The word used in its report to describe the Rohingya Muslims, “Bengali”, shows how cautious Myanmar’s independent Rakhine Commission has been.
The commission, tasked to investigate the violence in Rakhine state last year that left over 200 dead and over 100,000 displaced, released its report on Monday last week. A week later, President Thein Sein revealed in a televised speech that he had adopted its recommendations. Ten committees have been set up to work on them.
A member of the commission told The Straits Times: “We had to walk a very fine line.
“You can’t be idealistic on the Rakhine state issue. The threat of violence is very real. The outside world wanted us to use the term ‘Rohingya’ but if we had, there would have been bloodshed the very next day.”
So it called the Rohingya “Bengali” – the politically correct term in the Rakhine and Burman context. The Rohingya, who bore the brunt of the violence that one international rights group has described as “ethnic cleansing”, are not one of Myanmar’s official ethnic groups. The majority Buddhist Rakhines see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh swamping and Islamising the state.
In its recommendations, the commission focused on the politically feasible: doubling security forces in the state and for Myanmar to “immediately” resolve Rohingyas’ citizenship status and recognise their basic human rights.
The proposal for resolving the Rohingyas’ citizenship status may have far-reaching consequences if executed honestly and speedily.
But it will be a fraught task, given the challenges. The fear that the Rohingyas are bent on Islamising Rakhine is shared by many among the Burman Buddhist majority elsewhere in the country. In recent weeks, the violence has spread to central Myanmar and morphed into a general anti-Muslim movement driven by radical right-wing Buddhist monks.
Also, Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Act denies citizenship to anyone who cannot prove their ancestors had lived in the country since 1823 – setting a high bar for the Rohingyas seeking citizenship.
The citizenship issue is a minefield. The President said: “The government will deal with the citizenship-related issues by adopting short-, medium- and long-term strategies.”
He was being honest, analysts say, when he cautioned: “This is a situation that requires time and careful handling. We have to ensure that we do not inadvertently create additional difficulties when we address it. We ask everyone to recognise that this is a complex and sensitive issue that requires wise, careful as well as decisive action.”
Underscoring the sensitivity of the issue, last month, seven Rohingyas were arrested at a displacement camp in Rakhine after an altercation with officials who tried to make them register as “Bengalis” on a regional census form. They refused for fear that saying in writing that they were Bengali would jeopardise their chances at citizenship.
The Rakhine Commission has come under fire from some human rights advocates. Britain-based academic and activist Maung Zarni last week wrote that the President and his allies were “increasingly using various crisis inquiry commissions… as public relations instruments to deflect public attention from its spectacular failures in handling popular discontent, state-sponsored violence against civilian populations, and mass ethno-religious violence”.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the report had failed to fix accountability and missed an opportunity to review the 1982 Citizenship Act.
But many analysts disagreed. “The critics can afford to be absolutist,” said a Yangon-based analyst who asked not to be named. “But if they want the 1982 citizenship law to be amended, they are not going to get it. If they want the term Rohingya used, they are not going to get it. They will get what is politically possible in this climate.”
Another Myanmar analyst, Mael Raynaud, wrote in an e-mail message: “The Commission seems to have done a very good job in a situation where it cannot be seen as attacking anyone directly. This is the context in Myanmar, and given that context, what we have here is an excellent report on which basis a lot can be done.”
The commission member who spoke to The Straits Times said the government was serious about implementing the proposals. But he admitted: “The threat of violence is a deterrent for everyone, including the government. The government is being cautious, and when you have to be so cautious, it is difficult to get things done.”
— NIRMAL GHOSH
ANN/ The Straits Times.