The crisis of Burma’s Rohingya minority, with an estimated 164,000 already having fled to neighboring Bangladesh, can’t be resolved with any quick strokes such as sanctions or diplomatic pressure, said Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Burma and a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar after crossing the border illegally near Amtoli, Bangladesh, Sept. 1, 2017. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Dean
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar after crossing the border illegally near Amtoli, Bangladesh, Sept. 1, 2017. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Dean

The international community has an obligation to spotlight the plight of the Rohingya and to provide humanitarian aid as needed, Mitchell said. But any longer-term solution will require a respectful understanding of the country’s concerns about the Muslim minority group, including those of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State, Mitchell said. The anxieties built on powerful issues of identity and security.

“We may not like or accept some Burmese narratives about the Rohingya, but we have to address them respectfully,” said Mitchell, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to Burma, also known as Myanmar, after the U.S. re-established full diplomatic relations with the country in 2012. “They are very proud and feel they face a serious security threat. It won’t be helpful if they end up saying to us, ‘We have a problem here, you just don’t get it, so we’ll handle it the only way we know how.’”

The current crisis stems from an attack launched by 1,000 members of a Rohingya militant group on Aug. 25 that killed about a dozen security force members stationed at remote posts along Rakhine State’s border with Bangladesh.  Rakhine State is home to most of the country’s approximately 1 million Rohingya. Burma’s total population is about 55 million.

United Nations officials estimate that the number of  Rohingya who have crossed into Bangladesh since Aug. 25 might reach 300,000. That is in addition to more than 100,000 Rohingya who have been living in displacement camps after communal violence in 2012. 

Human rights organizations say the people now fleeing to Bangladesh are part of “clearance operations” by the Burmese military. The operations allegedly include indiscriminate killings and torched villages. There also are reports of continued attacks by Rohingya militants on local villagers.

Suu Kyi’s Response

Mitchell said he had spent many hours discussing the complexities of the Rohingya situation with Burma’snow de facto political leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been heavily criticized by international human rights groups over her muted reaction to the plight of the Rohingya.

He said Suu Kyi always understood how difficult the Rohingya issue would be for her government to address, but she recognized the government’s responsibility to deal with it. She hoped to have adequate time and space to do so during her administration, but attacks by the Rohingya militant group beginning last October disrupted her plan. While Mitchell said he considered it a fair critique that she could be more active and vocal in affirming the rights and dignity of the Rohingya, she “cannot wave a wand to solve the problem,” he said.  

She is also hemmed in by severe and widespread negative attitudes toward the Rohingya population within Burma and her lack of direct control of the military  under the 2008 constitution.

The country’s “overwhelming narrative” holds the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants at best and the leading edge of an alleged Islamist plot to take over Burma at worst. Suu Kyi can no more turn around those attitudes than she can rein in a military that by law is free from civilian control, he said.

Mitchell said Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who under Burma’s military dictatorship spoke eloquently about principles of democracy, was proving to be a less effective political communicator in office than expected.

Mitchell noted, for instance, that she and her team are correct to call out instances of false information being propagated on social media concerning the current crisis.  But the way she has talked about it comes across as if she’s whitewashing the situation. “It’s not working for her,” he said.

Mutual Fears

Mitchell said that while conspiracy theories about the Rohingya are dubious at best, Rohingya militants do draw support from individuals in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, according to credible reports. Some supporters may have ties to international terrorist groups.

“This is the scenario that kept me up at night as ambassador,” he said, adding that continued violent attacks by Rohingya militants will only inflame the situation and exacerbate the plight of the Rohingya.

The international community, including the U.S., should prioritize the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, work for their timely return to their places of origin in Burma, and continue to press the Burmese government to begin implementing the recommendations of the joint Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by Kofi Annan.  The commission released its final report on August 24, the day before the latest militant attacks, and Suu Kyi pledged to carry out the recommendations.

Even amid credible concerns about its national security, Burma’s government and military need to recognize that continued reports of human rights abuses and catastrophic humanitarian conditions for the Rohingya and others, if left unaddressed, will only harm Burma’s future security and development.

Ultimately, the Burmese majority will need to face a hard reality, Mitchell said. “There are a million Rohingya in country, and they can’t get rid of a million people,” he said. “They are going to have to figure out a way to co-exist with them.”

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