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THE term ‘Rohingya’ indicates an ethnic group, with an estimated total of more than three million — both at home and abroad, particularly as refugees. They are, indeed, one of the majority groups and predominantly settled in several townships including Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung in the northern Rakhine State in Myanmar. They have been living there for generations. But the history of the Rohingyas is the history of discriminations, persecutions and displacements.
For generations, they have been faced with various discriminations — legal, economic, political, social, religious, etc. The most important is that they lack citizenship status because of Myanmar’s discriminatory 1982 citizenship law. Consequently, they are stateless — probably, the single largest stateless people in the world — and they lack legal protection from the government and are excluded from sufficient access to livelihood opportunities, medical treatment, education, etc. Besides, they are subject to other discriminations such as prohibitions from property ownership, travelling without authorisation and working outside their villages.
The persecution of Rohingya is carried out by the army and the government of Myanmar and Rakhine Buddhists. Historically, the persecution began by the Burmese king Bayinnaung (1550–1581) but it somewhat increased in the 17th and the 18th century, particularly under several rulers including King Sandathudama, King Alaungpaya and King Bodawpaya. Although the then British rule improved their conditions, persecution continued because of ethnic and/or communal tension.
Persecution increased during the Japanese capture (1942–1945) and after the independence of Myanmar. From 1948 to 1962, successive governments have carried out several military operations against the Rohingyas. Undoubtedly, the 1962 Burmese coup d’état intensified the persecution that has continued till date. In the history of the Rohingyas, however, it is widely considered that the most severe persecution took place in 2017.
The persecution, as expected, led to the killing of thousands of the Rohingyas, damage of their property, repeated displacements, etc. Historically, their displacement took place for the first time a few hundred years ago, but major displacements began from Arakan to a place of Bengal, now known as Cox’s Bazar, after Burman king Bodawpaya had conquered Arakan in 1784.
Specifically in 1796, around 2,00,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, were displaced from Arakan. Subsequently, many Indians and Rohingya were displaced from Myanmar, particularly in the 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, 1990s and 2010s. A few recent large displacements took place in 1978, 1991–92, 2012, 2016 and 2017. Besides, small-scale displacements have taken place almost regularly since 2000. The latest persecution in 2017, however, led to the displacement of the highest number of the Rohingyas — more than 7,00,000 — from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
As expected, millions of Rohingyas are living as refugees and IDPs, or internally displaced persons. Of the Rohingya refugees, more than one million live in several camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and more than one million live in refugee camps in other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Thailand and Indonesia. Thousands of Rohingya refugees were also resettled and/or temporarily sheltered in several third countries, including Australia, Canada and the United States. About 1,20,000 Rohingya IDPs live in camps in several states including Kachin, Shan and Rakhine of Myanmar. Importantly, a considerable number of Rohingya refugees and IDPs live in protracted situations.
In response to the Rohingya crisis, different states, the UNHCR, donor agencies, etc have made various efforts at different times to providing for immediate protections — such as food, shelter and health care – and/or of durable solution, particularly the repatriation of a certain number of displaced Rohingyas. Of various past and current efforts, efforts of Bangladesh and the UNCHR particularly for the repatriation of displaced Rohingyas are certainly remarkable. But no effort has been made by any state or organisation for a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis as an ethnic group; consequently, the overall crisis has remained unresolved. However, this crisis cannot remain so for long. In this regard, finding out a reasonable durable solution for all the Rohingyas is essential.
For an overall resolution, several options — voluntary repatriation, autonomous province-based settlement, independent state-based settlement, local integration, regional integration and resettlement — may be taken into account. Briefly speaking, a voluntary repatriation indicates the return of displaced Rohingyas to the place of origin on the basis of their voluntary consent, a province-based settlement means a permanent settlement of the displaced Rohingyas in Myanmar with an autonomous province, an independent-state based settlement indicates a permanent settlement of the Rohingyas in the place of origin with the creation of an independent state, a local integration refers to a permanent settlement of the Rohingya IDPs in the host communities in Myanmar and Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in host countries, a regional integration means a permanent settlement of the Rohingya IDPs in neighbouring communities in Myanmar and Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in neighbouring countries, and a resettlement refers to a permanent settlement of Rohingya IDPs in third communities in Myanmar and Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in third states.
