The Rohingya: Can Reconciliation Be Achieved in Myanmar?

By Kate Roff

Over 600,000 Rohingya have been driven out of the Rakhine State in Myanmar since August 25th, in response to Rohingya militants attacking police posts. Now a new deal may allow Rohingya to return, with observers such as Pope Francis calling for ethnic reconciliation, but experts warn repatriation cannot be rushed.

Ronan Lee, a Myanmar expert at Deakin University, told us from Yangon that the divisions within Myanmar have been building for years.

"The Rohingya are an ethnic minority - they're overwhelmingly Muslim - and described as the Rohingya Muslims, and Myanmar is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, and the Rohingya have found themselves considered by the authorities of Myanmar to be a group that - despite their centuries of heritage in Myanmar - considered not to be entitled to citizenship."

At Anjumanpara border crossing in Bagladesh, UNHCR officials are providing care for the thousands of refugees who have fled.

"When they started to set our villages on fire, they told us to leave," said Rohingya refugee Abdul Hakim. "We were told if we stayed, they would kill us."

"Here it is very crowded but at least we can sleep in peace," said Said Amin, a Rohingya refugee. "Back home, there was space, but we were not safe."

The UN's High Commissioner of Human Rights has described the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing" and a 2015 report by the International State Crime Initiative warned of the de-humanizing of the Rohingya population.

"Prior to the current crisis - which people would have seen harrowing images [of] on television - what had occurred was that the Rohingya rights to - that they vote, their right to move between one village and another without official permission, their ability to access education, or healthcare, or get a job - these basic human rights were severely curtailed or restricted by the authorities," said Mr Lee.

So is there hope for reconciliation?

Under international pressure, Myanmar has agreed to repatriate Rohingya refugees, but reconciliation will not be an easy road.

Previously, the Rohingya lived alongside the ethnic majority, the Rakhine, in Myanmar.

"I was there doing research in 2015,” said Mr Lee, “and I was amazed at that time, how willing the Rohingya in particular were, to co-operate.”

"I was surprised too at how many ordinary Rakhine - not elite politicians - but how many ordinary Rakhine were prepared to express a similar view. They both said they understood that they were both better off when there was co-operation between the two communities - when they could trade together, when they could basically have friendly relations with each other."

“It is critical that returns do not take place precipitously or prematurely, without the informed consent of refugees or the basic elements of lasting solutions in place,” said Adrian Edwards, from UNHCR.

“The future of Myanmar must be peace,” Pope Francis said during his recent visit to Nay Pyi Taw, “a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity.”

Cover Photo: Courtesy of UNHCR

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