Aung San Suu Kyi’s challenging task for Myanmar Muslims

This blog is based on the author’s recent fieldtrip to Malaysia and Myanmar on 28 July – 6 August 2016, during which she interviewed officials from UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Malaysian and Myanmar governments, human rights activists, researchers, Rohingya refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kuala Lumper (KL), Yangon and Sittwe.


Suu Kyi and Rohingyas


There was much skepticism among ethnic minorities in Myanmar before Aung San Suu Kyi joined the power whether she would speak up for their rights. She is now State Counsellor (position created for her sinc e6 April 2016), Foreign Minister and Minister of the Office of the President, tasked to deal with international relations and internal peace negotiations with all ethnic minority groups. These are overwhelming tasks to take for a 71-year-old daughter of the former general Aung San, who had been under house arrest for.


Disappointingly but not surprisingly, Suu Kyi did not include the Rohingyas as part of the peace process, still treating them as foreigners staying unlawfuly in Myanmar. A good sign, according to a Rohingya activist based in Yangon, is that she decided not to call them ‘Bengalis’ any more. They’re no longer ‘Rohingyas’ or ‘Bengalis’ but ‘Myanmar Muslims’. A Rohingya leader based in Sittwe, Rakhine state, however sees it differently. He claims that by lumping Rohingyas and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar all together, the new government is intending to discriminate against all minority Muslims in Myanmar. He says recent displacement of Keman Muslim population in Rakhine is the evidence for that.


There are 1.3 million Rohingyas in Myanmar (Myanmar has around 53 million), 550,000 in Malaysia, and a few hundreds categorised as ‘stateless’ in Australia ( . The UN and human rights groups identify Rohingyas as one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in the world.


Rohingyas in Malaysia


In Malaysia, there are about 550,000 Rohingya asylum seekers as of July 2016. Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention but hosts many asylum seekers who fled from violence, persecution and institutionalised discrimination, which include Rohingyas and Chin from Myanmar.


Rohinyas in KL seek asylum through the UNHCR while working illegally in the shadow economy. UNHCR receives 600 applications every day and there are many from this group. While waiting for their decisions, they need to do some menial work to get by their daily subsistence. Since Malaysia treats them as illegal migrants, they don’t have a right to work.


UNHCR has suggested the Malaysian government allow the stateless Rohingyas to work legally and regularise their status. By regularising them, the government encourage them to work with, not against, the authority over any security concerns. Malaysia needs manual labour at the moment in construction sectors as its cities are growing. Empowering the Rohingyas diaspora in Malaysia can also self-help Myanmar’s maginalised Muslim communities and eventually contribute to the regional development. Regularisation of Rohingyas in Malaysia is a sensible, realistic and mutually beneficial solution for both the state and asylum seekers. Whether Malaysia has a political will is for us to see in the coming months.


Rohingya activists in Yangon

There are urban Rohingyas living in Yangon who either fled before 1989 when the freedom of movements was not restricted for Rohingyas or who managed to leave Rakhine. Some of them fled to other developed countries such as Australia to seek asylum.




Sittwe is the capital of the Rakhine state, situated in the northwestern border of Myanmar with Bangladesh. It is one of the poorest states of Myanmar with 1/3 of its populations being Rohingyas. Ethnic Buddhist Rakhine I have spoken to during the fieldwork see Muslim Rohingyas uncivilised, bossy and unruly. However, this is same with the majority Burmese about the Rakhine. One Burmese government official I interviewed expressed the Rakhine are untrainable, unnegotiable, violent and lazy.


Rakhine now is largely safe. There are no armed soldiers or police officers patrolling the streets. At the immigration, there is a clear sign for foreigners about five areas that they must not go. Except for those areas, foreigners are free to move around anywhere with very little security concerns. This does not apply for Rohingyas.


Rakhine economy has been stagnated for too long. There are not enough jobs for locals. There are no industries yet. The Chinese pipeline project at Kwaukpyu and the Indian company developing the Sittwe port are the only visible foreign investment, but they have not benefitted the local economy. In fact, the Rakhine are against the Chinese and the previous military government that had the deal to extract natural resources, directly to mainland China. The locals depend on fishing and agriculture for their own daily consumption. Tourism may grow, but to do so, there should be significant investment from Yangon on infrastructure and training, which does not seem to happen any time soon.


