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Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya issue’ is a regional refugee crisis – ASEAN must intervene

In June 2012, communal riots between Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists first erupted in the state of Rakhine. After the subsequent government crackdown and “persecution” of the area’s Rohingya, state-sponsored violence induced forced displacements of this Muslim minority.

What followed has become what we know today as Myanmar’s “Rohingya issue”.

Nearly five years later, this issue is now a full-blown humanitarian crisis and it’s time for the Association of South-East Asian nations (ASEAN) to present a regional response.

By the end of October 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had registered some 55,000 Rohingyas in Malaysia, most of whom had fled by boat. Some 33,000 Rohingyas are living in refugee camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara in Bangladesh, while another 300,000 to 500,000 unregistered refugees are estimated to have settled elsewhere in the country. Rohingya refugees have also been temporarily situated in Thailand, Indonesia and India.

Thousands of others have kept roaming and, in 2014 and 2015, they spent up to a month in overcrowded ships on the seas off the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

This massive refugee crisis has raised security concerns in the ASEAN region and drawn global attention partly because so many Rohingyas are falling victim to organised human trafficking rings.

The Rohingya issue has thus become a local problem with regional consequences. Resolving this problem in the long term will require local solutions, but, in the meantime, preventing further Rohingya subjugation should be a major human rights concern for ASEAN member states and the international community.

Indonesia’s foreign minister and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi at an ASEAN meeting on the Rohingya issue in 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Local problem, regional consequences

Refugee management in the ASEAN region is always contentious because refugees are seen as non-traditional security threats, and many countries lack effective refugee protection instruments and mechanisms. Apart from the Philippines, Timor Leste and Cambodia, no other ASEAN members have signed the Geneva Convention of Refugees and its protocols.

In Myanmar, even the term Rohingya is highly contested. To the government, they are illegal Bangladeshi migrants, prohibited from acquiring Myanmar citizenship or nationality under the 1882 Burma Citizenship Law. Even though the Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar since before it became independent from the British.

The Rohingyas are minority Muslim groups in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Of the country’s total population of 51 million, only about 1.2 million are Rohingyas. But in the country’s northern Rakhine state, where most Rohingyas live in townships, they are more numerous than Buddhists.

Violence at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces has begun to radicalise some sectors of this population. And there are reportedly emerging links between the Rohingya insurgent group (the HaY) and extremist outfits in the Middle East. This should be a concern for all ASEAN countries. However, emerging radicalisation should not be used as an explanation to justify state-sponsored violence and undermined peaceful solutions to the humanitarian crisis.

Dilemma of local solutions

Local solutions to Myanmar’s Rohingya issue can come in different forms. First and foremost, state-sponsored violence must end, accompanied by respect for human rights. For starters, aid agencies should be allowed to get aid to the Rohingyas (aid agencies’ access to northern Rakhine state has long been denied).

Inclusive dialogue and the promotion of mutual respect and cooperation would also help address the problem. But lasting solutions to the problem will be impossible without addressing prevailing structural violence.

Because the Rohingyas are not officially considered as citizens, they are deprived of basic services such as public health, education and jobs. Only policy reforms that review and recognise the citizenship of the Rohingyas and provide them with social justice will resolve this sociopolitical problem in the long term.

That seems unlikely to happen any time soon. In December 2016, Myanmar’s government appointed a commission to investigate the violence that erupted in Rakhine state in October 2016. The commission evidently found no evidence of genocide and religious persecution of the Rohingyas there, in sharp contrast with other reports.

Rohingya refugees gather to collect aid supplies sent from Malaysia at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Support from the Burmese military will also be a key. Ever since the country’s recent democratic transition, the military holds great power in the country, with 25% of the seats in the national and state parliaments reserved for unelected military representatives. The three most powerful ministries – Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs – can only be headed by serving military officers, according to the 2008 constitution.

This means the role and influence of the military in resolving the Rohingya crisis is decisive. But, for now at least, Burmese security forces, which are directly involved in containing the political violence in the Rakhine state, seem to prefer using force over a political solution. This strategy reflects the collective failure of hardline security policies for resolving the crisis.

How ASEAN can help

The ASEAN region, of which Myanmar has been a member since 1997, is interconnected by common ethnic and religious identities, culture, economic exchanges and migration. This means that any form of humanitarian crisis and extremism growing in one country is a regional security threat.

But regional support for Myanmar’s refugee crisis will require the country to change its attitude and be ready to engage with ASEAN partners on an issue that the government has until now considered an internal matter.

It will also require a change in perspective in other ASEAN members, many of which see the issue as largely a national security issue, rather than a regional problem. If the Rohingyas’ plight is not recognised as a humanitarian crisis resulting from state-sponsored violence and social injustice, ASEAN members cannot approach the Myanmar government to address the rights violations it has waged against the Rohingyas.

Though the ASEAN Charter underscores respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, the grouping has recently started to work on regional humanitarian issues, security promotion, conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy.

ASEAN nations could help the situation in Myanmar by stepping in with preventive diplomacy – action taken to prevent disputes, conflicts and violence to address a problem that has both local and regional consequences. But member countries take a conservative approach because non-intervention is a guiding principle of the 1976 ASEAN charter. And ASEAN members remain divided on whether the Rohiningya issue should be approached from a preventative diplomacy standpoint.

Some ASEAN countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia have started breaking from the principle of non-interference to comment on the Rohingya issue. Malaysia initially took a reactive approach, criticising the crackdown on the Rohingya, though it now professes willingness to work with ASEAN members to coordinate aid in Rakhine state.

Indonesia, an ASEAN member which hosts the largest Muslim population in the world, has taken a more constructive approach. It has offered to act as a bridge between Myanmar and ASEAN. Only a limited number of member states are willing to support Myanmar, and efforts are still largely fragmented, uncoordinated and led by individual countries rather than by the ASEAN community.

The region can scarcely afford this tentative approach. To avoid a worsening refugee crisis, ASEAN members must move forward with preventive diplomacy and push the Myanmar government to stop political violence in Rakhine state while emphasising local solutions such as legal and structural reforms that might finally allow the Rohingya to call Myanmar home.

The ASEAN proposal to create a Rohingya state is a positive first step forward, but given how the crisis has unfolded and the lack of action, it remains to be seen whether there will be enough political will in the region for adequate follow through.

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