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A Public Forum on “Myanmar’s Rohingya Question: Domestic Consequences and Regional Implications”

 “Myanmar’s Rohingya Question: 

Domestic Consequences and Regional Implications”

Friday, 7th March 2014 at 08.30 – 11.30 a.m.

The Chumbhot-Pantip Conference Room, 4th Floor Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University



Videos: Myanmar’s Rohingya Question: Domestic Consequences and Regional Implications

Myanmar’s Rohingya Question: Domestic Consequences and Regional Implications 1/3:

Myanmar’s Rohingya Question: Domestic Consequences and Regional Implications 2/3:

Myanmar’s Rohingya Question: Domestic Consequences and Regional Implications 3/3:


If you wish more detailed information concerning this seminar please click



Introductory Remarks:
H.E. Ambassador Philip Calvert
the Canadian Ambassador to Thailand

H.E. Ambassador Philip Calvert noted that many the images and stories which regularly come out of Rakhine state are very disturbing and that the Rohingya issue has created ongoing challenges for Myanmar and its neighbouring countries.

Ambassador Calvert praised Myanmar for the positive changes in the last few years, particularly in human rights, media rights and international engagement. However, Canada is still deeply concerned by the ethnic violence in the country, notably towards the Rohingya. The rights of all individuals must be respected and humanitarian organisations must have access to provide assistance when and where it is needed. The need to protect the safety of Rohingyas also extends to the countries that they land in as refugees.

He noted that conferences like this are aimed at creating fruitful debate and charting a path to a sustainable future for the Rohingya people.


Mr. Greg Constantine, Photographer and Author

Mr. Greg Constantine has been photographing the plight of the Rohingya people since 2006 as part of his project Nowhere People which documents the lives and conditions of stateless peoples and ethnic minorities.

He noted that when he started this project there were very few people focused on the struggles faced by the Rohingya. However today the plight of the Rohingya is well known and their struggles are firmly in the spotlight, particularly the denial of their fundamental rights and right to citizenship by the Myanmar government.

Mr. Constantine said that in his experiences throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, the Rohingya people are facing the most extreme conditions of statelessness and marginalisation that he has seen. They are denied the rights to get married, to have freedom of movement and many are forced into forced labour. Therefore, his photographic exhibitions are aimed at clearing perceptions and creating context to understand the plight of the Rohingya people. 


Dr. Jacques Leider Expert on Rakhine, Ex-Head of EFEO in Yangon/Chiang Mai and Counsellor, Embassy of Luxembourg to Thailand

Dr. Leider began by highlighting the limited and narrow approach often adopted when people examine the situation in Rakhine State. This approach is generally based on the immediate legal and humanitarian challenges of the Rohingya people. He believes that a broader and more inclusive view of the historical background of the conflict should be embraced, particularly one which focusses on the deeply-rooted competition over identity between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya.

The current perception is largely ‘black-and-white.’ It paints Muslim Rohingya victims against racist Buddhist Rakhine perpetrators. We read about serious discrimination faced by Rohingyas, their statelessness, lack of citizenship rights and the increasing persecutions they face. Their plight has attracted wide-spread international sympathy.

However, Dr. Leider argues that we need to hear from the other sides of the debate. The Buddhist Rakhine are often portrayed as anti-Muslim with genocidal ambitions, and thus have been excluded from the debate. Also, this is a triangular conflict, with the government also playing a major role. They have been accused of corruption and colluding with perpetrators. To understand and ultimately work towards finding solutions to the conflict, an inclusive approach which takes in the views of all stakeholders is essential.

The narratives are very simplified as there is often an omission of historical background. The Rakhine and Rohingya actually share many challenges going forwards, such as poverty, state oppressions and lack of socio-economic development. However, historically, both the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingyas also have experienced significant traumas.

The ‘Rohingya identity’ emerged in Rakhine State as a result of decolonisation and nationalism processes during the 1950s. Initially the Rohingyas could be categorised as a politically motivated militant guerrilla group, however by the 2000s they adopted a moderate political discourse. In their quest for self-determination, Rohingyas co-opted Burma’s Islamic historical narratives as their own. For the Rakhine, there is still a deep collective memory of the conquest of their kingdom by the Burmese and their marginalisation under the British. This has fostered a sense of siege mentality, a feeling of isolation, and a complete inability to get recognition.

In Rakhine State, both Buddhists and Muslims are suffering. Dr. Leider believes that we must move beyond the current discourse of negativity and simplicity, towards one which takes into account historical narratives and competing identities.


