Muslim Nations Take on Myanmar Over Rohingyas

 Shibani Mahtani
European Pressphoto Association Protestors in hold banners and shout slogans during a protest against Myanmar’s treatment of the ethnic minority Rohingyas in Karachi, Pakistan.

Myanmar is no stranger to criticism from Western nations and human rights groups, some of whom still approach the once-reclusive nation with caution despite major economic and social reforms there over the past year. But as the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic minority captures global attention, the country is now getting flak from a new quarter – the Muslim world.

Since tensions between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in June, leaving at least 78 dead, governments and rights groups have been critical of Myanmar authorities’ actions, which they say have not afforded enough protections to the minority group. New York-based Human Rights Watch released a 56-page report last week asserting that authorities failed to prevent initial unrest, and that security forces in some cases killed and raped Rohingyas.

Myanmar officials have defended their treatment of the group and say they have helped re-establish order and cooperated with international aid organizations to bring relief to the area. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement last week that Myanmar “totally rejects the attempts by some quarters to politicize and internationalize this situation as a religious issue,” adding that the incidents of violence in Rakhine State “are neither because of religious oppression nor discrimination.”

Either way, some of the most vocal critics in the past couple of weeks have come from countries that have in the past been more welcoming to Myanmar than the West, including Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia. Many are concerned that Rohingya Muslims are being discriminated against at least in part because of their religious beliefs – an issue that hits home in their own countries with large Muslim populations.

Speaking to reporters last week, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that his country would address the matter of violence against the Muslim Rohingyas at a summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in mid-August, adding that Indonesia “cannot tolerate” discriminatory treatment against the group, according to the Associated Press. This weekend, Egypt’s foreign ministry condemned the Myanmar government’s treatment of Rohingyas, saying its envoy in the country has seen extensive damage caused by the recent clashes, according to local Egyptian press.

Malaysia’s government, too, has expressed concerned for the way Rohingyas were treated following protests from Muslims in the country, and welcomed investigations that probe the cause of the violence.

Diplomats and human rights organizations have also criticized Bangladesh for their unwillingness to accept more Rohingya refugees to the country, which already houses thousands of Rohingya refugees. Still, Myanmar – a predominantly Buddhist country – has come in for particularly vociferous criticism, including from some more extreme quarters in the Muslim world, including the Taliban, and jailed Islamic cleric Abu Bakir Bashir.

Both Pakistan’s branch of the Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban, and Abu Bakir Bashir have threatened violence against Myanmar. The cleric, in an open letter to President Thein Sein, went as far as suggesting war on Myanmar if violence against the Rohingyas continues, according to an Associated Press report.

All of this opens a new front of pressure on Myanmar to find a resolution to a problem which has burned quietly for decades. Although Western leaders have criticized Myanmar for its handling of the recent Rohingya-related unrest, and the United Nations has called for an urgent inquiry, some analysts believe Western governments are unlikely to press the issue as hard as they might have a few years ago since they’re trying hard to repair relations with Myanmar’s government following years of sanctions. Criticism from once-friendly Muslim nations could help keep the issue alive longer, making it harder for Western governments to let the issue drop.

The Rohingya problem remains one of the most challenging for Myanmar at a time when its government is expanding freedoms for most residents, including releasing political prisoners and easing restraints on the Internet after the country’s military regime stepped down last year. The Rohingya are widely seen in Myanmar as the country’s most unwanted ethnic group, and they are excluded from citizenship laws and restricted in their movements and activities, including marriage and reproduction. Myanmar officials say that many Rohingyas are living illegally in the country, and have appealed to the United Nations to assist with repatriating them or coordinating relief efforts.

Even if pressure does keep coming from the outside world, the problem will likely defy an easy solution.

“The world can lobby for humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya, which will provide short term relief, but it won’t even come close to constructing a solution [for them],” said Greg Constantine, a photographer who has spent seven years documenting the lives of Rohingya refugees.

“It is the bigger questions that need to be addressed for any solution to come,” he added, including fundamental issues related to deciding “who belongs and who doesn’t” in the new Myanmar.

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