Now, the question is: what is the most reasonable solution to Rohingya crisis? In order to find out the most reasonable option, the options may be divided into two — the place of origin-based and outside the place of origin-based — and then sorted out. The first type includes a voluntary repatriation, province based-settlement and independent state-based settlement whereas the second type includes a local integration, regional integration and resettlement. Between these broader options, however, the place of origin-based permanent settlement of a large number of Rohingyas is more preferable because of several reasons.
First, the Rohingyas as an ethnic group, mostly Muslims with a small Hindu population, has distinct collective political identity. History more commonly reveals that the term ‘Rohingya’, derived from the word ‘Rohai’ or ‘Roshangee’, denotes inhabitants of Rohang/Roshang/Roang in the earlier Arakan. They were originated from Arab traders who settled in the city of Vesali of the Kingdom of Waithali in the 8th century when Arakan was inhabited by Indian Hindu (probably Bengalis) and other groups including Buddhists and animalists. They increased in number gradually. Later, many Bengalis, Persians, Pathans, Turks, Moghuls, etc mixed with Arab descendants and became an integral part of the Rohingyas, particularly after the establishment of the Mraung U empire (1430-1784) by Narameikhla. Though the Rohingyas do not reflect an ethnic group from a single origin, their ethnic identity has some common properties — a common history, common culture, a common language, a common territory, etc — which are considered to be the very basis on which they are differentiated from other ethnic groups.
The problem is that any outside of the place of origin-based solutions — either in other communities in Myanmar for the Rohingya IDPs or in other countries for the Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers — is likely to put such distinct ethnic properties at risk and, finally, cleanse their very ethnic identity. In other words, any outside of the place of origin-based settlement may only materialise the intention of the Myanmar government and the army with regard to cleansing Rohingya ethnic group from Myanmar. Only the settlement in the place of origin, on the other hand, can protect their ethnicity.
Second, displaced people generally have legitimate right to be settled or resettled in their ancestral homes. Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also states that everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Despite the fact that Rohingya currently have no citizenship status and, hence, may not reasonably claim such rights, their living in Myanmar for generations and their earlier citizenship status, particularly under the 1947 constitution and the 1948 Union Citizenship Act, makes such rights undeniable. The concern is that settlement in any other place, specifically in any other countries, will deprive the Rohingyas of their rights return to their ancestral homes. There is no doubt that only settlement in the place of origin will secure such rights.
Third, any outside the place of origin-based settlements such as a local integration, regional integration and resettlement, either within the country or outside of the country of displacement, may not provide for necessary conditions for living in safety and with dignity. There is no doubt the government of Myanmar is largely indifferent to Rohingya IDPs and that Rohingya IDPs do not get necessary educational, legal, income and employment and other access. Many locally integrated and resettled Rohingyas live in several countries but a small number of them are in expected situations in terms of shelter, employment opportunities, citizenship status, access to courts and legal aid, access to necessary health care, free access to state-run schools, etc. Besides, some of resettled Rohingyas experience physical assaults, the detention for extended periods and without legitimate reasons and harsh interrogation procedures. But such problems are expected to be minimal with the place of origin-based settlement.
Fourth, there is a growing reluctance across the world to offer full a integration and permanent settlement to the displaced people, even if many host, neighbouring and third countries have strongly voiced in favour of the Rohingyas. More specifically, some Asian countries that provided emergency shelter for the Rohingyas are unwilling to fully integrate them with the citizenship status. Besides, the developed countries that provided resettlement for the displaced people earlier are generally less interested in providing permanent settlement now. Indeed, the resettlement rate is only around 1 per cent. As expected, no country has shown any interest in a permanent resettlement of the displaced Rohingyas yet.