Ms. Gwen Robinson Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand Senior Asian Editor, Nikkei Asian Review

Ms. Robinson spoke about the narrow scope of reporting on the Rohingya and other humanitarian issues in Myanmar. She believes that the media representation of the conflict in Rakhine State has often been based on misinformation, sensationalism and factoids rather than in-depth investigative journalism.

Ms. Robinson noted three particularly striking cases; first, in January reports emerged of an alleged massacre in Northern Rakhine. The Myanmar government has insisted that no Rohingya were killed, New York Times reported that 22 died while the UN believes that figure stands at 40. The reality is that two months later, we do not know what actually happened.

Second, the conditions of and motivations for the expulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières is another confused affair. Various media reports suggested that they had been completely forced out of Myanmar, whereas the reality is that they had only been removed from Rakhine State.

Third, headlines featuring claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘systematic genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ by some NGOs and humanitarian groups have exacerbated the problem of misinformation about the situation in Rakhine. For instance, a report from Fortify Rights was leapt upon by the media who reported that ethnic cleansing aimed at curbing Rohingya rights were policies of the current government. However, the source material for this claim was local or state government edicts released between 1993 and 2008 which are no longer relevant.

Ms. Robinson suggested every aspect of the media should take on more responsibility by recognising that these kinds of unsubstantiated or misinformed reports can trigger violence and fuel resentments which may actually cause more deaths and injuries through retaliatory attacks.


Dr. Kyaw Yin Hlaing Director of the Peace Dialogue Program, Myanmar Peace Center

Dr. Kyaw Yin Hliang noted that the situation in Rakhine State is very volatile, even a small incident has the capacity trigger an immediate riot. In his travels around Myanmar in the past 24 months, Dr. Kyaw feels that Rakhine State is the only truly dangerous place in the country. 

The heart of the current conflict is grounded in a very high level of distrust. There is a lack of trust between Muslims and government officials as well as a lack of trust between the communities in Rakhine State.  

Tensions have existed in these communities for a long time. Generations have grown up hearing stories of how their ancestors have been targeted and marginalised by their opponents or the government. The distrust is deep down, woven into the fabric of the community. But the real source of the current level of hatred is the manipulation of these historical communal narratives by hardliners and troublemakers from both sides. While there are good people and bad people in both communities, it is the hardliners who are driving the wedge between the Buddhists, Muslims and government, provoking people to violence and taking advantage of the distrust in the state.

According to Dr. Kyaw, the citizenship issue is quite complex. He personally believes that the stateless Muslims in Rakhine State should be granted citizenship, a view shared by many in Rakhine State and Myanmar. The trouble arises when there is a distinction between ethnic nationality and citizenship; under Myanmar law ethnic groups can be granted a degree of autonomy from the central and local governments. So Buddhists in Rakhine State are concerned that if citizenship is granted to Muslims, a part of the Rakhine State will be taken away. Dr. Kyaw stressed that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, but because of the inherent distrust in the communities a workable resolution to this issue is not immediately forthcoming.

When speaking about finding solutions to this issue, Dr. Kyaw noted that international assistance is definitely needed, but NGOs, foreign governments and International Organisations need to go into Rakhine State with open minds. It is not only Muslim people who require humanitarian assistance, but also Buddhist Rakhine who need development assistance. Furthermore, IOs and NGOs seem to have a tendency to want to rush reconciliation. Before reconciliation is a possibility, but there needs to be great strides taken to improving education.

Dr. Kyaw believe that rumours are killing people on both sides, literally. Exaggerations and misinformation are exacerbating the situation and deepening the distrust. Dr. Kyaw emphasised the point that the truth and trust are the essential ingredients for peace and reconciliation in Rakhine State. However, until Buddhists, Muslims, the government and international observes start working together to build the conditions for trust, a peaceful future is unlikely to be a forthcoming reality.


Audience Questions and Comments

Following the presentations was vibrant debate, and passionate questions and comments from the audience.

Members of the Rohingya community shared some of their experiences from Rakhine State. Existing issues currently facing the Rohingyas include poor access to healthcare, the lack of opportunity to attend secondary or tertiary school, and their restricted travel rights. They shared stories of their fears of genocide and terrorism, the imprisonment of their leaders, and their feelings of helplessness.


What is the reason for the seemingly poor quality in media representations of Myanmar?
Ms. Gwen Robinson:
Media restrictions have only recently been lifted in Myanmar, so journalists, bloggers, and human rights groups are testing the limits of their freedoms. In some ways this is positive, but when extreme views are being espoused it is often not so helpful. Furthermore, there are many new journalists in what is a relatively new profession, so for some there may be doubt over what is a reliable or dubious source. Finally, so long as government reports remain restricted or opaque, the media will continue to rely on sensationalist and rumour driven content.

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