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FOCUS September 2012 Volume Vol. 69

Resolving the Muslim Rohingya Issue


In June 2012, riots broke out in Rakhine state in Burma/ Myanmar that led to the death of fifty-seven Muslim Rohingyas and thirty-one Rakhine Buddhists, and the destruction of houses and places of worship of both communities.1 Thousands of Muslim Rohingyas fled their homes for fear of being attacked by the Rakhine Buddhists.
The riots received much international attention as Muslim communities in a number of countries in Asia and international institutions raised alarm at the possible worsening of the situation.2 Muslim Indonesians and Malaysians condemned the killing and destruction that occurred but also offered humanitarian assistance to the Muslim Rohingyas.3 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia “appointed former vice-president Jusuf Kalla as his special envoy on the issue, [while]...Malaysia hosted international conferences and [would] do more in the future.”4
The Burmese/Myanmarese government considers the Muslim Rohingyas as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Buddhist Burmese marched on the streets to show support to the government, specifically President Thein Sein, who called the Muslim Rohingyas Muslim Bengalis. President Thein Sein suggested deporting them or holding them in camps.5
The international concern for the welfare of the Muslim Rohingyas led representatives of international organizations and governments visiting the Rakhine State: the Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General (Mr. Vijay Nambiar), the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (Mr. Thomas Ojea Quintana), the Turkish delegation headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ahmet Davutoglu), the President of Indonesian Red Cross (Mr. Jusuf Kalla), and the Representative and Assistant Secretary-General of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) (Mr. Atta Al- manam Bakhit).6  
The Secretary-General of the OIC, Mr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, was quoted as saying that7

 [T]he government in Yangon refuses to recognize Rohingyas, whom, it claims, are not natives and classifies them as illegal migrants, although, the Rohingyas are said to be Muslim descendants of Persian, Turkish, Bengali, and Pathan origin, who migrated to Myanmar as early as the eighth century.

The government of Saudi Arabia reportedly8 condemned the riots as part of an "ethnic cleansing campaign and brutal attacks against Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya citizens, as well as violation of human rights by forcing them to leave their homeland..."
The OIC held an extra-ordinary Executive Committee Meeting on 5 August 2012 on the Rohingya issue, and highlighted the “United Nations Declaration” that the "Rohingya are a linguistic, religious, ethnic minority from western Burma".”9 It emphasized that

the atrocities committed against Rohingya minority in Myanmar including killing, razing houses, forced eviction, forced labor in harsh conditions, summary executions, rape, torture have approached the crime of genocide and represent a serious threat to international peace and security and regional stability, as clearly demonstrated by the recent violence. It is a serious crime against humanity, and a blatant breach of international law, which needs to receive proper reaction by the international community through bringing Myanmar authorities who are responsible for these heinous acts to justice.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has long considered the Muslim Rohingyas as “stateless people” in Burma/ Myanmar. Its statistics on the number of stateless persons in the country as of 2012 reached 808,075,10 almost equal to the estimated total number of Muslim Rohingyas.

Measures to Resolve the Issue

The Burmese/Myanmarese government declared that it “took immediate actions with full restraint to restore law and order and stability in places where riots broke out since the very beginning of violence” and the Office of the President formed a 27-member "Investigation Commission" on 17 August 2012 to find out what happened. The head of the Rakhine Investigation Commission, in a press conference on 17 September 2012, “pledged [that] his team would find a solution to the conflict in Rakhine State that is acceptable to the international community.”11
A high-level OIC delegation visited Burma/Myanmar on 5-15 September 2012 with the mandate of making “preliminary observations as to the root causes of the problem and the effect of the violence that took place in the Rakhine State; to explore the conditions and various aspects of a prospective visit by the OIC Secretary-General; and to make the necessary contacts regarding the ways and means for the OIC to carry out humanitarian assistance and relief operations in the Rakhine State.” The representatives of the OIC and Burma/Myanmar's Ministry of Borders Affairs also signed a “Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) ... in an effort to implement a humanitarian program for the benefit of all communities living in the State of Rakhine.”12
Recognizing the Rohingyas as stateless persons, the UNHCR has already adopted a plan to help “improve the status of the Muslim residents of northern Rakhine State (NRS).”
It reports that in13

NRS, UNHCR assists some 800,000 Muslim residents who do not have citizenship. Members of this group were allowed to vote in the November 2010 elections, using temporary registration cards issued for that purpose by the Government. Initial discussions on replacing the temporary documents with cards denoting full citizenship took place at different administrative levels, but did not yield any concrete results. Indeed, there has been no improvement in the legal status or living conditions of the Muslim residents of NRS.

