Rohingyas an ethnic minority of Myanmar, have not been recognized as citizens by the country despite living there for centuries.
Exactly when they came to Myanmar and settled in the western Rakhine state of Arakan is not known. But it is a historical fact that it was a few centuries ago, most probably when the last Mogul emperor of India, Bahadur Shah, was exiled and sent to Arakan by the British. His followers, it is said, remained in Arakan and lived for centuries in the territory which was a part of British India.
Ethnic violence was triggered in Arakan in 1978 by a military operation code-named “Nagamin Dragon”. Due to that operation and the resulting violence, thousands of Rohingyas were killed and hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh. A similar influx was again recorded in 1991 when an estimated half a million Rohingyas took refuge in Bangladesh.
The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees established refugee camps for Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. This humanitarian support provided some sort of reassurance to Rohingyas who chose to become refugees, rather than being persecuted in Myanmar.
Another factor also contributed to the scenario. Most Rohingyas are Muslim by religion. Therefore, emotionally Rohingyas felt secure to live, even if it was temporarily, in a country with a Muslim majority. While Bangladesh allowed Rohingyas to stay on its soil on humanitarian grounds under the protection of UN, it continued both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to persuade Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back.
Such is the fate and status of Rohingyas. They are persecuted by the Myanmar military on one hand and on the other are under pressure from the Bangladesh government to leave. For a long while they were tossed between this push and pull factors with no solution in sight.
Meanwhile another country – Malaysia – unwillingly got itself involved in this situation. A substantial number of Rohingyas illegally or with the help of fake passports entered Malaysia through Thailand with or without the knowledge of the Thai government. The Malaysian Immigration Department tried to stop them with a “soft hand”.
The soft treatment was most probably adopted on humanitarian grounds. As a result, a large number of Rohingyas became refugees in Malaysia. Like Bangladesh, Malaysia also faces a dilemma – between legality and humanity – to solve this problem. It should be remembered that Myanmar is a part of Asean and this makes it more difficult for Malaysia to take harsh action.
When Aung San Suu Kyi was released, the world community expected her to address the issue and work for a permanent sustainable solution. But Suu Kyi has not been able to bring about significant change.
Although during her detention Suu Kyi did receive active and silent support from Rohingyas, she could not solve their problem. Some analysts believe she did not want to offend either the army or the majority in Myanmar.
Her immense popularity could no doubt be instrumental in bringing about public opinion in favor of ethnic harmony, co-existence and most importantly, security for the Rohingyas.
In this context, the Rohingya issue is also affecting the minority Muslim population (4 percent) of Myanmar. Complicating matters, fundamentalists and jihadist groups are exploiting their plight. The groups are trying to spark armed struggle under the guise of justice.
If the plight of the Rohingyas is not handled promptly by regional leaders, matters might soon slip out of control.
Rohingyas, who have no home, no state, and no identity must be brought within the lap of civilization. A dignified and just solution would not only bring peace for all concerned, it would discourage and nullify all violence and terror activities.
Khairul Bashar is a former journalist and has served in the UN. He now lectures on Communication, Journalism and Political Science. This article first appeared in The Sun Daily, a leading newspaper of Malaysia.