Myanmar must seek reconciliation with the Rohingya

Myanmar must seek reconciliation with the Rohingya
While outsiders want Myanmar to grant the stateless Rohingya citizenship, many among the country's Buddhist majority term this Muslim minority "Bengali" and deem them interlopers.

The migrant crisis will continue to dog countries across Southeast Asia unless perceptions of the Rohingya change in Myanmar.

The coming monsoon season is likely to bring a temporary halt to the dangerous boat journeys south via the Bay of Bengal. The crisis

will abate and be forgotten for a few months, but its underlying cause will remain, guaranteeing a fresh surge of refugees once the rains are over.

Ethno-religious tensions in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine remain high. Last week saw Buddhist hardliners continue their long-standing campaign with more protests against the presence of the Rohingya.

Communal violence that erupted in the state in 2012 displaced hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Muslim Rohingya. Some found shelter at camps inside the country, while many others have fled Rakhine. Their numbers are swelled by economic migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, mainly headed for Malaysia and Indonesia via Thailand.

More than 4,500 Rohingya and

Bangladeshi migrants have reached shore since October, but the United Nations refugee agency says several thousand are still stranded at sea, with monsoon storms approaching.

Malaysia and Indonesia have offered the migrants temporary shelter, but are preparing to deport them in the coming months. Thailand has refused to let them land, preferring to offer humanitarian assistance at sea.

The authorities in Bangkok are cracking down on the trafficking syndicates, but the measures seem aimed to convince the United States that Thailand deserves to be upgraded from the lowest Tier 3 in its upcoming annual Trafficking in Persons report.

Thailand also hosted a special meeting of senior officials and experts from 17 countries and international bodies, at which solutions to the crisis were proposed for the short and long term. But the assembled delegates failed to address the root of the problem.

Nay Pyi Taw has taken action in line with governments in neighbouring countries. Myanmar's navy has rescued more than 900 migrants, repatriating at least 100 to Bangladesh. The others are being held in border camps in Rakhine pending determination of whether they are Rohingya or Bangladeshi.

The Myanmar government is acting in response to international pressure, but it is being pulled in the opposite direction by domestic forces.

While outsiders want Myanmar to grant the stateless Rohingya citizenship, many among the country's Buddhist majority term this Muslim minority "Bengali" and deem them interlopers.

Demonstrations in Rakhine last week and in Yangon last month saw hundreds of protesters demand that the government stop providing even humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya stranded at sea.

An estimated 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar are refused citizenship and have restrictions placed on their movements despite having been born in the country.

The Rohingya have had little support from either side of the political divide in Myanmar. Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is reluctant to defend them for fear of offending the Buddhist majority on whose support her chances of political success depend in the upcoming election.

However, a solution to the migrant crisis can only be found if both Suu Kyi and the government of President Thein Sein begin engaging in a constructive dialogue about the status of the Rohingya in Myanmar society.

Myanmar is hardly a stranger to ethno-religious tension. The country is undergoing a process of reconciliation between the central government and ethnic rebels who have waged separatist conflicts for more than half a century. It's time that the Rohingya were made part of that process.


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