Justice for Rohingya Refugees



By Lauren Watson
May 25, 2016 

Myanmar can no longer ignore the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, but peace and accountability will only be achieved through multilateral pressure.

After the Holocaust, the world decried “never again,” yet reports of a persecuted religious minority group endure: the Rohingya Muslims’ loss of citizenship, forced displacement, and denial of basic human rights in Myanmar eerily parallel the notorious events that occurred in mid-twentieth century Germany. 

The National League for Democracy (NLD), an opposition party to the decades-long military rulers of Myanmar, won a landslide victory in the country’s first democratically held elections in November 2015. Yet the party’s leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has repeatedly evaded questions addressing the persecution of the Rohingya. The United States needs to rally the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to press the NLD to reform policies of systematic oppression and violence. 

There is a long history of Rohingya repression in Myanmar. The first national constitution drafted after Burma gained independence from Great Britain denied citizenship to non-indigenous ethnic minorities as early as 1947. In 1982, the passing of the Burma Citizenship Law denied Rohingya Muslims the right to citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to education or healthcare. In short, it wiped out any possible path to citizenship for the ethnic minority. Over 500,000 Rohingya are now displaced, half of whom are confined to ghettos and internment camps. Lacking identification documents, they are unable to legally seek refuge and obtain citizenship elsewhere. Neighboring nations have turned away those who attempted to flee to them or placed migrants in camps with similarly deplorable conditions and no opportunity to leave. 

Working with ASEAN and the United Nations, the United States needs a three-pronged approach to achieve and maintain a peaceful resolution of this situation: 

First and foremost, the ceasefire agreement of October 2015 must be revisited, and ongoing peace talks must be more inclusive. Participation of NLD officials, military leaders, and Rohingya representatives is key to addressing persecution of Muslim minorities, but recent attempts to bring warring sides to the table have failed to include all parties. Currently there are more than 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, and not all of them will be given equal representation at the national-level negotiating table. Civilian participation in community peacebuilding efforts and track II negotiations would instead allow for every group to be represented in the peace process. Without such involvement, ceasefire violations will continue and human rights violations will follow. 

Second, the United Nations must press members of ASEAN, particularly nations with a Muslim majority (Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia), to establish a path to citizenship for stateless Rohingya refugees. Thai and Malaysian authorities claim to lack the financial means to take in the Rohingya. According to the Brookings Institution, however, Myanmar’s refugees can stimulate local economies in their host nations. Further, the Thai and Malaysian governments would receive assistance if they were to accept more refugees. Humanitarian aid would support in the efforts of integration and increased demand of food and shelter in areas with high migrant populations. 

Finally, military leaders who formulated, initiated, and carried out crimes against humanity in Myanmar must be held accountable. According to a study by the International State Crime Initiative at the Queen Mary University of London, “the Rohingya face the final steps of genocide.” The report includes interviews with perpetrators who were systematically encouraged to “participate in an attack on the Muslim population.” The UN Security Council and ASEAN need to take action to bring them before the International Criminal Court. While Myanmar is not a state party to the Rome Statute, it must be pressed to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, or the Security Council will have to intervene. Acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council may refer non-member states to the Court. 

Reconciliation is a long way off, but if certain measures are followed, a sustained resolution to Myanmar’s decades-long conflict will be feasible. For reconciliation to work in the future, multilateral cooperation is necessary. ASEAN is not capable of influencing significant change without the support of the United Nations, and the United Nations cannot achieve a resolution without regional participation. The involvement of Southeast Asian nations, particularly those with a majority Muslim population, is crucial as well. 

The international community needs to act with haste. Studies show that repression of religious freedom radicalizes oppressed religious communities and fuels the message of violent militants abroad. In fact, in 2015 the Pakistani Taliban publicly encouraged the Rohingya to fight back against their oppressors. This poses direct security concerns to the United States in counter-terrorism efforts. 

Some say the United States should use sanctions to press the NLD on human rights; however, that time has passed. Since the easing of U.S. sanctions in 2012, private investment has already led to significant economic growth and liberalization. A return to sanctions could fatally disrupt the democratic transition in Myanmar now underway. 

Supporters of the NLD argue that other domestic issues should take precedence over the violation of the Rohingyas’ rights. Yet a conflict that has triggered widespread displacement and violent protests cannot be ignored. Addressing the plight of the Rohingya Muslims would, in fact, directly affect domestic issues. Reducing unemployment of Internally Displaced Persons, for instance, could address the economic stagnation lingering after the rule of Myanmar’s military junta. 

Finally, it is evident that the United States needs to change its tactics given that half-measures taken by the international community to date have not worked. UN resolutions alone have not influenced Burmese leaders, sanctions have isolated a vulnerable state, and ASEAN meetings seeking to address issues of displacement have failed. Only determined U.S. leadership will catalyze the international community and bring meaningful change. 

The time has come for a united international front that provides the NLD with no other option than policy reform. Peace talks, a path to citizenship for all refugees, and prosecution of guilty perpetrators must begin in order for peace to be restored in Myanmar. The United States should encourage Aung San Suu Kyi, a brave new leader, to take the steps necessary to bring over thirty years of violence to rest. She should take responsibility for her country’s grim past and forge a new equitable future for all rightful citizens of Myanmar. 

Lauren Watson is a Research Assistant at the United States Institute of Peace and a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs. 

Photo from flickr and is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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