LONDON – The crisis in Myanmar over the plight of the Muslim Rohingya is causing great political agitation in the region. In the past month, the crisis reached a new height. In retaliating against the Myanmar state, on Aug. 25 Rohingya fighters attacked more than 30 police and army posts, prompting an even greater security crackdown on the Rohingya themselves.
The Myanmar government has long been accused of committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. The situation has either driven them to flee their birthplace, or to strike back at the security forces. Some have made it to Bangladesh and some have fled to the shores of Thailand, where they were pitilessly denied entry and pushed back out to sea with scant humanitarian consideration.
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 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.
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 lack any kind of legal protection from the government. Victimized by this policy of ethnic alienation, the Rohingya are perceived by the authorities as mere refugees from Bangladesh who have no place in the majority Buddhist society.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the Myanmar government, is now criticized for her indifferent attitude toward the Rohingya. In April, Suu Kyi blatantly denied ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in her own country. A month later, she rejected the U.N. inquiry into crimes against the Rohingya. In her latest speech on September 19, she questioned why so many Rohingya Muslims had left when others were living peacefully in the state, pointing to an accusation that the Rohingya themselves are “troublemakers.”
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 talked at length about building a community, this crisis has cast doubt over the ability of the regional group to manage the issues of migration 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 ASEAN, sadly it has remained largely impotent. The crisis 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. A critical question emerges: Is AICHR, or indeed ASEAN, now willing to confront Myanmar on this difficult subject?
Apart from ASEAN, the role of other regional powers must be assessed. Japan, in this instance, is a pertinent case study. Undoubtedly, Japan has remained one of the largest donors of foreign aid to Myanmar. It should therefore be in a position to pressure the government in Naypyitaw to stop the crackdowns against the Rohingya and to initiate a dialogue with them.
Since Myanmar has begun political reforms, leading to its first elections in 20 years in 2010, Japan has been supportive of the democratic process in that country. Hundreds of billions of yen worth of debt was forgiven and, on top of it, ¥100 billion in loans was offered for Myanmar to invest in mega-projects designed to upgrade its infrastructure.
Ian Munroe has reported in The Japan Times that some of Japan’s donations to the United Nations operating in Myanmar indeed have gotten into the hands of the Rohingya. But this amount of financial assistance is minuscule. Fundamentally, Japan pays more attention to its ties with the Myanmar government, apparently as part of its strategic policy of containing China’s growing influence in this Southeast Asian state.
Several years ago, Japan appointed Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, as a special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar. Although the intention was to rebuild a peaceful political society in Myanmar by involving all ethnic groups in the political process, the Rohingya have been left out.
Strikingly, the alienation of the Rohingya has been encouraged by certain quarters in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw, or Myanmar’s army, has long used the Rohingya to manipulate public opinion and divert attention away from other problems facing the country. This explains why anti-Muslim sentiment has lingered in Myanmar. Quite possibly, this same tactic is being used by both Suu Kyi and the military in postponing resolutions for other political issues at the expense of the Rohingya being targeted as a political nuisance.
It is true that international pressure, including that from Japan, may not contribute much to the lessening of the ongoing crisis for the Rohingya community. Myanmar proved that long years of international sanctions were ineffective as long as it could rely on other powers for legitimacy. China in this case provided breathing space for Myanmar during those years under military rule.
But Japan can start now, by talking openly about the Rohingya and what it expects from the Myanmar government. Financial aid from Japan can be employed to control certain behavior. This would serve as a strong political signal from Tokyo — a signal of rejecting the legitimacy of Myanmar in its dealings with the Rohingya issue.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently a senior visiting fellow at the Center for International Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science.