A storm of criticism has flared again over Myanmar's treatment of ethnic Rohingya - and its request to the United Nations refugee agency last week to resettle more than half a million of them to countries overseas.
But Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – who told Myanmar’s President Thein Sein it was not possible to deport the Rohingya – tried to play down the affair in an exclusive interview in Bangkok on Friday.
Guterres agreed that the Rohingya – Muslims of Bangladeshi ethnic origin at the centre of repeated crises in western Rakhine State – have endured “dramatic discrimination” and that their plight “deserves a message of humanity from the international community”.
But he had only words of encouragement for Thein Sein’s reformist regime.
“We have witnessed recently an eruption of some dramatic forms of violence – inter-community violence [in Rakhine State] – and this has led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people; and to a dramatic humanitarian situation for many of them.
“There is still high tension on the ground. And I believe it’s important to help calm things down – to urgently deliver humanitarian aid without discrimination to the two communities, and at the same time to seriously promote a true reconciliation process.
“I had the opportunity in my visit to also suggest that, independently of the improvements that the Nationality Law might deserve, it would be important to effectively grant Myanmarese nationality to all those members of the Muslim community that have the right to it according to the law. And to find for the other members of the community a legal status allowing them to enjoy fully the rights that are necessary to lead a normal life.”
The Rohingya have been denied citizenship amid claims they are “Bengalis” from Bangladesh. The request was rejected, with the UNHCR chief and staff at pains to explain it was impossible to do this, because the Rohingya were not refugees – they had not fled conflict or persecution across borders.
Treatment of the Rohingya has been condemned by some as ethnic cleansing and a state-sanctioned pogrom. Denied citizenship by Ne Win’s government in 1982, tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh and taken to boats in recent years in search of a new life in Malaysia and other lands because of despair at their lack of rights – an inability to travel for work, or simply to marry – and a suffocating cycle of extortion and abuse by officials in Rakhine State.
Last month, at least 80 people were killed in riots between Buddhist and Muslim communities, which caused a state of emergency to be declared. Thousands saw their homes burnt and have been forced to shift to temporary shelters.
Guterres said: “It’s important to realise that Myanmar is now leading a very important and positive period of transition that many people would not have thought possible just a few years ago. In this visit, to both Myanmar and Thailand, I had the opportunity to discuss perspectives of closing the chapter in a dignified way … of the Myanmarese refugees in Thailand. And this is possible today thanks to the determined way in which the Myanmar government is conducting a peace process.
“Ten ceasefires have been established. One ceasefire is being negotiated for Kachin State and there is a very clear commitment to not only peace building, which deserves the support of the international community.”
Speaking after a meeting with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the UNHCR chief called on Western governments not to cut support for refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border, saying it is of “vital importance” funding be maintained till the 140,000 people in nine border camps can return.
Guterres was “very grateful” to the Thai government for hosting the refugees for nearly three decades and the fact it “recognises that no push should be made – that the voluntary character of the return should be respected, and that the safety and dignity of the refugees in that return should be a paramount concern”.
He gave no indication of when the refugees may be able to return – that depended on establishing conditions on the other side “to allow all people to feel that it’s safe to go back, and that they can rebuild their lives in a sustainable way”.
But he was encouraged by the Thai government’s “very open attitude in relation to a number of proposals to improve the conditions of the refugees” and “constructive attitude in preparation for what we hope will be a solution for one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world”.
The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which raises more than $30 million a year to supply food and materials to the camps, has been forced to cut rations for the refugees as European nations scale back donations amid a push to support projects inside Myanmar.
Guterres said: “I’d like to make a very strong appeal to the international community to maintain the support to humanitarian action in the camps … until the process is concluded.
“I want people to go back when conditions are met for them to return, to be reunifying. I don’t want people to go back fleeing any aggravation if their conditions are intolerable. So the support of the international community to members of the consortium that has been operating in the area should be maintained at the present moment. That is of vital importance to the success of this whole operation.”
With acute crises in Syria, South Sudan, Mali and the Congo, the world badly needed good news. The peaceful “evolution” in Myanmar, thus, “very encouraging”.
“That evolution should be cherished and supported by the international community, not only in a humanitarian dimension but all things that relate to the empowerment of the country and the welfare of the people, allowing for democracy to emerge and to consolidate.
“What I hope is that these excellent signals – signs – that I have described will also, with time, allow for a positive development of the situation in Rakhine state.”