In July 2012, the ASEAN Secretary-General, Mr. Surin Pitsuwan, said that he expected President Sein to explain the government plan in resolving the issue during his visit to the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly session in late September 2012.14 During a forum in New York on September 27, 2012, when the Rohingya question was raised, President Thein Sein asked Lt. General Thein Htay, of the Ministry of Border Affairs to respond to the question.15 Minister Htay explained that the problem is a communal violence issue, two communities in conflict with each other. He explained that the root causes were “mistrust and misconduct” among the peoples in the two communities. He also explained that poverty - lack of employment opportunities, poor infrastructures – in Rakhine State was also a cause of the problem. He cited the need to develop human resources as well as change the “constrictive culture” of the people. He mentioned that the government was now providing relief and rehabilitation services and promoting reconciliation and social harmony in the Rakhine State.

Role of ASEAN

The Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expected to play a role in resolving the Muslim Rohingya issue. Its ASEAN Charter provides for the maintenance and enhancement of peace and security in the region, and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has the purpose of enhancing “regional cooperation with a view to complementing national and international efforts on the promotion and protection of human rights” and upholding international human rights standards. Based on these purposes, the AICHR can “consult, as may be appropriate, with other national, regional and international institutions and entities concerned with the promotion and protection of human rights,” and “obtain information from ASEAN Member States on the promotion and protection of human rights.”
But will AICHR move to help resolve the Muslim Rohingya issue?
So far, it seems that AICHR has not been heard on this issue. It also seems that it neither has been requested by the ASEAN secretariat to take action such as gather information on the issue nor make an analysis of the situation from a human rights perspective.

Final Remarks

The Muslim Rohingya issue is an old problem that has eluded resolution. It is tragic that riots had to happen in order to bring the Muslim Rohingya issue back into international limelight.
The reactions of various non- governmental organizations, Asian governments as well as inter- governmental organizations to the riots (including the responses from sections of the Burmese/ Myanmarese public) helped stop the violence and destruction, and bring order in the Rakhine State.
Would the government finally heed the plea for recognition of the Muslim Rohingyas as citizens of the country?
The Muslim Rohingya issue constitutes one of the several ethnicity-based problems that have to be fully addressed to make the current political change in Burma/Myanmar a genuine step towards peace, justice and reconciliation in the country.


1.  Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw, 21 August 2012, President Office, Republic of the Union of Myanmar, This statement is also available at the website of ASEAN, Other reports state higher number of casualties.
2.  “Myanmar Stung by Global Censure Over Unrest,” The Jakarta Globe, 15 September 2012, at by-global-censure-over-unrest/544575.
3.  “Asean NGOs want to aid Rohingya,” New Straits Times, at
4.  Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Rohingya Plight Further Divides Asean,” The Jakarta Globe, 5 September 2012, at
5.  Sithu Lwin with AFP, “Mandalay residents, monks protest Rakhine violence, 10 September 2012,” The Myanmar Times, at But President Thein Sein had also commented that the “Rakhine people are continuously thinking to terrorise the Bengali Muslims living across the country.” See “Monks kindling hate: Myanmar President,” The Hindu, 25 August 2012,
6.  Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release (21-8-2012), President Office, Republic of the Union of Myanmar,
7.  “OIC proposes probe into Myanmar massacres of Rohingya Muslims,” 5 August 2012,
8.  Al Arabiya with Agencies, “Saudi Arabia accuses Myanmar of 'ethnic cleansing' of Muslims,” Al Arabiya, 7 August 2012,
9. Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), Final Communiqué of the Extraordinary, Executive Committee Meeting held on 5 August 2012, Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Re: Rohingya Minority, available at
10.  Statistical snapshot, 2012 UNHCR country operations profile – Myanmar,
11.  Ei Ei Toe Lwin, “Rakhine investigation team discusses first visit,” 24 September 2012, The Myanmar Times, at
12.  “OIC Delegation Concludes its Visit of Observation in Myanmar,” Organization of Islamic Cooperation, 17 September 2012,
13.  See 2012 UNHCR country operations profile – Myanmar,
14.  Ismira Lutfia, “Myanmar Must Explain Rohingya Ethnic Violence: Asean,” The Jakarta Globe, July 26, 2012, at
15.  Asia Society, “Myanmar President Thein Sein: No Reversal to Democratic Transition” [Video], September 27, 2012, accessible at