Statement made by Dr Syed Hamid Albar
OIC Special Envoy for Myanmar to the Contact Meeting on 29 September 2015
I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation to OIC for inviting me to give an update of my activities as OIC Special Envoy for Myanmar.
As we know, there is a humanitarian crisis taking place nearly every day in Myanmar.
Muslim in Burma are dispersed geographically and are highly diverse in ethnicity; Rohingya in Arakan, Putonghua (Mandarin) speaking Panthay or Chinese Muslim in north-eastern Burma, Malay speaking Pashu in Kaw-thaung in southern Tenansarin, and Burmese speaking Bama Muslim or Burmese Muslim (sometimes called Pathi). The Rohingya speak a language similar to what is spoken in Chittagong region in Bangladesh, mixed with words from Urdu, Persian and others. The "traditional home land" of Rohingya, in North Arakan is the largest Muslim concentration. Today, the Rohingya population is estimated to be 3.5mil, including Rohingya diaspora of around 1.6 million.
And in fact, Rohingya in specific are the most prosecuted minority in the world. Their problem is an ethnic, religious and political prosecution to rid Arakan of the Muslim population. More than 1.6mil Rohingya were either expelled or have had to leave the country for their lives. Most of them are living in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc with the hope, to return to their homeland.
The reality on the ground is - xenophobia against the Muslims. There is a popular slogan in the country; "to be Burmese is to be called Buddhist". Islam is insulted, comparing the Muslims to animal doctrines. The Rohingya are despised and called influx viruses, ugly ogres and dogs by Rakhine academics and Buddhist extremists. This is systematic racism and Islamophobia.
On July 30th this year, four Rohingya men were released for the second time under a Presidential Amnesty. For two years, Mr Ba Thar, Mr Kyaw Khin, Mr Kyaw Myint and his son Hla Myint had been in a revolving door of arrest, detention, pardon, re-arrest, re-sentence and re-pardon. All this, because they had peacefully insisted on their Rohingya identity. We hope they will not be put on a third round of arrest, detention and pardon.
In many ways, this case is symbolic of our efforts to halt the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar. We have all, in our own way, suggested, begged, and even pressured, the authorities in Myanmar to restore citizenship to the Rohingya, to comply with international norms, and to allow the delivery of urgently-needed life-saving humanitarian aid. We have been successful in gaining commitments and assurances, however we have also suffered setbacks after each step forward.
Much of what I am about to raise is already known to many of you, although not everyone is willing to admit the severity of the problems we face. As OIC’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, it is my duty to raise these issues.
Since my visit to New York City last year, Myanmar has yet to fulfil key commitments. In some aspects, it has gone backwards, particularly in the context of the upcoming general elections which are scheduled on November 8.
In June, it was confirmed by the Myanmar government that 666,831 “White Card” or Temporary Registration Card holders in Rakhine state were disenfranchised. These "white card" holders, who were allowed to vote in previous elections, are now excluded, making this the first general elections in Myanmar’s history to exclude Rohingya. The “green cards” offered by the authorities have not addressed this problem.
Meanwhile, the incumbent Member of Parliament Shwe Maung, a Rohingya, has been barred from the elections. 15 out of 18 Muslim candidates of the Democracy and Human Rights Party were also disqualified. While I estimate that a million Muslim voters will be excluded from this election, I am also mindful that hundreds of thousands of voters from other minorities will also suffer the same fate. This is a grave concern to those of us who have been working to achieve a durable, political solution.
The citizenship verification process, designed to give the Rohingya and other minorities the chance to apply for a lower form of citizenship, is creeping at a slow rate. Previously, we were assured that this would be a flexible process that would bestow legal protection on most applicants; however the success rate for applicants has been less than 10 per cent. In Buthidaung township, it was 10 percent, in Myebon Township, it was only seven percent.
In 2015, the government of Myanmar fast-tracked a set of four controversial bills, known as the ‘National Race and Religion Protection’ package. The Religious Conversion Bill, the Interfaith Marriage Bill, the Monogamy Bill, and the Population Control Bill are openly racist, anti-Muslim, compromising freedom of religion, women’s rights, freedom to marry, and reproductive rights. Despite domestic and international criticism, all four bills have all been passed by the end of August, and signed into law by the President.
Myanmar has played on religious differences and exploited people’s fears to foster division. I echo the UN Special Rapporteur to Myanmar’s concern about selective use of the charge of “insulting religion.” A politician who spoke out against religious extremism was handed two years in prison with hard labour, while another politician inciting people to “kill, shoot and bury” the Rohingya has yet to experience any consequences, let alone legal action.