Fifth, despite the fact that the Rohingyas have been deprived of their material possessions such as houses, lands and businesses through land grabbing, imposing restrictions and other forceful means by the army and Buddhists settlers in the place of origin since 1962, they had actual rights to their material possessions for centuries. Only a permanent settlement in the place of origin can re-establish their rights to their material possessions and enable them to resume their normal lives in a familiar setting. Besides, their place of origin-based permanent settlement is expected to be easier compared with any settlement in any other place if their rights to material possessions are restored.
As is expected, the place of origin-based settlement is initially prioritised over outside the place of origin-based settlement. This type of permanent settlement option may be further divided into traditional and non-traditional settlements for further sorting of reasonable options. A traditional settlement includes voluntary repatriation whereas non-traditional settlement includes autonomous province-based and independent state-based solutions. Between the two options, however, non-traditional settlement is preferable because of several reasons.
First, the major problem is the citizenship status. The government of Myanmar denied the Rohingyas their citizenship status considering them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh although they have been living in Myanmar for centuries and they had enjoyed citizenship status before the discriminatory law in 1982, represented in the parliament and held many prestigious posts in Myanmar. Since earlier repatriation under the joint agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 1978 and 1992 did not provide them with full citizenship status and associated rights, repatriation at this time under the almost similar joint agreements between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2017 is unexpected to provide full citizenship status and associated rights for the Rohingya returnees as natural citizens. Moreover, the repatriation from Bangladesh alone does not confirm the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from other countries with full citizenship status. On the contrary, any type of non-traditional settlement in the place of origin will certainly be accompanied by full citizenship status and associated rights.
Second, ethnic and/or communal conflicts between the Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists are a common feature in Myanmar. Historically, ethnic and/or communal riots began during the British rule in Myanmar but increased after the independence of Myanmar from Britain in 1948 and have continued till date. The 2012 Rakhine riots may be considered to be one of the major recent ethnic and/or communal riots between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists. The problem here is that such long ethnic and/or communal conflicts between these groups may not end with repatriation. Indeed, earlier repatriations from Bangladesh, in 1978–79 and 1992–94, did not stop such conflicts. But such conflicts are expected to be ended with non-traditional place of origin-based settlements as there will be limited or no such opportunity mainly because of the absence of Buddhist Rakhine.
Third, the persecution of the Rohingyas, particularly by the army of Myanmar, as mentioned already, has become another common feature since the military rule in 1962. Unfortunately, earlier repatriations specifically from Bangladesh did not stop persecution. As expected, repatriation at this time is unlikely to end such persecution as there is no noticeable change in conditions, including attitudes of the army to the Rohingyas, that lead to persecution in Myanmar. In contrast, non-traditional settlements are more likely to end it as there will be limited or no such opportunity for the Rohingya persecution by the army of Myanmar.
Fourth, forced, specifically conflict-induced, re-displacement is one of the major concerns for the Rohingyas. Indeed, they were re-displaced for many times; furthermore, earlier repatriations from Bangladesh to Myanmar also led to their re-displacements. Because of the possibility of repeated ethnic and/or communal conflicts between the Rohingyas and the Buddhists, and Rohingya persecution by the army, the government and Buddhists of Myanmar, there is no guarantee that re-displacement will not take place with future repatriation. Because of limited or no scope for these groups, on the contrary, the possibility of re-displacement of the Rohingyas is very low to zero with non-traditional permanent settlements.
Fifth, the Rohingyas are certainly at risk of ethnic cleansing. The discriminatory citizenship law in 1982 formally began the process of ethnic cleansing with systematic deprivation of the Rohingyas. The latest atrocities in 2017 and the present dilly-dally approach of Myanmar to repatriation of the Rohingyas further make it clear that the army and Rakhine Buddhists do not want any existence of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. As repatriation may put them at almost a similar vulnerable position, the risk of further attempts for ethnic cleansing remains to a greater extent. But the possibility of ethnic cleansing is very low to zero in non-traditional settlements as overall situations in such settlements are highly expected to be favourable to the Rohingyas.
