As the world lashes out against Rakhine, Myanmar’s southwestern coastal state and the port of origin of the refugee crisis in the Bay of Bengal, Outlook speaks to Maung Maung Ohn, chief minister of the state. Sitting in his office at the state secretariat in capital Sittwe, in his first-ever interview to any international media, Ohn took out nearly two hours from his busy pre-election schedule to answer questions through his interpreter Khain Kyaw Htoo, discussing what has been referred to as the biggest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.
How do you respond to the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in your state?
There are two major ethnic groups in the state of Rakhine, those who have inhabited this land for a very long time and those who migrated from another country, the Bengalis. Myanmar has accepted the outsiders and has agreed to give them citizenship and provide them with national cards but they insist on being given a special status and want the name ‘Rohingya’ mentioned in their identity proofs. There is no persecution. Just that the Myanmar government doesn’t agree to the use of the word ‘Rohingya’ in official national documentations.
Why do you object to it?
First, it poses great difficulties for the government. Any ethnic group demanding this kind of recognition must establish their origins. Even if that is done, incorporating it into the records entails lengthy administrative and legal changes. The term ‘Rohingya’ was not mentioned anywhere before the ’50s or ’60s. Additionally, granting such special status has other significant implications. It would entitle them to special social, political and even legal benefits. If they are given this privilege, their next step will be to demand separate statehood.
If others in Myanmar have the freedom of movement, why is the movement of Rohingyas being restricted? Why are they in concentrated camps?
There has been communal violence in the state. Not just 2012 but in 1942 they had carried out a genocide in north Rakhine and an entire village was wiped out. Over 2,000 Rakhine people, including old men and women as well as children, were killed. The people of Rakhine continue to be afraid of them. They run away from them whenever they see them.
How long will they be confined?
We are in the process of verifying their identities. Infiltration of illegal immigrants is a reality in most countries in the world. It is the same here and there is movement both in and out of the country. We need to check that and it takes careful scrutiny to distinguish between genuine citizens and illegal migrants.
How are you making that distinction?
In the absence of papers and documentation, one of the most important distinguishing characteristics is physical features.
What about their right to vote?
Not immediately. It can be done once the process is completed. The Myanmar government has been urging them to respect and follow the law of the land. But they want to insist only on one thing, this in turn is delaying the process further.
If there is no persecution, why are so many people fleeing by boat and becoming sea refugees?
The people on the boat are believed to be victims of human trafficking. Some bodies were discovered in Thailand and the government there took stern action against human smuggling and closed the channels. After this crackdown, the boats that were headed there were abandoned midway. Of two boats carrying 208 and 733 people respectively that reached Myanmar, 200 of the first boat and 546 of the second boat were found to be carrying Bangladeshi nationals. We have taken all the Myanmaris back.
Myanmar has been widely criticised by the world community for being at the source of this humanitarian crisis.
In fact, when other countries were returning the boats, we were amongst the first to welcome them. Incorrect information has been disseminated by the international media and the world community. Myanmar never turned away the boats. We are all human beings and stay on the same planet. Our first and only consideration is humanitarian. We believe that every person should have a country, no one should be stateless. We have accepted all those who claimed to be from Myanmar. People should come here and see the real situation instead of sending out false reports. We are disappointed with the international media and organisations criticising us without bothering to find out the whole story.
The United Nations calls it the biggest humanitarian crisis?
The UN is doing an excellent job in providing humanitarian relief to people irrespective of their nationality and nothing can be more important. But no one should blame Myanmar as though this tragic situation was our creation. We are as much aggrieved by the human suffering as anyone else.
Yet minorities in Myanmar feel persecuted?
That is not correct. In Myanmar, minorities coexist harmoniously. There are four major religious groups, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. But we cannot have separate laws for them, they must abide and follow the law of the land. The majority Buddhists are known for their love for peace. Religion teaches us tolerance, not to kill and harm people.