Priscilla Clapp on Burma’s ethnic minorities

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State in 2012.

Ms. Clapp is a retired Minister-Counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service. She is currently a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace. During her 30-year career with the U.S. government, Ms. Clapp served as Chief of Mission and permanent Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Burma (1999-2002), Deputy Chief of Mission in the U.S. Embassy in South Africa (1993-96), Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Programs (1989-1993), Deputy Political Counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (1986-88), and chief of political-military affairs in the U.S. Embassy in Japan (1981-85). She also worked on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, in the East Asian, Political Military, and International Organizations bureaus, and with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. She speaks Russian, Japanese, French, and some Burmese. Prior to government service, Ms. Clapp spent ten years in foreign policy and arms control research, with the MIT Center for International Studies and as a Research Associate at the Brookings Institution. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She was interviewed by Kimaya de Silva '17 on Feb. 18, 2016.

Could you tell us a little about your career and your work in Myanmar? How did you get interested in this particular humanitarian crisis?

During my final three years in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1999 to 2002, I was Charge d’Affaires in Rangoon, the Burmese capital. That is when I began my involvement with the country, which makes it close to 20 years now. When I retired in 2002, I knew there was a transition coming so I continued to work on Burma in my retirement and I continue that today.

Could you tell us a little bit about the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma?

The Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic minority that straddles the border between Burma and Bangladesh going back for centuries. A lot of them came to Burma during the British colonial period. Burma was part of the Raj during the British colonial period when there was a lot of free-flowing migration in the area, and many people of South Asian ethnic background were settled in Burma by the British. All of the Muslims in Myanmar today came from India or Pakistan &emdash; of course those borders were not drawn yet and the Bangladesh border did not exist then either. So, the Rohingya have a long history, as any tribal issue does. They don't have citizenship status outside of Myanmar, including even in Bangladesh where many Rohingya reside today.

When did these particular issues with Burma’s ethnic minorities start? What were its main causes?

There has been a problem with this minority in Rakhine state for a long time because they live close to a porous border, with a lot of movement back and forth across the border. In fact, most of the Rohingya do not speak Burmese, but rather a form of Bengali language, and many who are not educated have not assimilated into the population there. Therefore, they are looked on as foreigners even though these families have lived in the country long enough to qualify for citizenship. We would probably have the same issue here in the U.S. if we had a large immigrant population that never attempted to assimilate. Thus, rightly or wrongly, the Rohingya are viewed by the majority of Burmese as foreigners or recent immigrants. Those who have been there for more than a generation qualify for citizenship but not with the ethnic identity of “Rohingya.” The government’s requirement that they must identify as “Bengali” has wide popular support in the country. The Rohingya’s demand for recognition of their ethnic identity as a prior condition for achieving citizenship appears to have developed more recently and there is evidence that many of the Rohingya living in Rakhine state are not really the ones vocalizing this concern. Many living in Rakhine have been willing to forego the Rohingya identification for the sake of receiving naturalized citizenship.

There is a large Rohingya diaspora around the world that generally speaks for them in the international community. So what you hear on behalf of the Rohingya is often coming from the diaspora and not directly from the Rohingya people living in Rakhine, which makes it difficult to identify the starting point for solutions to this problem.

Am I correct in saying that this issue did not receive much attention from the international community until very recently?

That is correct. The plight of the Rohingya has been a concern for a long time without receiving much public attention. In the 1990s, Burmese security forces caused a large migration of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh from the northwest corner of the Rakhine state. More than a quarter of a million people moved back to Bangladesh because they were being attacked by the army, security forces or local population. That area of Rakhine state is predominantly Rohingya, so it must have been the security forces that were threatening them. They fled to Bangladesh, whose government turned to the U.N. for help. With support from the United States and other governments, the U.N. insisted that Burma should allow these Rohingya to be returned to their original area in Rakhine. The migrants were living in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh where they were refused citizenship or any form of legal residence. We, the United States, were a major funder for a substantial U.N. program led by the UNHCR, whereby they would be resettled and assisted to become economically independent back in Burma. It was a very difficult process because the Burmese government insisted on scrutinizing every one of them minutely and many of them didn't have proper documents. It took a very long time, but most of them were returned to Burma eventually.

At the same time economic conditions along the Burma border were very poor. The border guards on the Burmese side were deeply corrupt and could easily be bribed. It was relatively easy for undocumented migrants from Bangladesh to move back and forth. So there may well be some Rohingya who are more recently arrived in Rakhine as undocumented illegal immigrants. At the same time, a large portion of them is terribly poor and uneducated, and they have their own set of social problems. The elderly village chiefs and imams seem to hold women in contempt; some have multiple wives and many deny women the right to education. Recognizing the discrimination against women, the U.N. program made special efforts to develop educational opportunities for women so they could acquire skills to make money and improve their living conditions. Under these conditions, families also tend to have more children than they can support. Many babies are allowed to die from malnutrition. I have observed this myself and it is really heartbreaking. There are social, political and economic aspects of this problem that get lost in the international debate focusing narrowly on the IDP camps in Sittwe.

