Every year, once the monsoon season is over, thousands of Rohingyas take the dangerous boat journey from coastal Rakhine or Bangladesh in search of better lives elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are the main destinations, but none is welcoming and the conditions — illegal work and no legal status — are usually no better than at home. The situation in South and South-East Asian waters has grown so desperate that the global coverage of the crisis has finally convinced some of the regional players to take action.
Myanmar is no stranger to ethnic conflict, with groups, such as the Shan, Mon, Karen, Wa, Kokang, Kachin, among those who have been fighting for self-rule for decades. Myanmar is home to more than one million Rohingya, which the country's Buddhist-majority populace shun as "Bengali". The government considers them neither as national citizens nor as among its 135 officially recognized ethnic minorities and claims they are interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh. This is despite the fact that the stateless Rohingya have lived in Myanmar's western Rakhine State for generations and have faced persecution in Bangladesh, which also rejects them as citizens.
The recently published photo of a drowned and floating Rohingya baby reveals the state of desperateness that has afflicted the fleeting Rohingyas. Rohingyas blame the Myanmar government and the army for the situation, saying soldiers are shooting indiscriminately at unarmed men, women and children and carrying out arson attacks. The Myanmar authorities, however, blame the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as “extremist terrorists” for the killings and the fires. Until now, the government has been pretty consistent in its treatment of the Rohingyas—persistent persecution, insistent denial and systematic refusal to permit neutral probe. It appears as if Myanmar's ultimate aim is to kill and frighten the Rohingyas so that they depopulate themselves from the region(the region is endowed with natural resources) on their own accord. With the inaction and apathy of the international community, this looks more and more like a looming possibility, although the UN has agreed that it believes Myanmar army's response amounts to “ethnic cleansing”.
Myanmar has had a history of militant organisations. Immediately after Burma’s independence, a Muslim ‘mujahideen’ group emerged in Arakan State demanding an autonomous Islamic area. It gave rise to several armed rebel groups in the subsequent decades. One of the more prominent of such groups was the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation in the 1980s and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, more recently. The ARSA believes that it is working for ‘self-defence’ of Rohingyas and its aim is to ‘defend, salvage and protect’ the Rohingyas who are facing oppression by the state for decades. The emergence of ARSA has thus, added a new dimension to this situation. While ARSA may have a motivation to fight for the cause of Rohingya salvation, they have to be careful about how they pursue their goals . As Rohingyas are Muslims, in the current international political climate of Islamophobia, it would be only too easy to paint ARSA and, by extension, the wider Rohingya population as “Islamic terrorists,” and thus turn the victims into villains and the real villains into the virtuous.
The statelessness of the Rohingyas and the lack of empathy towards the plight of the Rohingyas have contributed to the adoption of extremist methods by them. If not addressed pragmatically, the Rohingya crisis will only cause more violence, leading to more refugees and chronic instability in the region. Apart from impinging upon Myanmar’s internal security, the Rohingya crisis is also posing a security challenge to the South and Southeast Asia. The economic burden emanating from the huge refugee influx, the growing fear of linkages between the Rohingyas and the IS, coupled with the apathy of the countries of the region towards the problem, explains the stance of the ASEAN countries in advocating a domestic solution to the crisis. The countries of South and Southeast Asia need to ponder whether it is rational to push Rohingya refugees back to violence-torn Myanmar. Regional countries need to take into account the fact that the Rohingya crisis is not just Myanmar’s internal problem; rather, its spill over effect into their own territories is already evident. The Rohingya crisis is a regional issue and it needs to be tackled at the regional level in a more comprehensive way.
The first step would be to convince the present government in Myanmar about the benefits of well-coordinated cooperation between ASEAN members, India and Bangladesh to tackle the issue.
The platforms of the regional and sub-regional institutions including ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) need to be more effectively used to convince the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in Myanmar to discuss the issue openly and take advantages of the experience of countries like India and Thailand who have long experience in dealing with insurgency and terrorism.
Projects like the ones similar to the "Rakhine State Development Programme" , aimed at infrastructure development and socio-economic projects, especially in the areas of education, health, agriculture, agro-processing, community development, construction of roads and bridges, protection of environment etc in the Rakhine state should be accorded prime governmental attention.
The prescription put forward by the Aung San Suu Kyi appointed advisory commission ,led by Kofi Annan, to investigate the situation in Rakhine State, should be paid heed to at the earliest. The commission released its final report recommending the government to ‘review’ the 1982 citizenship law, ensure ‘freedom of movement for all people in Rakhine State’, ensure access to education and health care services, adopt a ‘holistic anti-drug’ approach, ensure representation of the ‘underrepresented groups’, strengthen ‘inter-communal cohesion’, train the Myanmar military to deal with the humanitarian crisis and ‘monitor their performances’ in conflict areas, amongst other things.
Organizations like the HRC and UNHCR must take a more hands on approach administering humanitarian aid and safe routes to refugee camps and safe havens.
However, a lasting solution that stops the Rohingya from fleeing Myanmar is not impossible. In Europe, where countries are facing a migration crisis of much larger proportions, the European Commission has devised a plan for resettling refugees that would divide up migrants based on an EU member’s prosperity, number of refugees already taken in, unemployment rate and other factors. South-East Asian countries too could establish a similar formula, based on GDP, unemployment rate and others, to determine how many refugees should be resettled. A customized model based on the European formula could be a win win situation in the South East Asia.
Myanmar government's consistent refusal to do something more conciliatory and dignified about the issue and the fact that it even denies any wrongdoing, suggest that conventional diplomacy will not work. Otherwise, as someone has argued recently, “like other stateless and unrepresented Muslims, the Rohingyas are at risk of producing a persistent terrorist threat” that in the end would not only destabilize Myanmar but also its neighbors. Here, ASEAN needs to push aside the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a member country as the Rohingya crisis is not a one-country problem. Rohingyas should not be forced to become the Eastern Palestinians, demonised and persecuted with impunity and with twisted morality.