence against the Muslims than any reaction coming from the Muslim world.
For how long will the persecution last, or to rephrase, is there any light at the end of the tunnel for Rohingya Muslims?
Unfortunately, it does not look likely that there is an instant overnight solution to the problems of the Rohingyas. Reaching a solution may take months or even years. What is important in this situation is to keep the support of international public opinion alive. So some sort of institutional follow-up mechanism needs to be created to keep the problems of the Rohingyas firmly on the agenda. Otherwise when international interest has abated, the Myanmar government may resume its oppression against the Rohingyas. So a platform or initiative for the Rohingyas needs to be established at the United Nations or within the framework of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.