The recent crisis sparked by the mass escape of tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state to Bangladesh and East Asian countries is the latest manifestation of the oppression of the ethnic community by the Myanmar state and its sponsored groups. The Rohingya have been designated one of the most persecuted groups by the UN and the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a wing of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has warned that the Rohingya are facing genocide.
Despite all this, there has been a lackluster response by the International community, and from within Myanmar itself. Many of the countries that the Rohingya have set out to reach are either slow or completely refusing to accommodate them, leaving untold numbers stranded in the seas. The Myanmar authorities are refusing to even talk about the Rohingya, and recently a new law has been passed in the Rakhine state, in which Rohingyas have been specifically prohibited from having more than two children.
The Rohingya have been designated one of the most persecuted groups by the UN and the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a wing of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has warned that the Rohingya are facing genocide.
The Rohingya crisis is not one that is limited to the moral or humanitarian paradigm alone. The entire region that consists of Western Myanmar, Northeastern India and Bangladesh’s eastern borders is an unstable mix of ethnic insurgencies and communal tension. In the infamous Indian seven sister states, a host of insurgencies encompassing all the states are raging with mass attacks on civilians, and armed forces have expanded beyond the border with a purported Indian special forces raid inside Myanmar territory. In the adjacent Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh, tensions are high between the government and resident Buddhist hill tribes even after the 1997 accords that ended the Shanti Bahini conflict which started in 1977. In Myanmar itself, the Myanmar military or the Tatmadaw has been engaged in a bitter war with ethnic insurgents as well as narco-armies since the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1948.
This area is highly important as it is a border area for two members of the BRICS nations predicted to constitute the coming multi-polar world order. The recent bout of ethnic cleansing taking place in Rakhine will only worsen the situation, and could lead to even more destabilization of the region, as Myanmar’s internal conflicts become regionalized. Indeed, China had to intervene to pressurize ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels to call a truce with Naypyidaw since fighting restarted in February along the Chinese border.
Impact on ASEAN
The crisis could also adversely impact the Asia Pacific, which is projected to be the economic powerhouse of the near future. This crisis has the potential to weaken the ASEAN organization, which until now was considered the most successful regional organization after the EU. No unified or coordinated ASEAN response has been proposed or developed to address the deepening crisis. Rohingya refugees have tried to find asylum in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia but had been initially rebuffed; only Philippines agreed to grant them asylum. Malaysia and Indonesia later on agreed to temporarily accommodate 7000 Rohingya, but this decision was more bilateral than through the auspices of ASEAN. Furthermore, both countries have given responsibility to the International community as opposed to ASEAN to resettle the refugees.
Recently a new law has been passed in the Rakhine state, in which Rohingyas have been specifically prohibited from having more than two children.
The Kuala Lumpur summit which revolved around the Rohingya issue showed a lack of political unity: Myanmar did not attend, claiming that the migrants are Bangladeshis, absolving itself of any responsibility. Thailand’s military government participated, but despite the long reliance of the Thai economy on Myanmar refugees for cheap labor, insisted on the country’s status as a transit country. Malaysia and Indonesia alternately emphasized that the responsibility to resolve the crises lies with Myanmar, the region and the international community at large. Bangladesh had announced an official strategy to address the issue in 2014, but no progress has been made. The Rohingya crisis seems to show the weakness of ASEAN’s response as a regional organization to a humanitarian and political crisis.
Militarization of the Waterways
The primary route taken by the Rohingya refugees recently fleeing persecution is the maritime route. This prompted countries, who did not desire to accommodate the Rohingya, to deploy their naval forces to block and return refugee boats back into the open seas. This process could lead to a militarization effect on the South East Asian Sea in a similar fashion as to what is unfolding in the South China Sea. Just like the South China Sea, the South East Asian seas could become a flashpoint for several states as deployment of military forces at the frontlines could lead to new disputes of maritime boundaries.
The conflict over boundaries could not be limited to the regional countries. The Strait of Malacca, linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, is the shortest sea route between the Middle East and growing Asian markets. The Strait of Malacca, located between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. The Strait of Malacca is the shortest sea route between Persian Gulf suppliers and the Asian markets—notably China, Japan, South Korea and the Pacific Rim. Oil shipments supply China and Indonesia, two of the world’s fastest-growing economies, through the Strait of Malacca. It is the key chokepoint in Asia, and any tensions between states could easily allow global powers to send their fleets to police the region.
Radicalization and Rejuvenation of Transnational Militants
The Rohingya crisis could also rejuvenate various transnational militant actors. The Rohingya conflict and Buddhist-Muslim strife has the potential to radicalize the youth and fill the ranks of organizations like Jemaah Islamiya, Al Qaeda, and TTP. It could even provide an opening for Daesh into the Asia Pacific.
The plight of the Rohingya is forcing them to ally themselves with more radical forces such as the TTP.