Do you think the efforts of the West, as a result of the media attention that this issue is getting, are making a difference?

Well it depends how you define it. The West consists of many different elements. There are the loud advocacy voices that have enormously exacerbated the problem in their efforts to bring attention to it. I object to the use of extreme words like "genocide," "holocaust," "crimes against humanity," and "ethnic cleansing" because that is not what this is. It is not Yugoslavia. But on the other hand there are lots of groups that are working very quietly in Burma to try and reach both sides of the problem in the Rakhine state, which is home to both the Rohingya and the Rakhine. A lot of work has to be done with the Rakhine themselves because they do not have a voice outside the country, so they feel they are being overpowered by the Rohingya diaspora that controls the international debate. Nobody speaks out for the Rakhine. The Rakhine themselves are an ethnic minority in the country; they are a legally recognized ethnic minority, also known as Arakan. They feel threatened by the Rohingya nomenclature debate, because with it comes a claim for autonomy inside the Rakhine state in the northwestern section. The Rakhine state is a very small and extremely poor state, so the Rakhine people don’t want to have it carved up. This is also a sensitive issue in other parts of Burma, especially Shan state, where there have been long-running civil wars between ethnic armies and the national army. Autonomous control over territory is a key objective of the fighting.

Another Muslim ethnic minority &emdash; called Kaman &emdash; has legal status in the Rakhine state. They have been there for a long time since they arrived with the invading Mongol horde in the 12th century. They are the remnants of Genghis Khan’s rampage through Burma and are now considered to be a native minority. While they generally live quite peacefully in the Rakhine state, some of the anti-Muslim violence has also been turned against them. The Kaman, however, are not seeking autonomous territory.

This is dispelling a lot of misunderstandings depicted by the media.

Absolutely. The history and detail behind this situation become quite distorted in the international debate and it is difficult to deal with all the misinformation.

Burma and the U.N. were heavily criticized for not recognizing the Rohingya Muslim minority as an ethnic group in the Burma Census. What are your thoughts on this?

At first the authorities seem to have been prepared to use the Rohingya identification in the census, but before it got underway, a popular uproar erupted, particularly among Rakhine. The authorities feared this might trigger a new wave of violence, so they stopped it for internal security reasons. Rakhine members of parliament brought that body into the debate, insisting that the Rohingya would have to identify as Bengali in the census. At any rate, because of this, many Rohingya refused to participate in the census and were therefore not counted. There were also some other minorities who were not recognized in the census. The government has started to introduce a national ID that does not contain any ethnic identity, calculating perhaps that this could be one step toward reversing the proliferation of separate minorities; but the main ethnic groups don't accept this. They want the identity given how it factors into their history and long struggles for autonomy. The question of identity becomes very difficult when there are around 135 officially recognized ethnic identities in the country, which are beginning to melt away in the face of widespread intermarriage. At the same time, the new freedoms, the peace process, and the ongoing national dialogue have brought the debate about autonomy and ethnic minority rights onto the center stage. The armed ethnic minority organizations are particularly militant about ethnic identity and they want their identity on these documents. People in the international community who tend to view the issue only through the lens of the Rohingya problem are often unaware of the complexities on the ground that the government is dealing with.

The presentation of the Rohingya migration crisis was very prominent in the international coverage of Burma. Could you tell us about this issue?

The migration was a separate issue. That was motivated as much by economic conditions as it was by repression. Many &emdash; eventually the majority &emdash; of these migrants turned out to be from Bangladesh. Some were even Rakhine. It is such a poor state that the Rakhine themselves often migrate to neighboring countries, especially Thailand and Malaysia, in search of work. Malaysia is also the favorite destination for Rohingya, in addition to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and other places to the west. Bangladesh and Thailand are usually way stations for Malaysia and beyond, but this was not just a Rohingya migration. It was much larger and the predominant push factor was economic. At first, many of the Rohingya were trying to join relatives in Malaysia, but other nationalities soon joined the outflow from Bangladesh and eventually became the majority of the migrants. These numbers were misrepresented in the foreign press and when they were later corrected by the U.N., little attention was paid to it.

An emergency international meeting was held in Bangkok to find ways to stem the migration and they focused particularly on the traffickers who were facilitating the boats and charging large fares. The traffickers were of several nationalities: Bangladeshi, Thai, Malaysian, Rakhine, and even Rohingya. So nobody is innocent here. In any big migration like that there is a dark underclass facilitating it and profiting from it. This is one of the issues that has to be tackled immediately in a mass migration. We can see this also in the Syrian migration to Europe; they are the victims of unscrupulous entrepreneurs who are profiting from it handsomely.

