A solution to the prolonged Rohingya crisis is likely to remain a far cry, although a new civilian government with Htin Kyaw as de jure titular president and Aung San Suu Kyi as de facto leader has taken over in Myanmar after over 50 years' of military rule. For this, a number of reasons have been cited based on current situation in Myanmar as well as the mindset of its leadership who has an apparent prejudice against Rohingyas in particular and Muslims in general.
It is clear after a recent disclosure in a book authored by Peter Pophan about Suu Kyi titled "The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Freedom". In this book, it is revealed that when Suu Kyi was interviewed two years ago by the BBC personality Mishael Hussain, a Muslim, she expressed her displeasure allegedly complaining "no one told me that I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim".
This simple sentence is abhorrent and reads her mind about Muslims and this revelation has prompted human rights activists to urge Norway's Nobel Committee to rescind Suu Kyi's Nobel Peace Prize citing that one racially-insensitive sentence is enough to prove what she holds in her mind about other religions. It is no longer secret that Suu Kyi has an antipathy toward Muslims. On many occasions, apart from the BBC interview, she unequivocally denied any evidence of genocide perpetrated against Myanmar Rohingya Muslims.
Sadly, what she told BBC was to suppress the truth because that interview was conducted in the aftermath of a spate of ethnic violence and communal riots committed in 2012 and 2013 by the majority Buddhists forcing several hundred thousand Muslims to either flee the country or to live in an apartheid-like condition in Myanmar. The worst communal riot broke out in 2012 that left about 200 people dead and an estimated 200,000 displaced internally or from the country prompting the international media to dub them "boat people" who were desperately seeking refuge in neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
An estimated three million Rohingya Muslims, nearly half of them forced to leave the country, still remain stateless, without rights, without citizenship, with their lands taken from them and with no signs in sight to change their situation.
When this writer asked a key Rohingya leader about the future of the Rohingya community in Myanmar, he said he is sceptical whether anything good will come to them conspicuously shortly. "But we pin hopes on the new government since it is a civilian one which is definitely better than the military rule," observed Dr. Tahir Mohammad, Chairman of the Pennsylvania-based Arakan Rohingya Union, an agency established by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to restore the rights of Rohingya Muslims. Dr. Tahir lamented that although Suu Kyi has never spoken out against Rohingya's persecution, nevertheless, it is hoped that her National League for Democracy (NLD) party will be able to transform Myanmar into a true democratic society that will at least be conducive to talk about the rights of ethnic minorities. "What we want more than anything is our citizenships and to see over 1.5 million displaced Rohingyas return home," he said.
Another rights activist Massoud Shadjareh, Head of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, expressed his doubts saying both the military and pro-democracy movements have been against recognizing the Myanmar Muslims as equal citizens. He quoted Suu Kyi as saying once: "They (Rohingya Muslims) are not part of the society and they are external people and they are not citizens". "I think the problem is that there seems to be a sort of bonding between the army and the pro-democracy forces to deny Rohingyas their rights," observed Massoud.
Myanmar government has been depriving Rohingya Muslims of their citizenships identifying them as "Bengalis", who, they claim, illegally migrated from Bangladesh. Rohingyas are now banned from travelling even within Myanmar and denied access to state facilities including education and healthcare. Their property was seized in the Rakhine state following the 2012 outbreak of ethnic violence between Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists and they are confined in nine camps designed for "Internally Displaced Persons" (IDPs).
Rohingya Muslims were first deprived of Myanmar citizenship in 1982 when junta government led by General Ne Win enacted the flawed Burmese (previous name of Myanmar) nationality law that strangely designated three categories of citizens namely full citizens, associate citizens and naturalized citizens and these citizens must belong to an indigenous race. None of the categories applied to Rohingyas and they were declared "non-national" since they were not recognized as one of the 135 ethnic races in Myanmar. Subsequently, Rohingya Muslims were not included in the latest census conducted in 2014 with the assistance from the United Nations Population Fund. According to census, in Rakhine historically known Arakan, 1.09 million people, mostly Rohingyas who predominantly live in Sittwe and northern Rakhine, were not enumerated while over 2.9 million people from other ethnic groups were enlisted in the census records.
As a result, there was mass disenfranchisement of Rohingya Muslims in the last November 8 elections which took Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy to power. Rohingya Muslims were deprived of voting rights for the first time since Myanmar's independence in 1948.
This is the time for Muslim countries, human rights agencies, the United Nations and other global powers to mount pressures on the Myanmar's newly formed government to grant the Rohingya Muslims their citizenship rights. The US Congress has already passed a resolution describing the elections as an, ''important step forward'', yet, ''far from perfect'', and indicated that there remain important structural and systemic impediments to the realization of full democratic and civilian government, including the reservation of a large number of unelected seats for the military; the disfranchisement of groups of people who voted in previous elections, including the Rohingyas and the disqualification of candidates based on arbitrary application of citizenship and residency requirements. The US Congress also expressed its deep concerns about the plight of the Rohingya people and urged the new government to end discriminatory practices and instead work toward restoration of and respect for the rights of the Rohingya people.
Bangladesh government should step up its efforts to rally international support for the smooth repatriation of Rohingyas from many neighbouring countries including Bangladesh which hosts hundreds of thousands displaced Rohingyas despite the country per se overburdened with a population of 160 million.
Shamsul Huda is a senior Bangladeshi journalist based in Saudi Arabia