Since May this year, Myanmar has witnessed an escalation in the simmering tension between two groups of people in Rakhine State. The violence between the Rakhine (also known as Arakan) and Rohingya (also known as Bengali) has led to the death of at least 88 people and displacement of thousands of others. Unofficial reports, however, put the number of deaths in the hundreds.
The immediate cause of the violence was the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman on May 28 by three male Rohingya. This was followed by a retaliatory killing of 10 Muslims by a mob of Rakhine on June 3. It should be noted that tension between these two groups has existed for several decades.
Several questions are being routinely asked: Why has little apparently been done to resolve the conflict? Is there a possibility of reaching a permanent solution to this protracted problem? Much blame has also been directed at both the Myanmar government and the opposition, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
As members of the international community are trying to promote their own national interests in newly democratic Myanmar, sectarian violence such as we have seen in Rakhine State has not been paid serious attention, especially by Western powers.
While Human Rights Watch has criticised the Myanmar government for failing to prevent the initial unrest, majority Muslim nations, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia have criticised what they allege is discrimination against the Rohingya based on their religious beliefs.
The sensitivity of the issue has silenced many from discussing it publicly. Even the internationally acclaimed human rights champion and leader of the democratic opposition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has made only brief comments about the conflict, emphasising the need to establish an adequate citizenship law.
The root of the problem begins with the nomenclature itself. Although many of the Muslims in Rakhine State call themselves Rohingya, the Myanmar government and many of the country’s citizens call them illegal Bengali migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Since the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have refused to accept them as their citizens, the Rohingya have automatically become stateless under international law. Under such circumstances, are there any possible solutions to the problem?
President U Thein Sein suggested that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should consider resettling the Rohingya in other countries. Although such proposal may sound ideal to many, there would definitely be challenges in terms of implementation.
For example, will there be a nation or nations willing to welcome and embrace the million or so Rohingya people? Moreover, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres has rejected the idea of resettlement. Even if the agency reconsidered its position, would the UNHCR offices in Myanmar and Bangladesh have adequate resources to process such a large number of people?
One possible solution is for the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to reach an amicable arrangement to integrate the Rohingya population into their respective societies. There are about 800,000 Rohingya inside Myanmar and another 300,000 in Bangladesh.
This proposition also has its own challenges. Chiefly, will the indigenous Rakhine accept Rohingya as their fellow citizens and live peacefully with them? On the other hand, will the Bangladesh government change its policy and offer citizenship to the Rohingya?
Another possible solution is that Myanmar can amend its 1982 citizenship law to pave the way for the Rohingya to apply for citizenship. As Minister for Immigration and Population U Khin Yi told Radio Free Asia recently, under the existing law foreigners can apply for citizenship only if they are born in Myanmar, their parents and grandparents have lived and died in Myanmar, they are literate in Burmese and meet some additional criteria.
Finally, to prevent a further escalation in tensions, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh need to secure their porous international borders to prevent illegal movements.
None of the above suggested policies are simple and easy to achieve. Despite the challenges and difficulties, the Rohingya issue cannot be ignored for too long. Without addressing the crux of the problem, the May incident and the violence it sparked could recur, with even more tragic consequences.
Until a solution is achieved, international institutions, such as the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should pressure the Myanmar government to take steps to resolve the problem of Rohingya statelessness in a holistic manner, rather than inciting, or allowing others to incite, hatred along religious or racial lines.
(Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the United States-based Kuki International Forum. His research interests include political transition, democratisation, human rights, ethnic conflict and identity politics and he has written numerous peer-reviewed and non-academic articles on the politics of Myanmar and Asia.)