Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

Archive for October, 2012


Posted in News on October 28th, 2012

By Trevor Wilson

One Myanmar issue to emerge unexpectedly on the international “screen” this year was the sectarian violence that occurred in Rakhine province in the west of Myanmar between Buddhist Rakhine residents and Muslim Rohingya non-citizens in June and July 2012. A state of emergency was declared, curfews were enforced, and security forces were deployed across the state. Around 100 persons were killed, 2,500 houses destroyed and 90,000 people displaced. Further serious violence at the end of October shows that a solution to the issues is not close at hand, that ongoing tensions and clashes are likely, and that the impacts of such serious incidents will pose enormous political challenges.

International attention on the Rohingya has transformed handling of the issue internationally. Under Ne Win’s isolationism from 1964-1988, few Burmese and even fewer foreigners knew about the Rohingya. Many Burmese would never have visited Maundaw, which is very remote, although Rakhine residents now and previously would have a good idea of the situation of the Rohingya there. In those days, little information about the Rohingya situation was carried in any media. So, for example, there was little domestic reporting of the Burmese army’s ruthless 1978 campaign against the Rohingya – Nagamin (“Dragon King”) – and the 1982 change of citizenship law (which denied citizenship to Rohingyas and a number of other ethnic minorities) was virtually ignored internationally (although not domestically). International opinion about the Rohingya not surprisingly (and not uniquely) had little impact.

Later, after 1988, under the SLORC/SPDC regime, which was deliberately and noticeably a more open regime, the Myanmar Government was more susceptable to outside pressure, although any pressure or criticism of government policy was usually unreported domestically. That was easy enough to achieve through the tight censorship which the military regime maintained more or less until 2010. (Censorship began at the time of Ne Win.) Negative publicity about anti-government protests, and communal violence and/or dissent, was exactly what SLORC/SPDC censorship was designed to squash. Access to Northern Rakhine State by other Burmese was still restricted as well.

From the early 1990s, in response to the exodus of Rohingyas into Bangladesh during 1991-92 and the eventual return to Myanmar of all but 28,000 of the expatriate Rohingyas, international organisations (UN agencies and international NGOs) set up relief and resettlement programs around Maungdaw, and were give permission to open offices there. Not surprisingly, most international agencies saw protection of Rohingya as their duty; some international NGOs were outright advocates on behalf of the Rohingya. From their earliest operations in Northern Rakhine, UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF and FAO frequently intervened with Myanmar authorities over the excessive restrictions targeting Rohingya (particularly, lack of freedom of movement).  International NGOs which were especially active include the “Arakan Project”, led by Dr Chris Lewa, and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Holland), each of which produced reports and submissions on the dire situation facing the Rohingya.  Many INGOs working in Maungdaw also actively defended Rohingya against ill treatment and discrimination. Media and other reports highlighting the Rohingya situation became frequent.

From early 1990s (i.e. soon after SLORC regime began),  concerns about the Rohingya began to feature in various UN reports and resolutions. For example, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar mentioned Rohingya in his report to Human Rights Commission in 2000; a UN General Assembly Resolution in December 1992 did likewise.  By 2003, the UNHCR Global Appeal for funds from governments and other sources, stated that: “another 2,700 asylum-seekers from Myanmar, primarily Rohingya and Chin, had also registered with the UNHCR”, signalling UNHCR’s intention to continue its support programs for these groups. However, most of these actions by UN agencies and bodies, and by INGOs, were not widely reported inside Myanmar in the days of government controlled media. One of the most comprehensive recent reports on the Rohingya situation is the Arakan Project ‘s  “Submission to UN Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar” in January 2011. [1]

International Agencies Defended Rohingya over their Lack of Rights

As early  as  1998, UNHCR presented a note to the Myanmar authorities, identifying issues of concern to it.  Significantly, the  provision  of citizenship to the “Rakhine Muslims” was included.[2] 

As Chris Lewa, said much later: “Denying citizenship rights to the Rohingya has served to legitimise discrimination and arbitrary treatment against them.” (Arakan Project, Submission to Human Rights Council UPR on Myanmar January 2011-12). But later, a UN Commission on Human Rights report in 2006 on the general rights of non-citizens failed to mention Rohingya by name. In the intervening time, Myanmar Government statements increasingly described the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants”, resisting international suggestions that they should be accorded citizenship. A typical report focusing on the Rohingyas’ almost complete lack of protections was “The Rohingya and the Denial of the ‘Right to Have Rights’”. [3]

International Advocacy Focused Almost Exclusively on Rohingya Suffering

The titles and manner of presentation of some of the main reports and articles on the Rohingya indicate unmistakeably the positions of the Rohingya advocates: for example, the Arakan Project ‘s Chris Lewa’s article “North Arakan: an open prison for Rohingya in Burma”. Other titles included: “Burning Homes, Sinking Lives”;  “The Rohingyas: Tears Down the Cheeks”.  Reports were often accompanied by graphic imagery of Rohingya suffering.  These reports and images had a significant impact on wider international opinion outside Myanmar.

Generally, international media coverage was not seeking objectivity or balance in their reporting. Even today, international media is not necessarily showing any greater knowledge or sensitivity on Rohingya; their sympathy almost automatically and overtly lies with the Rohingya.   Myanmar  Government attempts to restore law and order and calm the situation in Rakhine state from June 2012 received little foreign media support,  demonstrating that, underneath, international media still display deep distrust of the Myanmar Government. Some scholars are helping this advocacy through on-the-ground research and effective representations.