Militant Rohingya insurgents have traditionally been seen as religious nationalists, fighting for rights, autonomy, and in some cases, independence. However new reports are emerging that the plight of the Rohingya is forcing them to ally themselves with more radical forces such as the TTP. The Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), formed in the early 1980s after the brutal Myanmar military operation known as Operation King Dragon , is reported to be in contact with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. One can find parallels with the just grievances of locals in Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria, which was manipulated by Daesh into consolidating its own fiefdom. The threat of a similar situation and entrance of a transnational actor of such magnitude will only further destabilize the already volatile region.
Piracy is also another phenomenon that has the potential to be aggravated by the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. South East Asia is the centre of the most widespread piracy in the world, leaving even the infamous Somali Pirates behind. The area is home to three-quarters of total piracy incidents worldwide, with 183 actual and attempted incidents reported last year. Unlike the Somali pirates that operate off the Horn of Africa, now largely thwarted by a strong international naval presence, the hijackers of Southeast Asia are not in the business of kidnap and ransom. All hijacking incidents reported in the waters off the coast of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore over the last 16 months have involved small product tankers under 51m long, targeted for their cargo.
The current situation has forced thousands of desperate people into sea vessels that are now stranded in the open seas. They have already been preyed upon by smugglers and other criminal elements. They could also be co-opted by pirates who could use them as bait to draw in humanitarian vessels and other sea traffic.
Buddhist Saffron Terror
The Rohingya conflict also has uncovered a new phenomenon – the rise of the Buddhist variant of Saffron terror. While Saffron terror is mostly related to Hindu groups operating in India and Nepal, the Buddhist variant has become active in the last two decades. In Myanmar, notorious anti Muslim Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu and the 969 movement are the face of Buddhist extremism, and this phenomenon is being mirrored in Sri Lanka as well, where Buddhist extremists utilizing the platform of Bodu Bala Sena are staging violent attacks on religious minorities, primarily Muslims.
One can find parallels with the just grievances of locals in Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria, which was manipulated by Daesh into consolidating its own fiefdom.
There even seems to be a mirroring of genocidal intent by Saffron terrorists across the Myanmar-India border. In India’s seven sister states, the rise of Hindutva has lead to an increase of persecution of local Bengali Muslims who have been labeled as “Bangladeshis”. This is the same rhetoric used by Buddhist extremists and Myanmar nationalists to justify the oppression of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The current anti Muslim atmosphere is consolidating the hold of communal forces across South Asia, which considers the extermination of Muslims a sane and justified objective. This could lead to a religious war across the region.
The first and foremost imperative of the crisis is the alleviation of the suffering of the Rohingya people. ASEAN has to play the leading role here; it needs to formulate a mechanism to deal with the crisis by equitable distribution of the refugees among member nations, military escort of Rohingya boats, a timeline for return of the refugees, and pressure on Myanmar to resolve the conflict. The International community can also play a role by lending financial aid to the countries who will house the refugees.
The Muslim nations can play a critical role here by offering aid and volunteers to look after the refugees. The OIC has a potential to be rejuvenated by the crisis as it can be utilized to launch a diplomatic campaign to highlight Rohingya oppression. Pakistan can play a pivotal role in leading the charge for solidarity with the Rohingya. It can also house a limited number of Rohingya refugees particularly in Karachi, which already has a substantial Rohingya population.
The Muslim nations can play a critical role here by offering aid and volunteers to look after the refugees. The OIC has a potential to be rejuvenated by the crisis as it can be utilized to launch a diplomatic campaign to highlight Rohingya oppression.
The United Nations should be utilized for negotiating free and unhindered international humanitarian access in Rakhine State. Individual governments should encourage the UN Secretary General to take up this issue and give high-level support to his efforts. Governments need to assert that future positive diplomatic relations are contingent on unhindered humanitarian access, and abolishment of discriminatory policies and practices against the Rohingya. Diplomats and UN officials should use the word “Rohingya” both in public and private. This will delegitimize the Myanmar government’s ongoing discrimination and campaign to portray the Rohingya as illegal immigrants. The humanitarian crisis for the Rohingya in Burma is part of a systematic policy of impoverishment of the Rohingya. These policies may constitute crimes against humanity, and have helped lead to ethnic cleansing. The international community should support the establishment of an independent international investigation into possible violations of international law against the Rohingya in Burma.
Diplomats and UN officials should use the word “Rohingya” both in public and private. This will delegitimize the Myanmar government’s ongoing discrimination and campaign to portray the Rohingya as illegal immigrants.
While external factors could alleviate this crisis, they cannot resolve it. The seeds for the solution lie in Myanmar itself. The role of internal Myanmar forces, especially the National League for Democracy NLD led by Aung Saan Suu Kyi, has been extremely unsatisfactory. It is assumed their silence on the issue is due to fear of losing Buddhist votes in the upcoming general election. There is a need for national reconciliation in Myanmar not only with the Rohingya but also with other ethnic groups engaged in conflict with the Myanmar state.