Is there finally light at the end of the tunnel for Rohingyas? Under intense pressure and scrutiny from the international community, the new government in Naypyidaw, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), has finally launched a program aimed at providing citizenship to the Rohingya population.
Though, technically speaking this new scheme is no different from the citizenship verification project inaugurated in 2014 by the then military-supported Thein Sein’s government, Suu Kyi’s administration, however, has very astutely sidestepped the controversial clause of compulsorily mentioning Rohingya peoples’ ethnic status as emigrants settled in Myanmar territory after the very terminology “Rohingya” was banned officially the same year.
The Rohingyas were effectively given a reprieve from registering their ethnicity as Bengali migrants by doing away with the contentious stipulation altogether. But then, the distrust is so deeply entrenched that this preliminary effort to prohibit discrimination of tormented Rohingya minorities, excluded from the list of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, and restore their citizenship rights has virtually failed despite relaxation of stringent norms. A vast number of Rohingya people settled in cordoned off camps and villages have openly voiced their concern about the real intent of the government.
Reports suggests that the citizenship verification program, initiated in three camps for the displaced — including the quarter in Sittwe that was gutted during the 2012 Rakhine State riots, resulting in displacement of a whopping 90,000 people — and five villages, where Rohingyas make up the majority of the population, has evoked little interest among the inhabitants. In fact, due to lack of adequate public information, people with vested interests have started fishing in Myanmar’s troubled ethnic waters, as rumors are flying thick and fast that ethnic Rohingyas taking part in the citizenship registration drive willfully will be driven out of the country within two years’ time.
Indeed, Suu Kyi’s administration need to walk that extra mile to convince the apprehensive Rohingyas that the government effort to integrate a long neglected section of the Myanmar society into the mainstream has nothing to do with the country’s demotion on America’s human trafficking blacklist or the resultant penalties — including an end to US assistance in some critical areas and stalling of programs funded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — that may complicate Myanmar’s fragile transition, away from half a century’s military rule. Agreed, Suu Kyi’s hands are partially tied, because, as per the Myanmar constitution, the military will have exclusive control over 25 percent of seats in the Parliament, apart from maintaining a strong influence in administrative decision-making. Besides, the military is still in control of sensitive ministries like defense, interior and border affairs, which are in some way or the other connected to the Rohingya peoples’ unending plight.
According to a senior Rohingya politician who has been fighting relentlessly for upholding the rights of his community members in Myanmar, ruthless armed agents of the border affairs ministry are especially feared by Muslims not only because of a long history of harassment, but also due to their integral involvement in enforcing the current policy of restricting Rohingya peoples’ movement forcefully. Given such brutality unleashed on hapless men, women and children, because they belonged to a particular ethnic group, it is natural for people — who have found themselves living continuously, for the last four years, in the hellish environment of concentration camps in Myanmar’s westernmost province — to become suspicious of any government-formulated agenda, related to their well-being, even if it is initiated by an apparently liberal party-led government, whose leader is a world renowned champion of human rights.
After all, this is the same NLD, whose members as well as the supremo not only preferred to remain silent when almost the entire world was castigating former Gen. Thein Sein’s semi-civilian government on the question of inhuman oppression faced by the Rohingya people at the hands of the rabid segment of Myanmar’s majority community and security personnel, but also purged the outfit of Muslims immediately prior to the historic general elections to woo the Buddhist vote bank. Most importantly, Suu Kyi, who surrendered herself to the whims of ultra-nationalists discreetly, did not even raise her voice against the arbitrary disqualification of Muslim candidates, mainly belonging to the Rohingya community.
With 120,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims still living in squalid camps apart from the 80,000 people stranded in ghettoized villages having little access to employment, health care or education, Suu Kyi has a task cut out. Surely, the challenge is a daunting one for the lady, on whom the international community has put its faith in to convert Myanmar into a tolerant multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, in the backdrop of the ultra-right wing Arakan National Party gaining strength through electoral victory in the sensitive Rakhine state.
Besides, a permanent solution to the Rohingya issue cannot be achieved without giving due attention to those 140,000 Rohingyas, who according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR have fled Myanmar by boats since 2012. And these migrants are not living a comfortable life in their places of immigration either. In India, for example, their lives are not being made much easier as they are labeled as “security risk” in intelligence dossiers. With virtually no prospect due to refugee status at home and abroad, Rohingyas have a bleak future indeed, unless their rightful status as Myanmar citizens is restored through an effective reconciliation processes.