- Published: 20/11/2012 at 12:00 AM
- Writer: Fuadi Pitsuwan
At the heart of the conflict is the Rohingya's lack of protection from the state because they are not considered Myanmar citizens, despite having lived in the country for several generations. Buddhist Rakhines view the Rohingya with suspicion, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who refuse to speak the Burmese language and embrace the local culture.
To be fair, many who claim to be Rohingya are illegal immigrants and it is extremely difficult to determine who are real Rohingya and who are illegal settlers from Bangladesh.
Muslim countries are very interested in seeing better treatment of the Rohingya by the Myanmar authorities who are accused by international human rights organisations of favouring the Buddhists in the conflict. Turkey's first lady Emine Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Rakhine state in August, which led to widespread international media coverage of the conflict and jolted the Islamic world into paying attention.
Jusuf Kalla, former vice-president of Indonesia and current chairman of the Indonesian Red Cross, made it a personal crusade and led Indonesia's efforts to try and persuade the Myanmar government to find a peaceful settlement to the Rohingya issue. Saudi Arabia has called the conflict "ethnic cleansing" against the Muslim Rohingya and King Abdullah reportedly ordered $50 million in aid to be sent to the Rohingya community. Iran also spoke out against the treatment of the Rohingya and called on all Muslim countries and international organisations to take swift actions to stop the "genocide" in Rakhine state.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc of 57 Muslim countries, sent a high-level delegation to Myanmar and has continued to be vocal on the issue. According to its secretary-general, the OIC sent a letter to the White House encouraging President Obama to raise the Rohingya issue with Myanmar's leaders during his trip to the country, the first ever visit by a sitting US president.
This solidarity within the Islamic world is unprecedented. Muslim nations are speaking with one voice and that voice favours the protection of human rights.
While some of these countries may be using the issue to deflect attention from their own flawed human rights policies, the plight of the Rohingya has created a common position among these Muslim countries. More importantly, these interests coincide with values traditionally espoused by the Western world.
It is imperative that the White House recognise this opportunity resulting from this shared interest. The US may equivocate when questions related to the Arab-Israeli conflict arise.
Turkey would rather avoid questions when asked about the government's harsh treatment of its critics and Kurdish political activists. Indonesia dissembles when asked about discrimination against its Christian minority. Saudi Arabia would rather not talk about women's rights at home, while Iran continues to speak out against intervention in Syria despite mass killings by the Assad regime. But all these countries agree that the Muslim Rohingya deserve basic human rights and better treatment from the Myanmar authorities.
US concern for the plight of the Muslim Rohingya will demonstrate that it is not in conflict with the Islamic world. The US can use this opportunity to work with Muslim countries to promote tolerance and respect for human rights in Rakhine state.
In his speech at Yangon University yesterday Mr Obama urged an end to the sectarian unrest saying that there was no excuse for violence against innocent people.
But the president should go further and develop the emerging shared values evident in the world's response to this conflict. (Of course, he must do so delicately without making the Buddhists feel like scapegoats.)
Islam and the West can find common ground in Rakhine state. It could well be that the road to reconciliation between Islam and the West will pass through this abject region in the westernmost part of Myanmar.
Fuadi Pitsuwan is is a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, and a Belfer IGA Student Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. The article originally appeared in the Pacific Forum CSIS Pacnet series.