Bangkok Conference offers recommendations for solving the Rohingya problem of Myanmar

Violence against the Rohingya people, who are overwhelmingly Muslim and comprise slightly less than half the total population in the Arakan (now Rakhine) state, located in the western part of Myanmar (formerly Burma), close to Bangladesh, is not new in the Buddhist-majority country. The government media suggested that it was a communal riot triggered by the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by a Rohingya youth.

As usual, the regime failed to provide any concrete evidence proving that such a crime was committed by the alleged rapist. In the past, racial riots were known to have been orchestrated by the regime when such crimes would be committed by its own forces and then the body of the unfortunate victim dumped in a sensitive area. The fact that the alleged rapist was later found dead by hanging himself in the closely monitored prison cell once again shows that this may probably be the case here as well. As expected, with deep-seated racism that the majority Rakhine Buddhists entertain against the Rohingya Muslims, within days of the rape crime, ten Tablighi Burmese Muslims (who were not even Rohingya) were lynched to death on June 3 by an organized Rakhine mob, while the police stood by and did nothing to stop such horrendous crimes.

Then on June 8 when a peaceful funeral gathering of the Rohingya people was fired upon by the police, a wholesale riot ensued. Since then dozens of Muslim villages and hundreds of mosques have also been totally burned down by the Buddhist mob, aided often by government riot police Lon Htin and NASAKA security forces. Hundreds of Muslim owned businesses, schools and madrasas have also been destroyed. The Rohingya people were even barred from attending the Eid prayer, the happiest of Muslim festivals celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan. Curfew has been imposed by the government, which does not allow the Rohingya people to move and buy essential life saving food and medicine, while the Rakhine mobs are allowed to rob and destroy Muslim owned homes and businesses. And what is worse, Buddhist monks, encouraged by racist Rakhine politicians have blocked the sale and movement of life-saving drugs and food materials from reaching the Rohingya people who now face starvation and serious dehydration.

In the absence of reliable estimates but based on internal evidences, gathered by international human rights monitoring groups, tens of thousands of Rohingya people may have perished in this latest pogrom. Nearly a hundred thousand Rohingyas are internally displaced and many have been pushed to seek refuge or asylum in any country willing to provide them shelter.

Since the days of hated dictator Ne Win who stepped down in 1988 in the midst of violent student protests, the regimes (military or a quasi-civil-military) have exploited racism and bigotry to divide and rule the Buddhist-majority country. The on-going violence against the Rohingya people show that it is part of a very sinister and calculated national project towards ethnically cleansing them that is orchestrated by the Myanmar government and widely supported and promoted at the central and local levels by the ultra-racist elements within the government and civilian population of the Rakhine state. So pervasive is this national project that even Daw Suu Kyi, previously deemed a voice of humanity and conscience within Myanmar, is accused of silently approving of this ethnic cleansing. Many of her NLD party members have openly encouraged violence against the Rohingya people.

In the midst of international outcry, the Thein Sein government has lately announced the formation of a 27-member internal inquiry commission to investigate the causes behind the latest riot. However, its inclusion of certain Rakhine and Burmese members who had openly encouraged violence against the targeted Rohingya shows that his government is not serious about dealing with the problem honestly but is doing everything as a face-saving measure to avoid an international independent inquiry requested by the world community.

To find probable solutions to the existing problems, Arakan Rohingya Organization – Japan (JARO) and Rohingya National Organization in Thailand (RNOT) jointly sponsored an International Rohingya Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. The theme of the conference was “Contemplating Burma’s Rohingya People’s Future in Reconciliation and (Democratic) Reform.”

The conference was held on August 15, 2012 at Thammasat University, Thaprachan, Bangkok, and was attended by nearly a hundred participants who came from Thailand, Japan, Canada, USA, Myanmar, Malaysia, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Singapore. Several members from the local/international media, NGOs, ASEAN countries, and Thai-based foreign embassies also attended the conference.

The conference was moderated by Mrs. Chalida Tajaroensuk, Director of People’s Empowerment Foundation and started with an opening speech from Mr. Salim Ullah, President of JARO. I was invited as the keynote speaker. The other speakers included Professor Abid Bahar (author of the book – Burma’s Missing Dots) from Canada, Mr. Muhammad Anwar Burmi of RNOT, Mr. Suja Uddin (a human rights activist) from Australia and Mr. Noor Alam (a human rights activist) from Thailand.

In my keynote speech I cited evidences proving that the Rohingyas are victims of an apartheid policy that has no parallel in our time. The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law has effectively rendered them stateless, thus denying all rights to them –” including of movement, marriage, reproduction, education, health and employment. They are viewed as invaders or illegal immigrants from nearby Bangladesh since the British colonial period (post-1826).

In his speech, Prof. Abid Bahar challenged this false notion. With ample of historical evidences, he demonstrated that the Rohingya people were neither implanted by the British administration since 1826 nor did they intrude into Arakan from Bangladesh after the Union of Burma (Myanmar) had achieved her independence in 1948.

I noted that until and unless the 1982 Law, which violates every Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is amended, this on-again and off-again pogrom to exterminate the Rohingya people would continue; they would become an extinct community. As such the world community has a duty to stop this ethnic cleansing one way or another.

In his speech, Mr. Azmi Abdul Hamid, Secretary General of MAPIM, from Malaysia mentioned that his organization is organizing an aid flotilla to be sent next month to help alleviate the serious humanitarian crisis prevailing now in Arakan.

