The Lost Muslims of Myanmar

Rohingya migrants in Indonesia.

Photographer: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

The refugee disaster that recently gripped Southeast Asia has waned, as countries in the region have taken in thousands of the migrants who had been abandoned at sea by smugglers. But the crisis can be expected to return when the monsoon season ends and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's coastal Rakhine state once again try to flee persecution by the Buddhist majority. Governments need to work quickly to stem another exodus. 

After all, the refugee problem in Southeast Asia lends itself to resolution -- unlike the one in the Middle East, where brutal civil wars show no signs of ebbing. Waves of Rohingya migrants have fled Myanmar twice before, in the 1970s and 1990s, only to return, albeit under less-than-ideal circumstances. The goal now must be to create conditions under which they can thrive at home. 

While the Burmese government bears primary responsibility for this task, the challenge transcends Myanmar. More than half of the migrants rescued in May were Bangladeshi Muslims fleeing poverty. And the trafficking networks that exploit such migrants, often with the help of local officials and police, are based in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Australia, which has been justly criticized for turning away refugee boats from its shores, should instead be helping its neighbors coordinate intelligence and information sharing in order to disrupt these networks.

QuickTake Political Asylum

Would-be migrants turn to smugglers because they have no legal means of seeking work abroad. This is why all governments in the region should work out a more transparent guest-worker program, either through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or through bilateral labor agreements. Singapore, which has set up reasonably effective procedures for recruiting foreign laborers and established a minimum set of protections for them, provides a good model to build on. 

That said, Myanmar has a long way to go to improve the lot of the Rohingya, who still do not have full citizenship -- and thus the passports they would need to participate in any legal guest-worker program. The Rohingya’s roots are fiercely disputed, with some claiming they’re indigenous to Rakhine state and others insisting they migrated under the British during colonial times, if not more recently. Granting them political rights remains a third rail in Myanmar and will only become more so in the months leading up to elections this fall. But even if an immediate breakthrough isn't possible, the government can do  more to lay the groundwork for change. 

As some Burmese officials have suggested, concerned countries around the world could help by contributing to the development of Rakhine. Most outside aid is spent on humanitarian relief for the Rohingya who were displaced by riots in 2012. Donors could build much more goodwill by investing in health and development projects that benefit Buddhists as well as Muslims. The money could be offered with strings attached, including a requirement that Rohingya migrants who have been violently driven from their homes and farms be allowed to return. 

For its part, the Burmese government needs to do more to tone down the controversy over whether the Rohingya should be made citizens. Moderates on both sides should, for example, move to abandon the fraught and useless debate over whether the people should even be called "Rohingya" or whether they should be referred to instead as "Bengali." The hate speech from some high-profile Buddhist leaders has been tolerated too long. 

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's reluctance to speak out in defense of the Rohingya may be somewhat understandable ahead of the elections. But as she herself has noted, another outbreak of anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine could well disrupt the vote. It's in her interests and those of her supporters to tamp down anti-Muslim prejudice now, rather than store up problems for the next government, which her party is expected to dominate. By now it should be clear -- to her no less than to Myanmar's current leaders -- that the alternative would be tragic.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.