Late last month, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin announced to delegates at the UN General Assembly that a long-expected “action plan” for Rakhine state, the site of the country’s most urgent human rights crisis, was “being finalized and will soon be launched.”
The minister claimed the strategy was designed to ensure “peace, stability, harmony and development” for “all people” in the region; he urged the international community to “contribute pragmatically and objectively” to their plan so that a “durable solution” to the problems in the area could be realized.
While this appeal did not fall on deaf ears, around the time of his speech revelations in the international media threw light on what parts of the plan might actually involve: a set of measures that risked worsening the conditions of life for thousands, while effectively recycling a policy that received heavy international condemnation when it was first proposed two years ago.
Rakhine state has been the site of several outbreaks of violence between an eponymous, largely-Buddhist ethnic group and a Muslim minority who call themselves Rohingya. A conflict between the two communities erupted in June 2012 and developed into anti-Rohingya pogroms; a second, organized bout of targeted violence occurred in October of the same year.
An investigation by Human Rights Watch determined that during these incidents, the Rohingya were subjected to crimes against humanity as a part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing led by the ethnic Rakhine community in which state agencies were heavily implicated. As a consequence of these events, hundreds died and roughly 140,000 people were displaced, the vast majority of them Rohingya.
Following the first wave of violence, the Myanmar President Thein Sein declared that the only remedy to the tensions in Rakhine state would be for the Rohingya to be sent to a third country or detained permanently in camps overseen by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). He also reiterated the government’s view that the minority were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and not a native race of the country.
A draft of the plan referenced in the foreign minister’s speech, which has not been made public but has been seen by The Diplomat, in effect offers only a minor alteration of that heavily criticized policy. In it, the Rohingya, who were retrospectively stripped of their citizenship in a law passed by the former military dictatorship in 1982, are offered the chance to regain these rights if they submit to a “citizenship verification exercise” in which the participants have to self-identify as “Bengalis,” in accordance with the government’s position.
Those who refuse to call themselves this, or who fail to produce paperwork proving their presence in the country for generations, will be subjected to confinement in “temporary camps” and, the plan envisions, forcibly resettled overseas with the aid of the UNHCR.
The number of those condemned to this fate could potentially be enormous, as many in the community look set to refuse to comply with the verification program, while many others have lost official documentation of their family’s presence in Myanmar. Moreover, given that the UNHCR has once again ruled out any involvement in a third country transfer operation, those Rohingya denied citizenship face the prospect of being forced to stay in “temporary” camps indefinitely.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told this correspondent that if the plan was implemented as outlined in the draft, he thought “a new Burmese apartheid” could result, in which the minority would be permanently “locked down in camps, bereft of livelihoods, education, health and hope for anything better.”
“No one should support such a plan that delivers such rights abusing outcomes,” he added.
Besides the outcry caused by proposals in the draft, sources in rights groups fear that the Rohingya may already be facing attempts to coerce or trick them into being officially documented according to the government’s wishes.
“I am concerned the authorities may be trying to get some Rohingya to classify themselves as illegal Bengalis without their consent,” Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a non-governmental organization that monitors rights abuses in Rakhine state, told The Diplomat.
“Some communities in northern Rakhine state have been told to participate in a scheme in which they list their family members on official forms for the authorities to review; people have been told that they will have their land confiscated or that they will be prevented from doing any economic activity if they do not comply,” she said.
“Others have been subjected to beatings and arrests if they do not agree to participate,” she added, noting that the exercise appears to be linked to the citizenship verification process already underway across parts of the state.
A copy of one these forms used in these exercises and obtained by The Diplomat is headed “top secret,” which suggests that the operation may be part of an unannounced citizenship-checking process. The heading of a column in which ethnicity is listed only allows for the Rohingya to be documented as “Bengalis.”
These measures, Lewa added, have been accompanied by an intensification of security operations by the Border Guard Police (BGP) against communities suspected of having links with the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), a small and largely inactive rebel militia group based in Bangladesh.
“According to our sources, 43 people have been arrested for suspicion of links with RSO, some were badly tortured in detention. We believe that one man was tortured to death,” she said.
Against this backdrop of violence and intimidation, the citizenship verification plan looks set to continue. Yet, for all its destructive potential, there are credible indications that several organizations and state actors in Myanmar have assented to the government’s call for “pragmatism” and have decided to get behind the exercise in the belief that this might benefit the Rohingya.
Sources in the NGO community that maintain regular contact with foreign governments told The Diplomat on condition of anonymity that U.S. officials view the plan as a “positive step” and had been working behind-the-scenes to try to get the political elite Naypyidaw to provide an opening through which some Rohingya might gain citizenship rights.
These allegations appear to be supported by the claims of sources within the Rohingya camps, who also did not wish to be identified, but described meetings with U.S. and British officials who implicitly urged them to “co-operate with government in doing verification [sic] according to 1982 citizenship law.”
These claims were bolstered by those of an authoritative source with extensive contacts in Naypyidaw, who told this correspondent that the U.S. had been working with Myanmar on several issues related to human rights for some time. This relationship went so far as to include American help with “strategic communications,” she said.
The source did not want to be identified for her own security, but indicated that the rationale behind this move was that Washington could gain purchase over Thein Sein’s administration through its support; one way of using this leverage was to pressure the government of Myanmar to improve its human rights record.
The U.S. embassy was contacted for comment on these claims. It replied saying that it wished to formulate a response, but at the time of writing had not done so.
Another source within the camps corroborated his counterpart’s claims and added that other foreign representatives – including the Turkish and Bangladeshi ambassadors – had attended meetings with Rohingya community leaders and encouraged them to take part in the government’s citizenship scheme.
While these allegations remain unverified, a representative from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told a news crew that she thought “the government is engaged in trying to find solutions for the people in the camps, and that solution is through the verification and the citizenship process,” a statement that appeared to explicitly endorse the plan.
By contrast, Rohingya activists told this correspondent that they viewed the government’s strategy as “an ethnocidal plan” and a potential route to “ethnic cleansing.” They resent the fact that the Rakhine action plan, which was developed with input from rights groups, foreign embassies and others, was not produced with any consultation of their community, but rather has been introduced to them with threats of permanent confinement in camps hanging over their head.
Reflecting the views of every other Rohingya source this correspondent has spoken to about the draft proposals, one activist source – who was too frightened of retribution to identify himself – emphatically declared that the minority “can’t accept it at all” and indicated that his community would not co-operate with the authorities.
Given the likelihood of widespread resistance, it is possible Myanmar’s proposals will indeed license ethnic cleansing through the forced displacement of potentially hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into camps. In such a scenario, the likelihood of violence and destabilization increase dramatically, with unforeseeable consequences.
Given the realistic possibility that the government’s plans could lead to an unprecedented crisis, the international community and NGOs active in Myanmar face a moral imperative to act to prevent such an outcome.
Fail to do so, and these actors could continue to surrender what leverage they have over Naypyidaw in the name of pragmatism, while achieving very little for some of Asia’s most vulnerable people, even as they continue down the path to preventable disaster.
Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher in the field of human rights and conflict. He has produced work for Al Jazeera, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, The New Statesman, Vice and Souciant magazine, among others.