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‘Give citizenship to the Rohingya community’

Global Movement of Moderates chairman Tan Sri Razali Ismail has called on the Myanmar government to consider giving citizenship to the Rohingya community. Razali, who was formerly the United Nations’ special envoy to Myanmar, talks to the New Straits Times on the role of Malaysia and the international community in forming solutions to the plight of the Rohingya.

Q :. You took part in the recent Perdana Global Peace Foundation Conference on the Plight of the Rohingyas, in which they came up with 16 resolutions to be handed to various parties including to the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak), the Myanmar government, and the United Nations. What is the progress on the resolutions?

A : I’m not an executive council member of the PGPF so I can’t speak on the progress of the resolutions. But they should be preparing the submissions right now, firstly to give to the government of Malaysia, because I do think it’s clear that many Malaysians do feel very strongly about the fate of the Rohingyas.
To me, however, it is not enough to simply send the letter to Najib. The impact would be more worthwhile if you can actually get him to meet and discuss the issues. Otherwise, it would just get lost among every other letters sent to his office.
If that’s not possible, then the letter should at least be sent to Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman. But as I said earlier, they should try very hard to get the PM in person for at least half an hour, so that a few proposals for solutions can be put on the table to see whether they’re feasible.

Q : What can Najib do on an international level to help move this effort forward?

A :Najib will not want to ruffle or upset Myanmar by making unrealistic, impractical demands. We have such a good relationship with Myanmar, built over many decades. We do not want to be part of a group that constantly pressures them over something that is not easy for them to resolve.
In the context of Asean, we want the democratisation process to take hold irreversibly, so we don’t want anything that might slow that process down. We want all of Myanmar to benefit from development, from economic growth and new infrastructure.
That said, the situation in Myanmar affects many countries in Southeast Asia and Asean countries do have a responsibility towards those who have escaped Myanmar as refugees, including the Rohingyas.
Asean leaders should recognise that the situation in Myanmar is complicated and will take a very long time to resolve.
Here in Malaysia, we have some 30,000 Rohingya refugees. There is a lot of support for the community but it can be improved. I think we should begin to treat them better. Their children need to be given the right to go to school, they should be given the right to find temporary work, to be given access to medical and health services, and the right not to be harassed by enforcement authorities.
These are people who are very close friends of us, who have connection as fellow Muslims. Many here support the Rohingyas. But support by words alone is not enough. If you want to help the Rohingya, help them here.

Q : What is the situation in Myanmar right now? Are their leaders receptive to the idea of granting citizenship to the Rohingyas?

A :The key problem right now isn’t the leaders, but getting the people of Myanmar themselves to accept the Rohingya as one of them.
It’s not easy for the Myanmar leadership, including (human rights activist) Aung San Suu Kyi, to think of specific solutions because, if you asked the other ethnic groups there, unfortunately, you would find that many of them do not believe the Rohingya are Myanmar citizens.
In some ways, it is similar to Malaysia’s experience during independence. When Malaysia decided to accept the Chinese and Indian immigrants as citizens, we accepted everyone – to the extent that the new citizens made up 20 per cent of the population. So it does not matter if the Rohingyas are not indigenous to the country – they should be recognised as belonging to Myanmar.
But even if the Myanmar president Thein Sein wants to do something now, it will be a very unpopular move. Plus, it would have to be carried out in the context of the other ethnic groups and larger issues such as economic development. The Myanmar government has their own priorities to consider.

Q : The Myanmar government has agreed to set up a commission of inquiry to look at the causes behind the violent clashes between Rohingya community and ethnic Rakhine Buddists last June. Will this help?

A : The commission of inquiry is focusing only on the events that led to the clashes so I don’t think it will change anything. It is just delaying time.
That said, I cannot imagine that the Myanmar government will never give citizenship to the Rohingya. I’m sure it is possible to make the people in Myanmar understand in time, that some process to give the Rohingya citizenship must be attempted in the name of human rights and democracy.

Q : What role does the international community have to play? At the recent UN general assembly, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said that Myanmar should tread carefully in resolving this issue.

A : Yes, it’s becoming more difficult for Thein Sein to keep quiet every time this subject comes up now. I think the UN should continue badgering and cajoling the Myanmar government to take the right steps.
 That said, I would counsel that the process should be carried out exclusively by the Myanmar government. Right now, they are looking towards the West and Asean for help (in their development process). But there’s a tendency for some countries, in the West especially, to go too far to the point of being intrusive.
As much as other countries are involved, the Myanmar may look to the UN for technical expertise if it’s really necessary. Ootherwise, it’s a process that require a very difficult political decision, that is best carried out by Myanmar on their own.

Q :. At the PGPF conference, former prime minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad brought up the idea that the United States should put pressure on the Myanmar government to recognise the Rohingyas. Some of the panelists also advocated a process where other countries can call on Myanmar to set a certain level of democratic reform in exchange for foreign investment. Do you agree?

A : Myanmar, at the moment, has all the potentials to develop rapidly. So it’s important for them to make the right decisions on questions like what kind of infrastructure do they need? What kind of schools? How do they achieve a proper balance in terms of their ethnic make-up?
Many countries are knocking on Myanmar’s door – China, especially, is a large presence. They have many options in terms of attracting foreign investment. They can choose what kind of assistance they need.
So I think that rather than impose conditions, especially unrealistic conditions, on them to meet, it’s more important to guide Myanmar into making the right decisions for them to develop.

Q : What do you think of calls from certain quarters to set up a separate state for the Rohingya?

A : Personally, I do not think such calls help. That will only scare the Myanmar government further from any attempt at a real resolution.
I’m very partial towards Myanmar but they need to accept the hard truth that the Rohingya have been there for such a long time that they deserve to be recognized as citizens.
Even while I was there, I was always aware of the people that had suffered from the military, and the Rohingya were among them. These groups became what the UN termed as internally displaced persons (IDPs), and it was an issue that I was always aware about. Back then, we could never get concrete answers but now, mass displacement of people within the country is something that cannot be allowed to continue.  


It is very crucial for this issue to be solved sooner rather than later because people exploit situations like this for money. The longer this issue remains unresolved, the more possibilities there are for people to do terrible things, such as human trafficking.
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