Rohingyas in Rakhine


Mosques in downtown are all abandoned or destroyed. Most land is confiscated and all Rohingyas are confined in designated areas with some exceptions. Rohingyas are concentrated in northern Rakhine where they travel to Bangladesh to get basic needs such as medical care, rather than within their own country of residence. Yangon is highly suspicious of these cross-border movements through which radical Islamic ideas may infiltrate to Myanmar. Rohingya leaders strongly oppose this allegation, saying this is the government propaganda. UNHCR Myanmar also denies this allegation, saying the harsh conditions against Rohingyas disenable them to be armed or radicalised. They can’t get any basic resources.


Complexity of the Rohingya case


The reality is a little more complicated. Some Rohingyas were there for generations. Most Rakhine Rohingyas live in highly restricted environments with little support from Yangon. UNHCR, UNDP, ICRC, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, UK Aid, US Aid, Australian DFAT are here to fill the gaps in education, training and healthcare. The IDP camp conditions are appalling from any developed country’s standards. However, it is not just Rohingyas who are excluded from the Union’s peace process and development plans. Ethnic Rakhines, too. Rakhine as a whole is a very poor state.


The Rohingya community is very hierarchical. Leaders are all men, highly revered, internationally connected, and well organised. Some are quite entrepreneurial. There is hardly any presence of women in political discussions. Overseas Rohingyas who already settled in developed countries make connections through social media and telephones. They can even operate visits to the camps with and without state authorisation. There is a fast-track for those who have not much time but need stories or photos. A half-day visit costs around 110,000kyats (US$100). Every check point, you pay 10,000kyats. This is where a humanitarian case becomes a corruption and a near criminal case for people smuggling. It is also the survival of the fittest.


Those who can leave Myanmar are the ones with financial and human resources. The poor are left behind and vanish to death. The fittest survive and prosper. It’s natural evolution. This raises a moral dilemma for many working on refugees on how we reconcile with those in need of international protection, yet those who are corrupt, abusive, law-breaking and not respecting gender equality.


Difficult task for Suu Kyi


One retired ambassador of Myanmar says “Suu Kyi has a very difficult job to do. She’s better sort out the easy ones first, and the most difficult last”. What he meant by the most difficult was dealing with Rakhine and Rohingyas.


Some in Yangon may believe f Rohingyas’ movements are restricted, their citizenships are revoked, and their lands are confiscated, all Rohingyas will either go back to Bangladeshi where is believed they are from, or vanish after a generation. What is likely to happen is the opposite: unhealthy Rohingya population growth with no basic healthcare, more irregular movements to Bangladeshi, Malaysia and Thailand, more illicit activities in and out of the semi-permeable boundaries. This may create serious internal security problems.


Myanmar is now a transition to a young democracy after decades under the military dictatorship. It is not too late if the newly elected democratic leader recognises Rohingyas in Rakhine as citizens or at least permanent residents and offer proper education and training while seeking a regional solution for those in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia. There can be economic opportunities for the state of Rakhine and for the Union through businesses, tax and foreign investment in the long run.


Myanmar’s institutionalised discrimination against Rohingyas has led successful victimisation campaigns for Rohingyas internationally. The international community has sympathy toward Rohingyas. The UN has identified them as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. With their stateless status, they have been able to apply for asylum in many developed countries where they actively promote Rohingyas’ right to identity. Only a tiny number of Rohingyas are accepted as refugees, compared to those internally displaced.


As the retired ambassador says, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has a very difficult job to do, the job that the generals would not be able to do. People in the new Myanmar have been waiting for her compassionate, more inclusive and democratic leadership. She also has strong international support to achieve this difficult task. Through foreign aid, direct and joint investment, and more relaxed trade regulations and visa restrictions, Myanmar can be a leading country in Southeast Asia soon again.

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