Is the International Debate on Myanmar’s Rohingya Situation ‘Overblown’?

Is the International Debate on Myanmar’s Rohingya Situation ‘Overblown’?
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
What you need to know

A former top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar and ‘buddy’ of Aung Sun Suu Kyi challenges the international media and human rights narrative on the plight of ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar.

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On Saturday evening a small group of students at Harvard University protested over Myanmar leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi's receiving the Harvard Foundation’s 2016 Humanitarian of the Year.

The protesters, who were from the Harvard Islamic Society, carried posters calling on Suu Kyi to “earn” and “live up to” the award by “stand[ing] up for the Rohingya,” the Harvard Crimson reports.

The sentiment expressed by the protesters was shared by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, who wrote on Twitter, “Why'd @Harvard give Aung San Suu Kyi humanitarian award when she's been so awful about Rohingya humanitarian crisis?” [sic]

While 90 percent of Myanmar’s 53 million people are Buddhist, there are more than 130 recognized national ethnic groups, which include Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Rohingya Muslims, with a population of just over 1 million, are the largest Muslim group and mostly live in Rakhine, one the country’s poorest states.

The United Nations in June called on the Burmese government to end “systemic discrimination" and ongoing human rights violations against minority communities, "particularly the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.”

In 2012, violence swept through Rakhine. Hundreds died and 140,000 people were displaced. According to the United Nations, 120,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims remain in camps for internally displaced people. Nearly 100,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis are thought to have departed Myanmar since early 2014, peaking in the first half of 2015 at 31,000.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted earlier this year that the country’s new government had “inherited” the situation and the legal context for handling the problem.

“It will not be easy to reverse such entrenched discrimination,” he said.

Myanmar’s UN representatives responded by saying that since the new government took state responsibilities on March 30, “it has been addressing the situation in Rakhine State, as one of the highest priorities on its agenda.”

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Photo Credit:AP/達志影像
In this Sept. 17, 2013 photo, a sick Muslim woman, who become displaced following 2012 sectarian violence, rests in a camp for displaced at Nga Chaung Refugee Camp in Pauktaw, Rakhine state, Myanmar. Severe shortages of food, water and medical care for Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar are part of a long history of persecution against the religious minority that could amount to "crimes against humanity," according to a statement released Monday April 7, 2014, from Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the country. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
The counter view

As Saturday’s protests showed, the plight of the Rohingya Muslims remains a serious blemish on Suu Kyi’s human rights record in the eyes of many international commentators.

Priscilla Clapp is a former top U.S. diplomat. Her 30-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service culminated in her role as chief of mission and permanent chargé d’affaires – the most senior U.S. position – at the U.S. embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002. She is now a senior adviser to the Asia Society and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

In an interview with the Global Dispatches Podcast in July, which covered many aspects of a fascinating diplomatic career, Clapp was candid in her support of Suu Kyi and equally frank about what she sees as shortcomings in the arguments pushed by human rights organizations.

“The Rohingya situation is in many ways overblown in the international debate,” Clapp said.

The issue, she said, should be seen in the context of the “larger divide” between Buddhists and Muslims, and other ethnic and economic factors, as well as the legacy of 55-years of military rule.

Clapp suggested that amid an “explosion” of different ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Rohingya diaspora “want to be accepted as a separate ethnic group, and they probably want designated territory.”

Designated territory, she said, would be an “anathema” to the Rakhine State.

“If they were to get separate identity and territory it would be carved out of this very small, very poor state.”

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Photo Credit: AP/ 達志影像
A man looks at a graffiti congratulating Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party's election victory in Mandalay, Myanmar, Wednesday Nov. 11, 2015. Suu Kyi lead a near total sweep by her party that gave the country its first government in decades that isn't under the military's sway. (AP Photo/Hkun Lat)

Clapp drew a comparison to the ongoing problem of race relations in the U.S., suggesting it was unrealistic to expect Myanmar’s new leadership to be able to fix such an entrenched problem in the short term.

“Where do we get off telling them that they have to solve the problem right now?” she asked.

“You have to bring people along and it is going to take a long time to change attitudes.”

During decades of military rule, Myanmar, or Burma, as it was called before the junta changed the country's name in 1989, was considered a pariah state and largely closed to foreigners.

One reason, in terms of why the international community has come to focus on the Rohingya issue, Clapp said, is that “people are only just discovering Burma.”

“They grab this issue and take it out of context."

In June, HRW released a report highlighting arrests and prosecutions for participation in peaceful assemblies had continued since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s first civilian-led government for decades, took power.

With regards to the criticism directed at Su Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya situation, Clapp said groups like HRW need to take a wider view.

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Photo Credit:Alexander F. Yuan CC BY 2.0
A boy with tattoos on his arms walks in a slum area in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, Sept. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

According to the World Bank, Myanmar has the lowest life expectancy and the second-highest rate of infant and child mortality among ASEAN countries. The country still faces major basic infrastructure issues, with savage road shortages and two-thirds of the population lacking access to the electricity grid. Despite boasting considerable natural resources, a low population density, and attracting a flood of international financial support, economic growth has been curtailed in recent years by a supply shock from heavy flooding and low international commodity prices.

“The human rights people only think about human rights,” Clapp said. "They don’t look at the whole the picture, and it is not in their interest to think about the context within which this is happening.”

Clapp goes as far to say that “some” groups deliberately lie about the facts to make their case.

“I don’t have much sympathy or respect for them.”

During her time as the top U.S. official in Myanmar, Clapp said Su Kyi was “like a buddy” and she is optimistic about her performance as head of state – Su Kyi's official title is State Counselor.

“I think she has done a brilliant job, actually. I don’t agree with those who are picking away at her and saying ‘the NLD doesn’t know what it is doing’ and ‘they have no experience,’ ‘they don’t know how to govern.’”

The Nobel laureate, who is wildly popular at home and highly respected by many abroad, is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly tonight.

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Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
United States President Barack Obama shakes hands with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma) in the Oval Office of the White House on September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. Credit: Aude Guerrucci / Pool via CNP /MediaPunch/IPX

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole

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