Rohingya people in Japan, a Muslim ethnic minority in their home country of Myanmar, are asking the government to help ease escalating tensions there between Buddhists and Muslims that experts warn could develop into an international conflict.
Deadly riots first broke out in the western state of Rakhine near the border with Bangladesh in July after an Arakanese Buddhist girl was raped and murdered in May, allegedly by three Rohingya youths. The incident set off an onslaught of revenge attacks against Rohingya.
Even though the Myanmar government announced emergency rule in Rakhine, human rights observers said security forces did little to stop the violence and in some cases took part. At least 78 people were killed andmore than 5,300 houses destroyed, according to government figures.
Rohingya in Japan who fled Myanmar to seek political asylum here are pinning their hopes on the Japanese government to pressure the Myanmar government to treat their compatriots better, as Japan has had an amiable history with the government during its years of repressive military rule.
“If there is a government the Myanmar government would listen to, it’s the Japanese government,” said Zaw Min Htut, president of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Japan.
In 1998, he fled political persecution in Myanmar and came to Japan, where he was first detained as an illegal immigrant. He is one of only a few Rohingya to be granted refugee status in Japan. Of 200 Rohingya who belong to the association, 15 have been granted official asylum.
The government of Myanmar President Thein Sein is now bringing sweeping changes to the once isolated nation since it pledged to transition into a democratic system. It has made reconciliation efforts among Myanmar’s more than 100 ethnic minority groups, but not the Rohingya, who were excluded by the government from holding citizenship when the country enacted a citizenship law in 1982.
The United Nations estimates that about 800,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine state and describes them as one of the most persecuted and stateless minorities in the world.
The Rohingya issue is such an emotional one in Myanmar that even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains silent, even though the ethnic Muslim group has been a staunch supporter of the democratic leader. Some pundits say the hatred against the Rohingya has been ingrained even among the most vocal human rights activists in Myanmar.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Zaw Min Htut said Japan wields more diplomatic clout as it was never a harsh critic of the military junta, while the United States and the European Union imposed economic sanctions against the military dictatorship. When Thein Sein visited Japan in April on the first state visit by a Myanmar leader in 28 years, Japan forgave $3.7 billion in debt to support the country’s nascent democratization.
Officials at the Foreign Ministry said they recognize the clashes in Rakhine state, and that the government is paying close attention to developments, but they are on the fence about taking direct action aside from providing humanitarian assistance through the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mizuho Fukushima, president of the Social Democratic Party and a lawyer who has worked on human rights issues, believes Japan could at least express concern to prompt the government of Thein Sein to take a more humanitarian approach to this issue.
The Upper House lawmaker has been supportive of Zaw Min Htut’s human rights activities since the time he was detained by immigration authorities in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture.
“With the Myanmar government shifting toward a democratic system, more Japanese companies are eyeingbusiness opportunities there,” said Fukushima, who met with officials from the Foreign Ministry and Zaw Min Htut to discuss the Rohingya issue in early August.
“It might impact Japanese businesses if the clash escalates even further,” said Fukushima, who said she will push the government to support an independent United Nations investigation into the matter.
Following international pressure, Thein Sein launched a commission to investigate the August sectarian killings. But experts warn that the clashes could get worse and have the potential to develop into an international conflict involving Muslim Bangladesh. They say mediation by a third party, such as Japan, is needed.
“It would be a great opportunity to exercise Japan’s diplomatic skills,” said Kei Nemoto, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo and an expert on Myanmar, likening the situation to when Japan mediated peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2003. “But first Thein Sein has to agree to such a third-party mediation framework, which might be difficult.”