Changed Myanmar Media Handling Was Significant Factor in 2012

Under government censorship before 2010, the Myanmar press (mostly journals) did not report social issues in Rakhine State. Their coverage was similar to that in the official media. Even extent of international assistance for Rohingya was not reported domestically, and so at one point there was surprise amongst some Burmese to discover that 90% on international assistance to Myanmar at the time, went to the Rohingya.  One of the early Myanmar media complaints was that international assistance favoured the Rohingya! In fact, many other international donors were operating under some form of sanctions to limit their funding of other programs, for example economic or non-humanitarian assistance, to Myanmar.

A big change occurred after 2011, when censorship eased. Graphic reports of the June 2012 events in international and domestic media were very different from the normal anodyne coverage of domestic developments that Myanmar people were long accustomed to. Without censorship, Burmese media incited antagonism against Rohingya; occasionally, the government media was almost as bad in their hostility towards the Rohingya. Myanmar social media were also extremely active, with equally virulent views being expressed at times.  In earlier times, during the SLORC/SPDC period, Myanmar government ministers occasionally admitted that one of their worries in such situations was the propensity of the views and actions of “Buddhist extremists” to incite instability and violence.

There are no signs that this Myanmar media behaviour was influenced directly by international opinion. Moreover, pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, as well as some members of the Group of 88 Generation, to be more supportive of Rohingya, came as much from domestic and international media.

New Prominence of International Support for Rohingya

After the events of June and July 2012, we have seen the unusual situation where international media has seized an issue on which many Myanmar people might prefer silence.  Examples of very prominent international media attention include: a New York Times editorial “Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar” (14 July 2012); a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Matthew Smith entitled: “Burma Lets the Rohingya Burn”; a September 2012 Australian Broadcasting Commission item on ABC television arguing that separation of the two communities was a bad policy. What is noticeable is that the international media is reluctant to criticise the democracy movement on grounds of racism or prejudice

Another new phenomenon is the presence of international representatives of Islamic organisations and countries. Several Middle East countries now maintain embassies in Yangon.  In the case of organisations such as international Muslim organisations (e.g. the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, or  OIC) were invited to visit Rakhine State for first time. This suggest the Myanmar Government was concerned that its position might be interpreted as being anti-Muslim. They would have also been slightly concerned by some unofficial statement and reporting in support of the Rohingya from Muslim members of ASEAN (such as Indonesia).[4]

In the meantime, fairly strong statement of concern about the treatment of the Rohingya have emanated from Western Governments.  Foreign government statements supporting Rohingya (US, UK). Also further statements of support have been issued by human rights groups  such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Burma Campaigns, (UK etc.)

New Voice and Space for Rohingya Groups Around World

One additional new factor which will also help ensure the Rohingya issue does not disappear is the new-found voice and space that expatriate Rohingya organisations have begun to exploit for themselves. There is now a large number of Rohingyas resettled overseas, in the UK, US and Australia, and they have started a visibly higher level of political action in support of their claims for support. ARNO Arakan Rohingya National Organisation  (UK), the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), and the Burmese Rohingya Association of Australia. In July 2012, for the first time ever two separate groups of Rohungya demonstrated peacefully outside parliament house Canberra, and outside the Myanmar Embassy in Canberra.


It is debatable whether or not the deliberate inter-twining of efforts to increase humanitarian support for the Rohingyas and advocacy for their status to be fully recognised has been a successful strategy. Morally, perhaps, there was never much choice for those concerned for the Rohingyas; they could hardly argue for one cause and not the other. But this inter-twining probably increased many times the likelihood that the strategy would encounter tacit, if not explicit, some opposition within Myanmar.

Ultimately the question is what will this increased international attention and increased capacity for international advocacy by Rohingyas themselves achieve. So far, few concrete results have been recorded. An “International Conference on the Plight of the Rohingya, September 2012” was held in the UK but did not come forward with any memorable proposals.

Given the Rohingya problem carries such historical, social and cultural complexities, it is unlikely that it can be resolved by international intervention of some form.  Indeed, it may even be the case that international attention makes the problem worse, adds to domestic divisions and tensions, and disappoints when it fails to lead to real progress. Moreover, highlighting the issue in the way it has been publicised and depicted, tends to undermine Myanmar’s broader reforms and challenge the Myanmar Government’s best efforts to promote democracy and change amidst stability and harmony.   How that is a good outcome is hard to see, especially as the reform agenda and the Rohingya issue are not necessarily directly connected.

Yet at the moment it is difficult to be optimistic that domestic political action inside Myanmar  will achieve much progress.  President Thein Sein’s initiative to appoint a broadly representative Special Commission to enquire into the Rohingya problem might be a useful approach, but it offers no certainly of any better outcome.  The fact that no Rohingya representative was included on the multi-party commission has drawn the expected international criticism, but is not exactly surprising.

[1] Arakan Project, Submission to UN Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Reviews of Myanmar (January 2011), July 2010.


[2] “Evaluation of UNHCR’s role and activities in relation to statelessness”, UNHCR Evaluation And Policy Analysis Unit, Geneva,  2001.

[3] Bina D’Costa, Democratic Voice of Burma, 4 July 2012.

[4] Shibani Mahtani, “Muslim nations take on Myanmar over Rohingyas”, Wall Street Journal, 7 August 2012.