OPINION: Solution to Rohinghya crisis simple – it’s called citizenship

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations must apply pressure on Myanmar to grant citizenship to Rohingyas.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been accused of opportunism for lashing out at Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi over her treatment of the Muslim Rohingya, which he has branded as “genocide.”

However, Najib’s maverick behaviour threatens to undermine leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the entire organisation unless they take a stand on the issue. No member can afford to stand idly by while an ethnic group faces deadly persecution within Asean, which claims to be a people-centred community. Worse still would be employing the Asean doctrine of non-interference to justify such negligence. What is the point in integrating as a community if members cannot address an issue, which affects the entire region?

No Asean member country can justify turning its back on the Rohingya crisis, since this is a long-standing regional problem, with deep-rooted causes.

Myanmar is home to more than one million Rohingya, which the country’s Buddhist-majority populace shun as “Bengali.” Myanmar’s government considers them neither as national citizens nor as among its 135 officially recognised ethnic minorities and claims they are interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh. This is despite the fact that the stateless Rohingya have lived in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State for generations and have faced persecution in Bangladesh, which also rejects them as citizens.

Myanmar is no stranger to ethnic conflict, with groups, such as the Shan, Mon, Karen, Wa, Kokang, Kachin, among those who have been fighting for self-rule for decades.

However religious tension is a relatively fresh development, with Buddhist extremism on the rise and focused on Rakhine, where communal rioting in 2012 left hundreds dead and more than 140,000, mainly Muslim Rohingya, displaced from their homes. The exodus of Rohingya in the face of periodic outbreaks of violence since has made this localised sectarian conflict a regional issue.

Every year, once the monsoon season is over, thousands of Rohingya take the dangerous boat journey from coastal Rakhine or Bangladesh in search of better lives elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are the main destinations, but none is welcoming and the conditions – illegal work and no legal status – are usually no better than at home.

Asean countries treat the ethnic group poorly despite realising the refugee crisis is a major problem for the region. Rather than tackle the root causes, countries have focused their efforts on tackling the symptom – “human trafficking.” The regional crackdown on human trafficking over the past few years is aimed at improving their ranking in the US Trafficking in Persons report rather than solving the problem for the Rohingya.

Asean leaders, officials and diplomats respond quickly every time news surfaces of another Rohingya crisis. This time again, regional diplomats will gather in Myanmar next week at the invitation of the government to discuss the issue, though it remains unclear what they can do for the Rohingya.

To make a much-needed breakthrough on the issue, Asean must suspend its diplomatic feet-shuffling and address the issue frankly with the government in Nay Pyi Taw. The Myanmar military and political leadership, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, is well aware of the root cause of the Rohingya crisis.

The burning question is whether they will now face the reality – that Rohingya are fellow humans who were born and have lived in the country for decades and as such deserve the status and protection that comes with citizenship.

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  • OPINION: Solution to Rohinghya crisis simple – it’s called citizenship

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