Non-traditional place of origin-based solution options, thus, need to be taken into consideration for a durable solution to the Rohingya crisis. In the non-traditional place of origin-based settlement, a certain reasonable portion of Rakhine should be made either an autonomous province for the province-based settlement or an independent state for the independent state-based settlement. A reasonable portion of land may be dependent on the total number of population considered for the durable solution. Both non-traditional options can sustainably resolve the Rohingya crisis; between the options, however, an independent state -based solution is preferable because of two reasons.
First, although ethnic and/or communal conflicts between the Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhine, persecution by the army of Myanmar and re-displacements are expected to be generally less likely in non-traditional settlements, these remain relatively more likely in a separate province-based settlement compared with an independent state-based settlement. The possibility here is that the Myanmar government, the army and Buddhist Rakhine can still act in a somewhat similar fashion in the separate province and bring about the same results. On the contrary, none of these parties will exist in the independent state-based settlement, thereby, indicating that the Rohingyas will not face such problems.
Second, a province-based settlement may still put Rohingya at risk of ethnic cleansing as there will remain such opportunity, at least to some extent, for the army of Myanmar and Rakhine Buddhists. If these parties have intention to cleanse the Rohingyas from Myanmar, they can still manipulate the power of the central government and act in somewhat different manner to materialise it. In an independent state-based solution, in contrast, ethnic cleansing is unlikely as no such scope will remain there.
An independent state-based settlement is, thus, the most preferable durable solution of Rohingya crisis. Although there were captures and recaptures of Arakan by forces including Tibeto-Burman, Burmese, Gauri Pathan, British and Japanese, the Rohingya were in absolute majority in Arakan in the past and lived in an independent Arakan for a long time. From 1430, they had lived in a relatively stable situation before the Burmese occupation in 1784. The Burmese occupation displaced earlier local Rohingya inhabitants originated from Arabs, Indian sub-continent (and/or the Bengal), etc with force. During the British period, Arakan was mostly ruled as British India until it turned to be the Crown Colony of British Burma in 1937. After the independence of the Union of Burma, Arakan became one of its divisions and, since 1962, the Rohingyas have been being exterminated in a systematic till date. Such historical understandings clarify that making the Rohingyas stateless and forcefully displacing them from their place of origin in no way seem justifiable. At the same time, these clearly indicate that the independent country is what they justifiably deserve.
In the independent country-based solution, all the Rohingyas in Rakhine and other states including Yangoon of Myanmar and other countries should be considered. Besides, some other groups including Kamein and Mro which are persecuted by the army of Myanmar and Rakhine Buddhists and/or which have no considerable conflicting relations with the Rohingyas should also be taken into account. The major concern, however, is their ability to administer an independent country because of considerable deprivation of education, political freedom, high-profile jobs (in civil service and defence), etc for a long time. The optimistic aspect is that they have a number of political parties, some political leaders and workable educated people, which may make them capable of administering an independent country. However, state-building supports are necessary. Another concern is the conflict between some Rohingya Muslims and Hindus. But an independent state-based settlement can end such conflicts with necessary measures for reducing every scope of religious or religio-political extremism.
Now, another vital question is: how can the preferred solution be realised? In order to implement the preferred option, the overall process of implementation may be divided into non-forces-based and forces-based. Non-forces-based processes include political or diplomatic or negotiation-based, sanctions-based, etc, whereas forces-based process is just military intervention. Between these measures, certainly, non-forces-based measures are prioritised over forces-based measure. Forces-based measure should be considered when all non-forces-based measures fail to resolve the Rohingya displacement crisis. But Myanmar did not repatriate all the displaced Rohingyas earlier; besides, Myanmar has not shown receptiveness of all the displaced Rohingyas and guaranteed their return to their place of origin. This indicates that Myanmar will not be convinced by diplomatic and sanctions-based measures, particularly when the preferred solution is an independent state. Thus, just military intervention remains as the only process of the implementation of the preferred durable solution.