Did migrants fall prey to the hands of traffickers mostly on the shores of Thailand and Malaysia?

The migrants were headed for anywhere that they might make a better living. Some wound up in Indonesia but most wanted to get to Malaysia because they had relatives there, because it is a Muslim country, and because Malaysia has jobs. Malaysia apparently tolerates some of this illegal migration in order to fill a labor shortage. Some migrants become enslaved by Thai and Indonesian fishermen. In fact, I do not like to buy Thai seafood precisely because of this practice. Stores like Wholefoods even specify that their products are not from companies operating with slave labor. In the case of this boat migration, some senior government officials in Thailand and Malaysia were implicated in the trafficking and were subsequently arrested.

How would you evaluate the response of the Thai and Malaysian governments?

The Thai government in particular did respond effectively, pursuing and prosecuting the traffickers. The government actually identified either a police or an army general that was involved in some of the trafficking rings. Human trafficking, drug trafficking and arms dealing tend to go together, with the same groups of people involved. The issue needs to be addressed on an international level, but unfortunately it takes a crisis to make this happen. The international meeting in Thailand did succeed in stemming the trafficking for now and there has not been a resurgence this year. Furthermore, I think the Burmese are policing their shores more carefully so that people cannot get into boats and float out to sea from Burma. They would have to go to Bangladesh to take off, but Bangladesh is not a very hospitable place for foreigners right now.

What is the Bangladeshi government doing?

They are not doing anything and that is part of the problem. They are very unhelpful.

Burma now has a democratically elected government. Is the new government effectively led by Aung San Suu Kyi going to take more effective measures to deal with the source of the crisis?

Well, we are waiting to see what the new government will be and whether they will prioritize the Rohingya tragedy. I do hope that they will be able use their majority in the parliament to promote a solution. They will be in a position to pass new laws. They can get rid of the old repressive laws. They can actually reshape a lot of things. There are, of course, large areas such as the peace process where they will have to negotiate with the military and this will be very tough. However, there are other areas which will be under their control. I hope they will use their popularity to push for the development of a shared national identity, which has never existed in Burma. The peace process has now entered the stage of national dialogue that promises ultimately to define what the union of Burma means. People don't know yet how to think of themselves as a single nationality.

What needs to happen to resolve the Rakhine state and Rohingya issues?

Of course, the Rohingya problem and the peace process are two different things right now. The new government needs to pay attention to the Rohingya problem urgently. I think Aung Sung Suu Kyi is right to say that we have to approach it from a rule of law perspective. There needs to be a legal solution to this. They are going to have to deal with the citizenship system and the rights of these people. They are going to have to find ways to encourage economic development in the Rakhine state so people can live there peacefully together. And there must be substantial attention to education and mediation, which can be the task of civil society and NGOs, rather than the government. However, the government must facilitate this and create conditions in which it can happen. Right now it is very difficult to approach mediation, but the process has started and I am hoping that this is, at least in part, why we have not seen a resurgence of violence. People are watching the situation on the ground very carefully and producing early warning monitors to nip in the bud the false rumors that often spark violence. There also needs to be more balanced and compassionate policing.

There are already a lot of little activities taking place on the ground that do not make it into the news and I find this encouraging, because so much of the news reporting tends to provoke unhelpful reactions of violence.

The peace process itself is a different issue. Eventually it should pick up where it left off with the outgoing government. I expect that the new National League for Democracy government will broaden it. To date it has been largely in the hands of the armed forces; the army and the ethnic armed groups. This means that the agreements reached so far have focused primarily on the interests of the armies. I think the NLD will probably focus more on bringing political actors into a broad political dialogue. There will be some difficulties in this because I think the armies may still want to “own” the process. However, when you get into political dialogue it is not just the concern of the armed forces. Other concerns come into play and civilians must begin to lead the dialogue. I hope this is what will happen. In any case, we will see some restructuring of the peace process, with the attendant jockeying for position. Unfortunately, there is still quite a lot of fighting on the ground, with a lot of land and resources at stake. They tend to frame the problem as ethnic identity but in fact it is more a question of control over territory and resources.

Is there anything that we haven't addressed that you would like to add?

This is an extremely complex problem and there is not much reliable material, but if you keep digging you will find more and more little windows into the problem. One thing that I would recommend highly is a major study that was done recently by the Center for Diversity and National Harmony in Rangoon. CDNH is a Burmese NGO. They produced a publication called "The Rakhine State Needs Assessment," which can be found on their website. This has a detailed description of the situation there and it makes recommendations for resolving it. It is one of the most authoritative sources that you will be able to find. Because it is a Burmese study, the Rohingya are identified as “non-Kaman Rakhine Muslims” in order to avoid stimulating a local firestorm over nomenclature.

Recommended Reading

CDNH: The Rakhine State Needs Assessment

Priscilla Clapp’s writing on Myanmar

Kimaya de Silva CMC '17Student Journalist
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