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Pressing problems

The Telegraph
By Professor  

As a researcher closely following political developments in Myanmar, I was keen to find out what Aung San Suu Kyi would focus on during her lecture in Singapore on August 21. The lecture was part of Suu Kyi's four-day visit to Singapore at the invitation of the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. During her 30-minute speech titled 'Myanmar's Democratic Transition: Challenges and Way Forward', Suu Kyi touched upon such pressing issues as the Rohingya crisis, Myanmar's relations with Bangladesh and Thailand, the country's incomplete democratic transition, challenges of foreign investment, and the need for educational reforms.

It was not surprising to see Suu Kyi not using the term, Rohingya, during her speech. This is government policy. Commenting on the situation in Rakhine state, she said, "There are not just Muslims in Rakhine, like most people think. There are Hindus there, there are... small ethnic groups and I would like you to take interest in these small ethnic groups because some of them are disappearing very quickly." But the scale of the violence, the number of people fleeing across the border and the degree of international attention make the Rohingya crisis a standout issue.

Myanmar continues to maintain that the Rohingyas are illegal Bengali migrants from Bangladesh. Owing to international pressure, Myanmar is now willing to take them back under the 1992 repatriation pact signed by the two countries. But the individuals need to prove that they are residents of Myanmar. It has been widely reported that the Rohingyas want to return to Myanmar. But they are demanding assurances from the Myanmar government, including safety and security, recognition of their ethnic identity, and eventual citizenship. The Myanmar government has talked about addressing these issues in accordance with the country's existing laws, including a pathway to citizenship. However, there has been no official assurance or guarantee that the Rohingya identity will be recognized.

Suu Kyi did not provide any assurance either. However, Suu Kyi and her government cannot resolve the Rohingya crisis by themselves. One possibility that she discussed during her lecture was putting the ball in Bangladesh's court. "I think Bangladesh would also have to decide how quickly it wants the process to be completed." Suu Kyi has a point. But is it realistic to believe that Bangladesh will force out the refugees without their consent? Bangladesh may want to repatriate the Rohingya refugees but it faces such constraints as bilateral and multilateral agreements requiring voluntary repatriation.

Another somewhat surprising comment made by the state counsellor was that her government wanted to work together with Bangladesh just as it had with Thailand where there are about four million people of Myanmarese origin. The two situations are different. The Myanmar population in Thailand comprises migrant workers as well as those who fled Myanmar during military rule. Myanmar is willing to assist them if they choose to stay in Thailand legally. They also enjoy citizenship rights as they are included among the 135 national races or ethnic groups recognized by Myanmar under its citizenship law.

Suu Kyi talked about the threat posed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. While condemning terrorism, the international community should address its root causes. Another highlight of the lecture concerned Myanmar's democratization process. Suu Kyi is right in saying that the country's democratic transition is incomplete and her government faces challenges under the hybrid arrangement where power is shared between the military and the civilian leaderships.

It is important that the Myanmar leadership (both civilian and military), civil society groups and the public help resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis and other ethnic conflicts because peace would establish the rule of law and bring stability and growth.