The conference called upon the Myanmar government to immediately amend or repeal the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law thereby removing the burdensome standard of proof for attaining citizenship, and thus granting the Rohingya and other minority entities full citizenship and accompanying rights. It asked the government to sign and ratify the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and fulfill its international obligation to prevent statelessness of all affected people.

The Myanmar government was called upon by the conference to address the other fundamental human rights problems which have caused the Rohingya and other minority communities to flee to Bangladesh and other countries, including abolishing the practice of forced labor in compliance with the 1930 International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on Forced Labor, which the Burmese government signed in 1955. Towards this end, as recommended by the ILO, the government was called upon to amend or repeal the sections of the Village and Towns Acts that legally sanction the conscription of labor.

The conference also called upon Myanmar government to protect the rights of the children, in accordance with the government’s commitment to children’s rights through its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. In particular, it demanded that all children born of Rohingya parents (and other "stateless" minorities) should be granted Myanmar nationality, including those born in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand and elsewhere. It asked the government to ensure that children are not forced to work under any circumstance, and that it does not discriminate against Muslim (and non-Buddhist) children in its provision of education benefits.

Since nearly half the Rohingya population is forced now to a life of refugee outside, the conference called upon the Myanmar government to ensure that all refugees are able to exercise their right to return and to guarantee their full reintegration with full respect for their human rights.

While Thein Sein’s gesture in releasing some political prisoners was appreciated, the conference called upon his government to release all its political prisoners and dropping all charges against them and their family members.

The conference called upon the Myanmar government to pay due compensation for the loss of lives and properties of the victims of the current pogrom, and to repatriate and rehabilitate each one of the fleeing refugees who had fled or sought refugee status outside. Furthermore, the conference called upon the government to allow international NGOs and aid agencies to provide material and medical aid to the suffering people, plus allowing the presence of international monitors, e.g., human rights groups and journalists, to continuously monitor the restive region so as to provide needed and accurate information on a timely manner.

In my talk, I also mentioned that the protection of minorities against injustice and intolerance was not a matter of compassion or sympathy of the majority. Human rights in a democracy are held to be inalienable –” no human being could be deprived of those rights in a democracy by the will of the majority of the sovereign people. As such, I called upon the government to correct its age-old xenophobia, hatred and intolerance of the Rohingya people through all means necessary including education and media outlets, plus punishing the culprits –” both the perpetrators and promoters of hatred.

The conference criticized the attitude of the so-called democracy leaders in Myanmar who through endorsement or silence thereof on-going extermination campaign against the Rohingya minorities have proven to be closet fascists. They were warned about the serious consequence of their actions and that if they did not correct their ways, they could face prosecution in the international courts (much like what has happened with Julius Streicher of the Nazi era in the Nuremburg Trial).

In my closing talk on finding solution, I discussed the problems with the ideology of new “Myanmarism”, which promotes ultra-nationalism of the dominant race and religious intolerance against the minority races, which are sure recipes for a failed state in our time. I also mentioned that citizenship based on ethnicity or race is a feudal concept that has no place in the 21st century. As such, if Myanmar were to avoid becoming a failed state, it must abandon this toxic ideology and promote a series of dialogues between the leaders of the Rohingya and Rakhine community immediately towards reconciliation, inclusion and integration within Myanmar without any prejudice.

The conference also warned the Myanmar government that its failure to resolve the crisis — by amending or removing the Citizenship Law, which is at the heart of the Rohingya problem — could result in its leaders being pursued in the International Criminal Court (similar to those faced by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic of former Yugoslavia) for serious violations of international humanitarian laws against the Rohingyas of Myanmar.

It further noted that if Myanmar were to survive as a Federal Union, enough trust-building provisions were necessary so that every minority community –” religious, ethnic, or otherwise –” could feel equal with other dominant races and groups. The true spirit of Republicanism, in clear distinction to ‘Myanmarism’, must be embraced as the only alternative for survival of a future democratic Myanmar.

As to the treatment of the refugees, the conference, called upon the member states of the United Nations to stop the ‘push back’ of fleeing refugees from Myanmar against their wishes, and instead, to ensure adequate provisions for food, education, job and healthcare. They should not be barred from seeking asylum in a third country.

The conference also noted the cat-and-mouse tactics of the Myanmar regime and as such called upon the UN member states, esp. the veto-wielding powers, to press the Myanmar government to immediately repeal its 1982 Citizenship Act that is highly discriminatory and in violations of several international laws and charters of the UN and its member agencies. It also asked the world body to press the Myanmar government to stop its inhuman and degrading treatment of all minorities, esp. the Rohingyas of the Rakhine State. It also called upon the UNSC to put a time limit of six months to amend the citizenship issue, thus, restoring citizenship rights of the Rohingya, failing which to prosecute the regime in the Hague for its horrible records of crimes against humanity, and to declare the Mayu Frontier Territories (in northern Arakan) a ‘safe’ territory for the Rohingyas of Myanmar so that they could live there with honor, dignity, safety and security.

In my concluding remarks I duly noted that unless Myanmar government corrects the Rohingya problem allowing them to live as equal citizens the agenda could be hijacked by extremists on both sides of the Muslim-Buddhist divide which could lead to war of secession of the troubled region.

How serious is the so-called reform minded government of Thein Sein to take his poverty-stricken country to the twenty first century which is increasingly becoming plural and open to possibilities? If he is serious, he ought to listen to the voices heard in the Bangkok international conference which while discussing the problem of current violence plaguing his western frontier territory did not shy away from offering needed recommendations that could help stabilize the country and attract much needed foreign investment.