By Ranjan Mukherjee
Myanmar, once known as Burma, is a country of 53 million, and the vast majority of its population is Buddhist. It became part of the British Empire with the subjugation of the Arakan and adjoining kingdoms.
Beginning in the 17th century, the empire imported laborers from Bengal (now Bangladesh), which borders the Rakhine province of Myanmar. The descendants of those workers, and others, are today's Rohingyas, Muslim by religion and now numbering more than one million.
The Rohingyas are one of the world's most persecuted minorities and the largest single group of stateless people. They are not accepted as citizens of Myanmar, but rather as interlopers from Bangladesh. But that country doesn't accept them as citizens either.
Myanmar has more than a hundred official ethnic groups but Rohingya is not one of them. And Myanmar law does not protect non-citizens. Thus the Rohingyas live on the fringes of society, often without access to education or health care.
In 2012, tensions boiled over and communal riots broke out between the Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas. There were charges of ethnic cleansing and genocide as close to 140,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee. They now live in squalid refugee camps around Cox Bazar in Bangladesh. More than 25,000 fled by boat to Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, with the inevitable human trafficking and exploitation that accompanies the exodus of desperate humans. Hundreds drowned.
Militant Rohingyas retaliated against Myanmar border guards and this was followed by the inevitable army crackdown. Rapes, killings, and the destruction of villages has been reported.
Though talks on the Rohingyas have begun between Myanmar and Bangladesh, a first, they cover only 65,000 Rohingyas, while more than half a million have fled to Bangladesh.
As this sad story continues, here are three points worth considering:
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the freedom fighter and government minister, should speak out more forcefully on the Rohingya issue. Her silence has been deafening. She must use some political capital and stand up to the army and the ethnic Rakhines. This is politically unpopular, and she knows that she needs the army's blessing to stay in power. But sometimes one has to choose what is right over what is expedient. Rohingyas have a right to citizenship.
The international community should exert pressure on the Myanmar government. Only when the bright light of the media is focused on the problem and international condemnation is brought to bear will the ruling party address this issue. The Western press ignored the Syrian refugee crisis until it spilled over into Europe. The plight of the Rohingyas is just as severe but receives a fraction of the coverage.
Solving this problem will require vast resources. As a first step, the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, should open and supervise more refugee camps for the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Arab Gulf states should show solidarity with their Muslim brethren by providing the proper tents, food, water, medicine, and sanitation that are urgently required for tens of thousands of displaced Rohingyas.
Solving this problem will not be easy. Similar ones persist throughout the globe, and there is slow, halting progress toward mitigation in some of these cases once the world is paying attention. There is no such spotlight on the Rohingyas.
Is Su Kyi willing to spend the political capital necessary to take on the army, the native Rakhines, and the militant Buddhist monks to find a solution? She must take a principled stand, even at the risk of her popularity, rather than kick this can down the road.
This crisis could result in unintended consequences. The large number of young, poorly educated Rohingyas with no jobs and no future could turn to jihadism. Their cause could attract Islamic militants from across the globe. So far that has not been the case, but that could change.
Su Kyi must address this problem expediently, and if she fails to do so the world community must keep the pressure on her and the Myanmar army. Economic sanctions should be considered if there is no progress on statehood for the Rohingyas. Sometimes it takes a carrot-and-stick approach to yield results.