KYOTO - The Rohingya Muslim boat people are causing great political agitation in Southeast Asia, where ethno-religious and migration issues remain sensitive and challenge both the definitions of nation-state and regionalism. In the past months, new waves of Rohingya Muslims have arrived at the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, where they were pitilessly denied entry and pushed back out to sea with scant humanitarian considerations.
The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group residing in the western part of Myanmar in the state of Rakhine, formerly known as Arakan. According to available statistics, more than 140,000 of the estimated 800,000 to 1.1 million Rohingya were forced to seek refuge in displacement camps in 2012 in the aftermath of a series of conflicts with the majority Buddhists in Myanmar. An estimated 100,000 Rohingya have since fled the camps to escape systemic violence and persecution.
Up until now, the Myanmar government has refused to recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s ethnic groups. Thus, the Rohingya have become “stateless entities” and as a result lack any kind of legal protection from the Myanmar government. Victimized by the policy of ethnic alienation, the Rohingya are perceived by the Myanmar government as mere refugees from Bangladesh who have no place in the majority Buddhist society.
To escape the dire situation in Myanmar, the Rohingya have sought new homes in some Southeast Asian states and try to enter illegally, begging for humanitarian support from potential host countries. They are not usually welcomed with open arms.
In increasingly horrific cases, the Rohingya have become targets for human trafficking syndicates, which thrive in this part of the world. The discovery of a large numbers of corpses, supposedly those of Rohingya, in southern Thailand reaffirms the victimization of “stateless entities” who fall prey to such illegal activities.
At the crux of the Rohingya crisis are a number of uncomfortable facts in Southeast Asia. As Muslims, the Rohingya suffer from prejudice by the Thai state, which has long been plagued by its own internal Muslim insurgencies. Thailand reluctantly decided to give shelter to Rohingya but is frightened it could worsen the fragile situation in the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, where local Muslims are pushing for autonomous power.
In the past week, more than 30 bombs have gone off in Yala province in Thailand’s deep south, adding to the sense of suspicion on the part of the Thai state vis-a-vis the incoming Rohingya Muslims. Although there is no proof that the Rohingya could become engaged in insurgency, the religious factor has continued to shape Thai policy toward the Rohingya. Furthermore, the long-held idea of Thailand being a highly homogeneous state leaves little room for the acceptance of religious diversity. In the Thai world, Muslims have always been perceived as “otherness” in the Thai national identity.
What is more disappointing is the fact that the Rohingya have also been rejected by two Muslim nations: Indonesia and Malaysia. While the ethno-religious factor may not play a great role in this case, the Rohingya are certainly viewed as economic burdens and potentially a source of social disharmony.
Questions were asked: How much of the national budget would be spent on looking after the Rohingya refugees? Will the wave of Rohingya affect the job market in local communities? Will their arrival lead to a rise of crime and sense of insecurity among the local population? The list of questions continues, mostly pertaining to the social and economic threat of an influx of migrants.
In the context of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the issue has never been seriously addressed by Myanmar and other states affected by the Rohingya exodus. While ASEAN has set an ambitious objective of achieving community-building by the end of this year, the Rohingya crisis has cast doubt over the ability of the regional group to manage the issues of migrations and citizenship.
While ASEAN has progressed over the years in terms of organizational strengthening, it is clear that the group lacks both the budget and mechanisms to deal with this type of challenge. Indeed, ASEAN has always been a “reactive” organization; it responds to a crisis without any preventive plans. The tsunami of 2004 and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 demonstrated how ASEAN was ill-equipped to confront large-scale humanitarian challenges.
ASEAN’s Inter-governmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR) is also taking a back seat while the suffering takes place. Although it is supposed to be there for the protection of human rights in the ASEAN region, sadly it has remained largely impotent. The critical situation facing the Rohingya should serve as an excellent opportunity for the AICHR to rise to the occasion and confirm its commitment in defending basic human rights.
The AICHR should have called for an immediate meeting within ASEAN to seek a solution to the crisis. Yet its silence proves once again how human rights protection still ranks low in the consciousness of ASEAN states.
Lastly, what has Myanmar got to say about the origin of the Rohingya crisis in the first place? It is expected that the Myanmar government will treat the Rohingya conundrum trivially, in accordance with its strict citizenship policy. But what is surprising is the fact that figures like Aung San Suu Kyi, a Noble laureate and still an icon of democracy, are mute about the unfortunate fate of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi has never expressed concern about their well-being.
Sources in Myanmar revealed that she wished to remain neutral because “whoever’s side she stood on, there would be blood.” This sounds rather lame for a politician who dared to fight military rule even while under long years of house arrest. Given the fact that she is much admired by pro-democracy and human rights groups alike, she could help in transforming the rhetoric of the Rohingya solution into a tangible result.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.