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'More economic than religious'

Interview: Shamil ShamsJune 4, 2015

The general perception about Myanmar's Rohingya conflict is that it is a religious issue. Analyst Siegfried O. Wolf, however, believes the crisis is more politically and economically driven.

People wait as more people displaced by the recent violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya in Kyuk Phyu township. People moved with their belongings by boats to Thae Chaung refugee camp on October 28, 2012 on the outskirts of Sittwe, Myanmar (Photo: Kaung Htet/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

DW: Could there be a domestic solution to the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar? What are the impediments to achieving it?

Siegfried O. Wolf: The Rohingyas are a predominantly Muslim community located in Myanmar's eastern Rakhine state. They have a population of around one million people, but they are not the largest group in this state. The Rakhine, who are Buddhists, are in the majority. The Rakhine community as a whole feels culturally discriminated, economically exploited, and politically sidelined by the central government, which is dominated by ethnic Burmese. In this particular context, the Rohingyas are perceived by the Rakhine people as additional competitors for resources and a threat to their own identity, which is the main cause of tension in the state and has led to numerous armed conflicts between the two groups.

Furthermore, the Rakhines feel politically betrayed, as the Rohingyas do not vote for their parties. This has created more animosities between the two ethnic groups. The government, instead of fostering reconciliation, is supporting Rakhine Buddhist fundamentalists in order to safeguard its interests in the resource-rich state. These factors are the major reasons behind the rise of intercommunal, interethnic and interreligious conflicts, as well as the worsening of Rohingyas' living conditions and socio-political rights in the state.

Siegfried O. Wolf
Siegfried O. Wolf: 'The crisis can only be solved through regional cooperation'Image: Siegfried Wolf

In short, a domestic solution to the Rohingya problem would only be possible if Myanmar's ruling elite and decision-makers change their mindset. But the struggle over the state's resources, benefits from development projects and the exponential rise of Buddhist fundamentalism might not allow that change to happen.

Why are Myanmar's Buddhists against Rohingyas? Is it only a religious problem or is there more to it?

Interreligious relations are very complex in Myanmar. Muslims, especially the Rohingyas, are confronted with a deeply-entrenched Islamophobia in a predominantly Buddhist society and state. The fundamentalists claim that the country's Buddhist culture and society are under siege by Muslims, even more so when Myanmar is surrounded by many Islamic countries, like Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Rohingyas are seen as a threat to Buddhist lifestyle and faith as well as a gateway to Myanmar's Islamization.

But there is an economic aspect to the issue, too. Rakhine state is one of the country's poorest areas, despite being rich in natural resources. The Rohingyas are thus considered an additional economic burden on the state, as they compete for the few available jobs and opportunities to do business. The jobs and businesses in the state are mostly occupied by the Burmese elite. As a result, we can say that Buddhist resentment against the Rohingyas is not only religious; it is also political and economically driven.

Will the parliamentary elections at the end of this year help improve Rohingyas' condition?

I fear that the 2015 parliamentary elections will rather worsen the situation for the Rohingyas. We might witness a kind of "ethno-cultural outbidding" among competing Buddhist nationalist politicians at both the state and the national levels.

It is likely that mainstream political parties will try to outbid each another by playing on the insecurities of different ethnic communities. The electoral rhetoric and strategies will be determined by a support for a rigid and populist anti-Muslim attitude and a systematic marginalization of the Rohingya minority. As a result, the polls will likely bring to power a central government which will continue the policy of excluding Rohingyas from social and political life as well as from the distribution of national resources. All this would force more Rohingyas to flee the country.

Is the democratization process in Myanmar helping the Rohingyas?

The process so far has not yielded any noteworthy improvements for the community. Myanmar's politics proves how a democratic process can establish a majority regime with no concern for the country's minorities. Myanmar has a political system that is based on majority rule without any institutionalized minority protection.

However, there was much hope that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi would change the situation and work for a more inclusive political culture. But the Nobel laureate has surprised political observers by maintaining a disturbing silence regarding the plight of the Rohingyas.

I think that substantial reforms in the country's electoral system might help the minorities, but the majority groups will resist any such move.

Could there be a regional solution to the crisis? What role can ASEAN play in this regard?

The crisis can only be solved through regional cooperation, and ASEAN offers a fine platform for that. But the bloc's effectiveness in resolving the ongoing Rohingya crisis will be limited. The ASEAN countries have been affected by this crisis in different ways; therefore these member states have a limited political will and interest in the crisis. Also, ASEAN's founding principles do not allow the organization to interfere with issues dealing with national sovereignty of the member states. However, the grouping can still promote transnational cooperation to resolve the Rohingya issue.

Myanmar's Rohingya refugee Mohammad Jakariya with his Burmese Id and new ID of UNHCR in a refugee camp in Delhi
Myanmar stripped the Rohingyas of citizenship rights in 1982Image: Nirmal Yadav

Did the recent Bangkok conference on the Rohingya issue achieve any substantial results?

There was no major breakthrough in the conference, but we can say that the meeting was a crucial first step in the right direction. First, the conference initiated a dialogue between the South and Southeast Asian states. Second, it was the first time that the participating states exchanged their views in a comprehensive manner on how to tackle the illegal migration problem and were able to come up with a joint proposal on how to deal with it. Third, the US, Australia and Japan pledged financial assistance for temporary shelter, food and other urgent needs of the refugees as well as humanitarian aid for the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The Bangkok conference, however, not only failed to come up with a short-term commitment, but also lacked any substantial long-term strategy to deal with the Rohingya crisis. Also, due to ASEAN's appeasement policy toward Myanmar, the conference could not address the root cause of the crisis: the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Siegfried O. Wolf is a director of research at Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), and a researcher at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.