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‘Myanmar must recognise Rohingyas as citizens’

Vijay Nambiar of India served as the United Nations’ special advisor on Myanmar from January 2012 to December 2016. In this capacity, he played a key role in supporting Myanmar’s transition to democracy. He was also the main UN voice on the Rohingya issue. Previously, he served as chief of staff of the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, a position he held from 2007 to 2012. A member of the Indian foreign service, Nambiar served as his country’s ambassador to Pakistan, China and Afghanistan.

Prothom Alo’s special correspondent for the US Hasan Ferdous spoke to him on Sunday in New York.

Prothom Alo: You have visited the Rakhaine State several times. How would you describe the situation there?

Vijay Nambiar: I have not been to the Rakhaine State for quite some time, certainly not since 9 October 2016. After the 2012 violence (against the Rohingya Muslims), I was the first international (person) to visit the place. I also inspected the camps in Mongdaw, where the “boat people” rescued from the sea were given shelter.  Thus, I have seen the desperation as well as the complexities of the issue. During the (previous military government), I had been trying to impress them that unless they were more sensitive and tackled the problem in terms of their root causes, including citizenship and status, there was a danger that the situation could be further radicalised.

PA: I believe, after your last visit, you said there have been targeted killings.

VN: No, not after the last visit. I did say of targeted killings after the 2012 visit. That year in October, there were some targeted killings. It was very difficult to distinguish between common civilians and others.  Due to this, there was a danger of targeted killing.

PA: The international press have reported extensively about looting, burning and even incidents of rape, not just in the past but now.

VN: Yes, but these have also been denied by the local people. It was very difficult to get accurate information which could be verified independently. Much of the information has been filtered through the government, and the government has fiercely denied such accusations, especially rape.  We got some reliable information from outside, which said there were no reports of rape, initially for the first few weeks. Then suddenly these reports started appearing. I do agree, as repercussions, there could be attacks against women and children. But whether these were deliberate, I have not been able to independently confirm.

PA: The head of UNHCR in Dhaka called the military action against the Rohingyas a genocide.

VN: No, he did not. He did say there was ethnic cleansing, but did not use the word genocide. UNHCR later said it was his personal view and did not reflect the position of the organisation.

PA: Are you saying that things have got better?

VN: There has not been an escalation of violence, although the security forces feel threats of attack against them still remain.  Therefore, the lockdown they have imposed in the area has continued. Even though they have said the media and some of the agencies would be allowed to go in. It has been kind of an up and down situation.  There is effectively a lockdown, and the local people continue to face anxiety and uncertainty.  They are simply frightened, they are worried how long this would continue.  I think there is a need for the government to take pro-active action to reassure the local community. While they can legitimately take action against those who pose a security threat, that should not be visited on the entire population.  And the civilian population needs assurance that they would be protected.

PA: You briefed the Security Council on 17 November. Some reports say you advised the council members to go easy on Myanmar.

VN: No, I did not say that. What I said was that the lady (Aung San Suu Kyi) said she needed space and time, and I said, yes, she needed time and space to address the issue. When she was at the United Nations in September last year, she assured her support for human rights and dignity for all the people in the country. She said she would stand firm against violence and intolerance. She reiterated her faith in fundamental human rights and dignity of human persons. She, in my view, is capable of taking action that would change the situation. She has the moral authority and political clout to bring about necessary change. If anything can be done, it has to be done by the government and by her.  I personally feel that she would do the right thing if she is given the confidence by the people.

PA: What about the army? Does she (Suu Kyi) enjoy support from the army in dealing with the situation?

VN: At the moment, the military is looking at it purely as a security threat. After all, every hammer looks for a nail. There has to be some pressure on the military to look at the larger political dynamics, not purely as a threat.   At the moment, I don’t think Aung San Suu Kyi is in a position to push the military far enough. But if anybody can do it, in my view, it is Suu Kyi. She would do the right thing.

PA: The government has formed an investigation team that has already denied any religious persecution.

VN: I think there is still institutionalised discrimination inside the country. The current situation (of not granting the Rohingyas citizenship) has created a (dangerous) situation. The constitution itself recognises 135 ethnic groups.  There has been recognition — by Aung San and her father — that there is a need for the country to come together as a nation. (Unfortunately) there is still strong resistance among the majority groups against smaller minority groups, and they need to overcome this.

PA: Former secretary general Kofi Annan who recently visited Myanmar seemed very soft on the government.

VN: I agree with him on some of his positions, both in terms of complexity of the issue and for the country, especially its leadership, to raise its moral voice to reassure the minority community and to allow greater access to humanitarian assistance and the media. I also agree with him that a resolution has to be found through a political process.  It should be done through soft pressure. I don’t think that using such labels like ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ can help. These charges cannot be thrown around loosely. Even some senior US state department officials have said unless handled carefully, the situation could be infested with extremists.  All efforts must be made to avoid the situation getting worse.

PA: Can you explain the issue of radicalisation?

VN: I think the situation can be handled better if looked at it politically. If the local population continues to feel beleaguered and desperate, then it becomes a fertile ground for radicalisation.

PA: What about a regional approach?

VN: The first regional approach has been through ASEAN. The Bali Process — adopted in 2002 and supported by 48 countries to deal with the refugee crisis — can be a useful tool. The approach that Malaysia has taken — of sending a flotilla — does not seem to be productive.  On the other hand, Indonesia has been working with Myanmar over the months and beyond, after the 2012 events. They have been actively sending various humanitarian assistances.

More importantly, it should be between Bangladesh and Myanmar to discuss bilaterally. I understand the government of Myanmar has said it would send a deputy minister to Dhaka for meetings, and they are looking for a time when this could take place.  The UN is also sending its Special Rapporteur (on the situation of human rights in Myanmar) Yanghee Lee.

PA: What would be your advice to the government of Bangladesh?

VN: I think Bangladesh has so far been very constructive. It has been very careful of not allowing the situation to aggravate. At the same time, I understand they are under pressure due to the influx of refugees.  As their number goes up, there would inevitably be pressure to give them (the refugees) humanitarian assistance and protection which over time could become not possible for Bangladesh. There has to be a bilateral agreement on resettling the refugees back in Myanmar. I believe that this was done (successfully) in the 1990s.

PA: So, where do we go from here and what would be the action plan?

VN: The first thing  that needs to be done by the government of Myanmar — from people at the top leadership position – is to reassure the people of the northern state of Rakhine, particularly its Muslim community, that their protection, safety and dignity would be ensured. And wherever there would be excesses committed, they would be dealt with in an exemplary manner so that the locals do not feel that they may become victims.

Secondly, there has to be credible way in which (this) investigation takes place.  The people need to be reassured that all government and security actions would be taken strictly in accordance with the law and in a transparent way and in a manner in which the international community is brought into the picture.  Unless that happens, there will be lingering doubts and questions of credibility.

Thirdly, the government has to address the root cause, the issue of citizenship.  I understand the majority of the Rohingyas have in the past been recognized (as citizens). That process of reassurance must start soon.  There has to be a sense of assurance among the Rohingyas that the government recognises them as citizens, and the minority would be given their due place in the country. Under a unified federal structure, minorities need to be given the assurance that they are as much part of the country as the rest.  This would create a sense of ownership and they would have participation in the governance of the country.

PA: Do you see a role for the UN?

VN: The UN is willing to play a role, but it has to be dealt with nationally. If the international community is involved — either through the UN or regional organisations — the credibility of the political process would be enhanced and this could lead to the resolution of the problem.

Hasan Ferdous

Prothom Alo