In the second quarter of 2015, the Rohingyas’ irregular sea migration made the headlines in international media. The months of May and June 2015 witnessed thousands of malnourished Rohingyas refugees arriving into the seas of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia in cramped boats abandoned by their skippers. During the period, it was reported that thousands more were stranded on rickety boats off the coasts of these three countries, with dwindling supplies of food and clean water.
In recent years, the Rohingyas Muslims have struggled to attract attention to their plight, not only at international level, but also within the contemporary Myanmar political scene. This occurred amid the seemingly celebrated “limited Myanmar reform,” which to date has trickled nothing for the Rohingyas.
The ethnic minority continue to be prosecuted and ignored and rejected by their own countrymen. There are reports of on questionable policies introduced such as denial of citizenship to Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims, severe restrictions on their movement, employment and access to education and healthcare, as well as a discriminatory law imposing a “two child” limit on Rohingyas families in their Rakhine state. Last year, in 2014, the government even banned the use of the word “Rohingyas,” insisting the Muslim minority, who have lived in that country for generations, be registered in the census as “Bengali.” The main argument to this is – ethnic Rohingyas belong to a Bangladeshi tribe.
Within all these developing issues, it is relevant for us to ask: where does the issue of Rohingyas fit within Myanmar’s evolving governance reform and, pertinently, in its upcoming November 2015 election?
Central to this notion is the involvement of Aung San Suu Kyi as the most well-known Myanmar political reformist.
She has been evasive. In May 2015, when the issue made headlines in international media (arrival of boat people to Malaysia and Indonesia), Aung San Suu Kyi avoided critical remarks and suggested the sensitivity of the issue needed a tactful response. While in a BBC 2013 interview, Suu Kyi blamed the violence on “both sides,” suggesting that “Muslims have been targeted, but Buddhists have also been subjected to violence.”
It is obvious her move is political.
Nicholas Farrelly, director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre, stated that “Aung San Suu Kyi and her strategists are looking at the electoral maths,” “They have long imagined that any perception the NLD is too cozy with the country’s Muslims could lose them millions of votes.” For the sake of elections, this seems to be logical. Though in hindsight, Aung San Suu Kyi’s current approach may also trap her and NLD into following more or less the same vicious policy cycle towards ethnic Rohingyas and Muslims in the future – if granted the power to rule post-November 2015 election. Below are explanations.
The Rohingya Muslim issue is not Myanmar’s political cup of coffee, for two reasons.
First, is the population ratio between Buddhist and Muslims. About 89% to 90% of the population consists of Bamar Buddhist, while the Rohingyas and other Muslim ethnic groups occupy a minor 4% of the total Myanmar population as estimated by the Myanmar government’s latest census.
Second, more worrying, is a large majority of Bamar Buddhists has little sympathy and tolerance for the Rohingya’s.
If one would look closely at Myanmar’s emerging socio-political development, there seems to be an emerging passion towards dogmatized Buddhism lead by Ashin Wirathu, a leading extreme Buddhist and anti-Muslim nationalist. He has the potential to mobilize his Buddhist growing masses to pressure any ruling Myanmar government to exhibit zero tolerance for the Rohingyas or Muslims. A little extra show of sympathy to the Rohingyas, or Muslims in general, may likely send a different message to this rightist group, which in-turn could pull away their well-needed votes or the possibility of creating another violent chaos as in 2012.
As a matter of fact, the current Myanmar political climate and election direction is so coagulated with anti-Muslim and -Rohingya sentiment to a point where any perceived link with these two will be disassociated immediately.
This is exactly what Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party did last month when the party leadership excluded over a dozen Muslims from its candidate list. The Irrawaddy News portal reported the number of Muslim candidates that were out listed were about 15 or 16.
Prevailing dogmas in a majority population plays an important role in Realpolitik and Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party seem to be adhering to this principle for the sake of the impending election.
Hence, taking the above into consideration, one can anticipate that if Aung San Suu Kyi or anyone in her NLD party is voted to be the highest executive power in Myanmar, a drastic policy change towards the Rohingyas or Muslims is not to be expected. Politically, any immediate U-turn support or show of tolerance to Rohingya Muslims is not a sustainable move in Myanmar given the current political climate. This move can be capitalized by opposition and nationalist alike, which in turn can result in a swift political suicide for NLD even after winning the election.
The writer is not discounting in entirety Aung San Suu Kyi’s audacity for change if NLD is voted in. However, even if policy shift may happen, political sentiments and treatment towards Rohingyas and Muslim in general will not alter satisfactorily.
Hence, it is imperative for the international community to begin reflecting on Aung San Suu Kyi or her NLD party practical commitment towards the Rohingya’s not only from a short-term perspective (pre-election), but also in a longer time frame. Whoever that will be Myanmar’s new government post-November 2015 election will need to play along with prevailing political sentiments for survival.
The broader lesson is to understand that the responsibility to voice and highlight the Rohingyas should not be expected of any reformist party in Myanmar alone. The predicament seems bleak.
This should also be shouldered by the international community in continuously applying pressure on the Myanmar Government to reverse its discriminative policies on the ethnic Rohingyas. It is worth noting that such an approach may have been proven workable.
On May 19, after receiving harsh criticisms from the international community, pertinently from ASEAN members, Myanmar information minister Ye Htut told foreign ambassadors that Burma would cooperate with regional and international counterparts “to tackle the ongoing boat people crisis, which is a consequence of human trafficking of people from Rakhine state and Bangladesh to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.”
Asean has, in the past, successfully assisted Myanmar in opening its door to the world and push the country towards various slow but moving reforms. A similar approach can be applied, but with a need for a more robust diplomacy. The Rohingyas issue is not unlike any domestic problems affecting Asean members. This involves raw and critical humanitarian issues of the Rohingyas that will perpetually plague ASEAN if other members choose the usual slow and mitigated path in dealing with Yangon. – September 6, 2015.
This article written by Ferooze Ali has been republished by The Malaysian Insider 6 September 2015 and The New Straits Times on the 8 of September.