Recently I have read New York Times articles by Nicholas Kristof on plights of “Rohingya” people in Rakhine State of Myanmar. I feel very sorry for them and how they are suffering with hardships in their life.
While I still believe “Rohingya” issue is a complex problem with immigration and national security issue to Myanmar, I do not believe anybody has to go through hardships “Rohingya” people are suffering now, especially with humanitarian crisis. In short term, Myanmar government should allow or increase more humanitarian assistance and medical care to deeply affected “Rohingya” community in Rakhine state.
For the long run, it will require a sustainable solution to this crisis by both Myanmar and internal community. To have emergence of sustainable solution, it will require addressing two key concerns shared by stakeholders including Myanmar and international community.
Immigration & National security concern
For Myanmar and its people, Rohingya issue is a national security and immigration issue. We never heard “Rohingya” or at least will not accept the term as one of the native ethnic groups of Myanmar. The term “Rohingya” did not even have any prior valid reference even under British colonial time. For Myanmar people, “Rohngya” people are same as other India origin immigrants who migrated to Myanmar during British colonial time and some may include recent immigrants across the porous border.
In Myanmar, citizenship is more of based on blood line and it might be in odds with how Western nations defines its citizenship liberally. Partly, that is because of we have different history and background in our nations’ history. For example, United States is a nation founded by immigrants and thus have more liberal policy with its citizenship and immigration. Whereas, Myanmar is a small nation geopolitically sandwiched between the world’s most populous nations such as India, China, and Bangladesh and as a results, citizenship and immigration policy tends to be more stringent to maintain national identity and harmony before it can become a modern and prosperous society.
Although citizenship rules in Myanmar are strict, the immigration law does allow immigrants such as people of Indian and Chinese origins to become citizens given that if one of their parents is Myanmar citizen. And also, Myanmar must welcome immigrants and diversity in order to build a prosperous nation. However, as a sovereign nation it has or should have a pragmatic right to selective immigration that reflects talent of immigrants, their contribution, their values to social cohesion and national interests.
When it comes to Rohingya case, the people who now claim themselves as “Rohingya” are in fact speaking same language as of people in Bangladesh though may be of different dialect, and culturally and ethnically more descendants of Bangladesh. On the other hand, Bangladesh has one of the highest population density (with more than twice the population of Myanmar while only a fifth of land area) and it lies just above the sea level. With rising sea level due to global warming, many neighboring nations can expect increasing number of migrants from Bangladesh in the future. Therefore, forcing Myanmar to accept “Rohingya” as native people will tantamount to automatic citizenship handout to future immigrants and thus against its national security interest.
Therefore, as long as international community forcing Myanmar against its national interest to accept relatively new term “Rohingya” to identify immigrant people of Bangladesh origin, it will not help in solving or finding a sustainable solution to this crisis.
Human Rights concern
One of the legit reasons for international community to be concerned with Rohingya issue is deteriorating human rights and humanitarian crisis experienced by Muslim community in Rakine state, especially since communal violence two years ago. Most recent problems arise from tension between Muslim and local Buddhist communities, such as losing home during the riots and later being placed in temporary camps with little or no infrastructure to support socioeconomic and medical needs of the people. While I sincerely believe both side including Buddhist community suffers as well from communal riots, minority Rohingya are likely to bear the burden much more for negative consequences of riots and tension.
On top of that, creating tension based on religious fault line by some of the religious Buddhist zealots make the matter more complicated and misleading to outside world when in fact Rohingya issue is purely and should be treated as immigration issue in accordance with law. And also, currently interfaith marriage law proposal pushed by President Thein Sein’s government at this sensitive time is nothing more than securing high political score ahead of 2015 general election when the ruling party has no other leverage to increase its popularity among some naive Myanmar voters.
Instead, Myanmar government first should increase or allow more humanitarian and health care assistance to both communities suffered since communal violence two years ago. Then, for sustainable solution, it must verify and conduct legal process to Rohingya people in accordance with prevailing immigration laws, and granting all the rights as prescribed by laws and their immigration status to all of those who are eligible. For those who are not eligible after verification, they must be arranged for deportation or resettlement through negotiation with respective governments and international community, or placed in refugee camps that provide access to food, sanitation and medical care. International community can help Myanmar along this process especially with resettlement process and providing humanitarian aids.
Later, Myanmar lawmakers and public can debate and push for immigration reform that can provide greater access to legal immigration status in align with selective immigration that ensures meritocracy, cohesion to social norms and values and national interests.
Ongoing Rohingya issue requires a sustainable solution, striking a balance between national security and humanitarian concerns held by stakeholders including Myanmar and International community.