It is relevant to note that military intervention in any sovereign country is usually not permitted as it violates self-determination of an independent state and its territorial integrity. But the very self-determination of the Rohingyas does not exist when a large number of Rohingya are persecuted, their rights are grossly violated, their ethnic identity is at risk by the government and the army of Myanmar, the possibility of a reasonable solution is less likely with non non-forces-based process, etc. Indeed, minority groups in different countries across the world now justify their right to self-determination as a way to end years of repression and rights violations by the majority ethnic group or the central government within their respective states. Besides, the displacement of the Rohingyas affects other countries, including Bangladesh. In such a context, the disregarding of territorial integrity of Myanmar with international military intervention for the protection of the Rohingyas from persecution and their ethnicity and the restoration of their human rights seems more reasonable or just.
There is no doubt that the implementation of the most preferred solution is challenging. Yet, the involvement of the United Nations is expected to make it easier and acceptable to the international community. Here, the decision on just military intervention needs to be taken based on majority votes by all member states of the United Nations in the general Assembly. If such a decision is taken by the UN Security Council, it may not be reasonable because of geo-political division of veto-holding countries. As was noticed, resolution against displacement was vetoed in the Security Council. If the decision is made by the UNGA to militarily intervene, the intervention needs to be given by member states under the leadership of the United Nations.
The positive aspect of the decision on just military intervention by the UNGA regarding an independent state-based settlement is that no state (or a group of states) is expected to be able to manipulate such a scope for the materialisation of national or geopolitical interests with just military intervention. In addition, the involvement of member states of the United Nations will reduce the likelihood of large-scale war in this region. Yet, necessary measures should be taken in order to minimise any risk of undue military intervention (for national or geo-political interests) and avoid any large-scale war in the region, any post-intervention adverse situations in Myanmar and any undue (or prolonged) stay of the international military after the creation of the independent state.
There is no doubt that durable solution does not secure the rights of the people concerned as natural citizens instantly. It may take time; yet, the implementation of the preferred durable solution at the earliest possible time is expected. Unless the preferred solution is realised, need-based protection services — emergency services (security from attacks, housing, food, health care, education, etc) and non-emergency services (employment and self-employment opportunities, access to legal services, etc) — should be given. The preferred solution, in addition to this, should be considered with a few more comments.
First, the current protection efforts and the preferred solution (including military intervention and state-building) will certainly require huge financial and logistic supports. The UN member states should share them on the basis of economic status. Certainly, the providing of necessary protections for and the ensuring of preferred durable solution of the displaced Rohingyas are some sorts of international responsibility. On this particular ground, no country can avoid such a responsibility. At the same time, a certain amount of financial resources should be taken through financial compensation from authorities of Myanmar responsible for large-scale Rohingya displacement. For this, a reasonable mechanism should be developed.
Second, lack of strong political commitment and meaningful cooperation put significant barriers to prevention of, protection of, and solution to the Rohingya displacement in the past. Consequently, a large number of displaced Rohingyas have been living in protracted camp situations in Myanmar and in a few other countries. As the process of the preferred durable solution is more challenging, political commitment and cooperation of member states of the United Nations are certainly necessary at this time. In this regard, the United Nations should take necessary initiatives.
Third, geopolitics and geo-political affairs related to the Rohingya displacement crisis and its preferred solution must be addressed. Without proper consideration of geo-politics, it may be difficult to resolve the Rohingya crisis on a sustainable ground. In this regard, reasonable and pragmatic pathways should be identified for ensuring that geo-politics neither prolongs the displacement crisis and associated sufferings of the Rohingyas nor puts barriers to the reasonable solution to the crisis. In the implementation of the preferred durable solution, several influential countries, including Russia and China, are of geopolitically serious concerns. Thus, these countries should be properly dealt with.
Fourth, there are more than one hundred ethnic groups in Myanmar. As expected, the preferred solution may create some troubles for Myanmar and its people regarding the possibility of demands for and efforts of independence of other ethnic groups. The multi-ethnicity factor, thus, needs to be taken into consideration very carefully for making sure that the present solution does not aggravate ethnicity-based tension in other states of Myanmar.
Finally, once an independent state is created, state-building is necessary. For this, the United Nations should play the leading roles because state-building by any single country or a group of countries may create controversy. Additionally, state-building and associated activities should be done at the soonest possible time.
Amir Mohammad Sayem is a freelance contributor.