Asian Editors Circle

Rohingya crisis: A concern for the region

Reacting to the insurgent attacks on some police outposts and an army camp on Aug 25, the Myanmar security forces have unleashed a "war" of sorts against the Rohingya Muslims - an ethnic minority group living for centuries in the Rakhine state of Myanmar - burning down their villages, killing their men and raping their women, committing what can be termed as "crimes against humanity" that have resulted in nearly 500 dead and nearly 200,000 taking shelter in Bangladesh.

Dhaka has hosted Rohingya refugees for more than three decades in varying numbers, depending on the level of oppression across the border.

Myanmar, then called Burma, became independent in 1948 from the British, a year after the latter's withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

Geographically Rakhine state, where the current conflict is taking place, is separated from the rest of Myanmar by a barren mountain range. Ancient history gives the area its own separate past with a distinct Rakhine Kingdom being established in 1430, with its capital in Mrauk U serving as a link between Buddhist and Muslim Asia with close ties with the Sultanate of Bengal.

After 350 years of independent existence, Rakhine state was conquered by the Burmese in 1784. This annexation was short-lived as the territory was occupied by the British in 1824 and made a part of the British Indian Empire.

Today, the Rohingya make up about 1.1 million Muslim citizens of the Rakhine state but are not recognised legally as one of the 135 ethnic groups constituting a part of the citizenry of Myanmar.

It is perhaps not just a coincidence that the current attack on the Rohingyas follows on the heels of the report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Rohingya refugees waiting for a boat to cross Myanmar's border with Bangladesh through the Naf river in Maungdaw, Myanmar, on Thursday. The Rohingya crisis is jeopardising not only the future of Myanmar, but also that of the region, say experts. PHOTO: REUTERS

This commission was set up with active participation of the Myanmar government, albeit under severe pressure from the international community, and whose findings it had earlier pledged to implement. Now, with the latest spate of violence, the prospect of implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission report appears remote and the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the Rohingya crisis may elude us once more.

The commission has correctly identified the central questions to be "citizenship verification, documentation, rights and equality before the law" and goes on to say that "if they are left to fester, the future of the Rakhine state - and indeed of Myanmar as a whole - will be irretrievably jeopardised".

As we see it from Bangladesh, it is not only the future of Myanmar which will be jeopardised, but that of this region itself as the current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Wednesday. China, given its historical links, will take more than a passing interest in this affair, an effort in which it will be supported by Russia, the indications of which are discernible in their pattern of voting at the UN Security Council on recent resolutions on the Rohingya issue.

The block of Arab and Muslim countries will naturally be drawn into this fray as fellow Muslims are being slaughtered. Already, there is sufficient reason for concern at the flow of Middle Eastern money into the region, with distinct fundamentalist overtones.

We all know about the Rohingya finding their way into various Arab and Muslim countries, bearing stories of atrocities and invoking a natural reaction that they should be helped to seek justice and fight against fear and intimidation, through the building up of some sort of resistance, including that which is armed.

These are but natural outcomes of prolonged oppression to which the Annan Report clearly alludes.

The US is likely to be more interested than usual, given its deteriorating relationship with both China and Russia, and the rising tiff in the South China Sea, not to speak of tension with North Korea and its unpredictable and dangerous consequences.

India has completely surprised Bangladesh by its all-out endorsement of the Myanmar position. We, naively as it now appears, were hoping that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Myanmar will help, if not to solve, the issue, at least to stop the violence and ebb the flow of refugees.

PM Modi's support for the Myanmar position and the absence of any substantive reference to the refugee issue and the consequent humanitarian disaster has greatly disappointed Bangladesh.

The rising terrorism that both Mr Modi and Ms Aung San Suu Kyi have pledged to fight is created and sustained by the oppression and the ignorance of the rights of a minority group.

That has been the experience everywhere. For the so-called "jihadists", the oppression of the Rohingya fits the bill completely as a cause they will espouse to gain credibility in the Muslim world, whose natural support for this oppressed group of Muslims is obvious.

In this regard, the emergence of Arsa (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) is something that should concern all. In the early hours of Aug 25, this group, whose Arabic name is Harakah al-Yaqin, simultaneously attacked 30 police posts and an army base in the northern side of the Rakhine state. Twelve Myanmar troops and officials and 77 insurgents were killed.

This is, by far, the most audacious and damaging attack by the insurgents, who are mostly equipped with machetes, a few small arms and hand-held explosives. The emergence of such an armed group cannot be welcomed by any country wanting peace and stability in this region.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) termed this as the most serious escalation in the conflict.

Obviously, the biggest losers from the escalation and continuation of this conflict will be the two countries directly affected - Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has not yet taken any hard line against its only other neighbour, save India, and has tried, over the years, to reach an understanding with Myanmar. It has internationalised the issue only to the extent of seeking humanitarian aid and nothing more.

It first received about 300,000 Rohingya refugees in 1978. Through negotiations, about 210,000 were repatriated, with the rest continuing to live in Bangladesh.

However, the latest situation has changed everything. Bangladesh will now be under severe pressure from the Arab and Muslim world to internationalise the issue and take a tougher stance than it has hitherto taken. The visits of the Indonesian and Turkish foreign ministers are indications of that. If there is no change in the situation on the ground, Bangladesh will be left with little option but to take a tougher stance and further complicate the situation.

Myanmar, on its part, must realise that blaming all the current atrocities on the so-called terrorists and claiming that its security forces had nothing to do with the crimes committed - in spite of unvarying accounts of thousands of refugees to the contrary - are neither credible nor helpful in solving the crisis.

The Kofi Annan Commission has painstakingly worked out, what international experts say, is a realistic path towards peaceful resolution of a conflict that, if left to itself, may become a dangerous crisis. Myanmar must pay heed to the recommendations of that report.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar, needs to remember what she herself said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech - that "whenever suffering is ignored, there will be seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages".

  • This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in papers and websites in the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2017, with the headline 'Rohingya crisis: A concern for the region'. Print Edition | Subscribe