These challenges have not slowed down our efforts to change the situation, and to offer aid to as many people as possible. While relief and education efforts have continued for the Rohingya and Muslim displaced people in Rakhine state, we have also been reaching out to displaced communities now located in regional states such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
In April this year, we brought together representatives from the interfaith community and the human rights community in Myanmar and the region for a roundtable in Kuala Lumpur. This was an innovative effort to take an inter-sectoral approach to our work, and we are beginning to see some of these linkages take root. I have been inspired by the cooperation and coordination between women activists of the Rohingya and non-Rohingya background. These committed and capable women have held on to their solidarity despite verbal attacks and vilification.
In addition, we were able to convince several former ASEAN leaders to send an unprecedented letter to the ASEAN Summit to raise the alarm on the growing intolerance in Myanmar and the serious implications on the reform process. We worked with regional civil society to call for a review of the ASEAN's non-interference policy, which has been misused to block diplomatic interventions to address the Rohingya crisis.
The combination of these advocacy and relief efforts have helped lay the groundwork for community and government responses to the Rohingya boat crisis just weeks later, in May.
In past years, many have warned of the growing scale of the Rohingya refugee exodus, and the increased vulnerability of the Rohingya to human trafficking. This situation hit crisis level in the Andaman Sea in May of this year, with thousands of desperate children, women and men left adrift. We cannot deny the link with the Rohingya’s recent disenfranchisement, the forced collection of the ‘white cards’ and the offer of a ‘green card’ that does not give them the right to vote in the upcoming election. The barriers to livelihood, healthcare, education, the restrictions on freedom of movement and right to family life have all driven the Rohingya to desperation, to risk their lives on fragile rafts.
I am proud to note that some of the roundtable participants were able to contribute in small ways, to persuade regional governments to adopt a new approach of search-and-rescue and welcoming boat people, instead of preventing them from landing. However, this is only a stopgap measure, and I am concerned that we still urgently need to shift the Myanmar government's policies and practices. Otherwise, we will see another wave of the Rohingya boat people at sea in the upcoming sailing season, before we can even resolve the situation of boatpeople already in our care.
Recent floods severely damaged camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Rakhine State, which were never meant to last one, let alone three years. I note that unlike the disaster of Cyclone Nargis in 2007, when Myanmar refused international humanitarian operations in country, this time the government acted promptly and facilitated relief agencies’ work. This is a notable development and demonstrates that our engagement can and will bring change.
At the same time, it is undeniable that the international community has not had the influence it should. We need to be much more united and coordinated in our work, to shield ourselves from the divide-and-rule strategies that have undermined our effectiveness for years.
OIC needs to be assertive and cohesive in tackling these issues, and must work with communities to encourage reconciliation and peaceful dialogue countering the climate of fear and hatred. Furthermore, we must not compromise on the need to restore the Rohingya’s right to citizenship. This element has been flagged time and time again, yet the Rohingya remain without full citizenship and the necessary rights to guarantee safety for themselves and their families.
Conclusion and recommendations:
Some of my audience may think that I am prescribing a hard and uncompromising stance that will cause problems for ASEAN or the international community. However, it is ASEAN that has most to lose if we let the sores fester: refugees are already on the shores and more will board boats as soon as this monsoon ends. It is not only about losing face, it is also a question of building a strong and safe ASEAN community, that is of benefit to the OIC and global community. The UN and the OIC must work with ASEAN member states to resolve this human rights crisis. If not, we will find ourselves doomed to the same situation as our four Rohingya brothers mentioned earlier, stuck in a cycle of small success and big setbacks.
As such, I would like to suggest the following appropriate measures:
- OIC to invest and allocate humanitarian aid for the Rohingya people inside Myanmar; and
- OIC to cooperate with organizations that specialize in genocide prevention
- organize more international events on human rights advocacy. Human rights experts and academicians should work together in finding out amicable solutions to tackle issue of genocide and mass killings in Myanmar.
- seek channel to reconcile the existing local Rakhine community and the Rakhine living in exile.
- encourage and support the exiled Rohingya to return to Myanmar on education and talent development;
- provide funding and techniques to the activist inside and outside Myanmar; and
- intellectual discourses and academic discussions on issues related to the Rohingya community.
Finally, given the complexities of the ongoing problem in Myanmar, it is only natural that we weigh all options carefully and in a pragmatic manner to achieve a desirable outcome. On this respect, a deeper collaboration with state and non-state actors is definitely necessary.