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“The situation in Myanmar…

Winter 2018 The Definition

“The situation in Myanmar…


…over the Rohingya crisis has exposed polarized attitudes toward the issue, entrenched over decades, as well as the obvious need for practical, long-term solutions.

Since the country became independent in 1948, periodic clashes in Rakhine state (formerly Arakan state), Myanmar’s westernmost region, have caused at least two large-scale exoduses (in 1978 and 1992) of people across the border to Bangladesh. There has been increased international reporting on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine in recent years – particularly in the wake of the 2012 communal clashes and the 2015 migrant crisis at sea. But the overall dynamic remains unchanged: the different communities in Rakhine have been polarized through decades of compounded mistrust and negative feelings about critical questions like citizenship and identity.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) government has inherited the Rakhine legacy, with all of its complex nuances and roots dating back to colonial times. The cyclical clashes in Rakhine took on more militant overtones from October 2016, when Myanmar’s military mounted a disproportionate retaliation to armed attacks by the Harakah al-Yaqin on border police posts. The Harakah al-Yaqin has been characterized as a nascent insurgency movement (International Crisis Group, December 2016), with reported external links to Saudi Arabia.

In an unprecedented move, Myanmar convened an informal meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon in late 2016 to discuss the situation in Rakhine. Following that meeting, an advisory commission led by Kofi Annan started work to recommend measures to prevent future relapses into violence. In August 2017, barely a day after the advisory commission submitted its recommendations to the Myanmar government, the nascent militancy returned in full-blown form as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). This provoked a response of even larger magnitude from the military. This military response to the ARSA insurgency has in turn created the present massive humanitarian crisis, which has seen great displacement of communities in Rakhine, spilling over into neighbouring countries – in particular, Bangladesh.

The Myanmar army is now bent on putting this insurgency down as a strategic priority. This is a harsh reality that, despite the ongoing humanitarian implications for all the displaced communities, gives the situation an entirely different character from the collective humanitarian action coordinated by ASEAN in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Bref, what is happening in Rakhine today is the result of the military’s counter-offensive against militant Rohingya attacks. It has been termed an insurgency by the Myanmar government, while the ARSA has justified its actions principally in ethno-nationalist terms. The Myanmar army is now bent on putting this insurgency down as a strategic priority. This is a harsh reality that, despite the ongoing humanitarian implications for all the displaced communities, gives the situation an entirely different character from the collective humanitarian action coordinated by ASEAN in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when the military junta allowed the international humanitarian community access to the cyclone-affected populations in the Myanmar delta.

While the acute need for humanitarian access to all affected communities is similar to the post-Nargis period, the current crisis involves a community, the Rohingya, toward which a large part of Myanmar’s population feels no affinity. In Myanmar, the Rohingya are often referred to as Bengali, and many in Myanmar view them as illegal immigrants. Indeed, an estimated one million residents in northern Rakhine, where most of the Rohingya communities reside, were not included in the 2014 population census.

What of ASEAN credibility in the face of this crisis? The statement in September by the current Philippine chair of ASEAN on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state aimed to be constructive, but did not garner support from all ASEAN members. Malaysia’s dissociation from the statement was highly unusual for ASEAN, reflecting to a certain extent the fraying of ASEAN centrality to regional strategic dynamics and decision-making at the altar of domestic pressures. Under the ASEAN framework, however, individual member states – most notably Indonesia and Singapore – have met and discussed the issue bilaterally with the Myanmar government (meeting mainly with Aung San Suu Kyi, and with the Indonesian foreign minister also meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces). This, of course, is part of ASEAN’s practice of quiet diplomacy, including with complex countries like Myanmar – but evidently in recognition of the fact that the crisis, while still largely within Myanmar’s domestic ambit, has major regional spillover effects, and has now taken on alarming humanitarian dimensions.

What’s to be done? The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State presented its final report this past August, and the Myanmar government has committed to implement its recommendations. (Of course, that commitment has been overwhelmed or displaced somewhat by the ARSA attacks and the ensuing military response.) The commission’s 88 recommendations address multiple facets of the problem, including its regional implications. ASEAN member states may consider, on a case-by-case basis, where bilateral, sub-regional or regional approaches can assist the Myanmar government in implementing the recommendations effectively. Let us also note that the value of the convening of ASEAN foreign ministers at the end of 2016 in Yangon to discuss the Rakhine issue should not be discounted. The fact that ASEAN is discussing this issue with Myanmar’s full participation means that the NLD government appreciates the importance of discussing the broader regional implications in an ASEAN setting.

The Rakhine issue may yet catalyze new ways of ASEAN engaging Myanmar. As before, understanding Myanmar’s constraints, including the uneasy power-sharing arrangement between the civilian government and the military, may help to find pathways toward a solution. But any effort to solve this decades-old dilemma will not yield overnight results, and will, as mentioned, require sustained commitment and pressure.”

» Moe Thuzar is Lead Researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEA-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. She is also co-coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme.

Arabinda Acharya

…now represents a paradox of democracy – especially as the government is allegedly facilitating the persecution of an ethnic and religious minority, the Rohingya, even more than was the case under the previous military regime. This, of course, is unfortunate for a country that, at least formally, transitioned to democracy from a military dictatorship and was richly rewarded in terms of international recognition (legitimacy) and economic assistance.

While the international community as a whole appears to be extremely exercised by what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described as a “human rights nightmare” and “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency” – and this in order to put pressure on the Myanmar government – the efforts of the various relevant UN agencies, especially the UNHCR, remain piecemeal and certainly not commensurate with the scale of the problem. Evidently, this could be a question of the nature (and degree) of access enjoyed by these same agencies to good and full information on the ground – something that should not, in principle, be as problematic today as it used to be during the military regime. While the UNHCR says that it is dealing with about 30,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Myanmar’s national security adviser, U Thaung Tun, has asserted that the number is actually approaching one million. This figure does not include the Rohingya refugees fleeing to other countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and India – some of them dying in the effort.

The Rohingya issue is thus rapidly becoming a trigger for a larger religious conflict in the region and beyond. First, the racist attitude toward the Rohingya and communal violence in Rakhine state are fuelling grievances and triggering radicalization within the Rohingya community not only in Myanmar but also in neighbouring countries in South and Southeast Asia. Second, the recruitment of Rohingya by terrorist groups in Bangladesh is exposing them increasingly to militancy and operational training. Third, many jihadi and radical groups in South and Southeast Asia sympathize with the Rohingya issue and use it to incite the community to jihad in the region. In June 2012, for example, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), the new incarnation of Jemmah Islamiyah (JI), threatened to storm the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. In August 2012, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued statements threatening bloody revenge for the persecution of Rohingya and urged the Pakistani government to “halt all relations with [the] Burmese government and close down their embassy in Islamabad.”

To be sure, a number of Rohingya groups – notably Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) and its militant wing the Rohingya National Army (RNA), the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (AIRF) and, most importantly, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), have indulged in separatist and terrorist activities. They have profited from links to groups like Al Qaeda (specifically Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS), JI, as well as JI offshoots like Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in Indonesia. In addition, they have relationships with Bangladeshi groups like Jama’aa tul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI), Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami-Bangladesh (HuJI-B), as well as a number of groups in Pakistan. Finally, some Rohingya have reportedly travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.

Having said all this, the core of the issue and crisis is the fact that Myanmar patently does not recognize Rohingya as citizens of the country, claiming instead that they belong to Bangladesh – a claim that Dhaka disputes. And yet there is little reasonable argument against the proposition that the long-suffering Rohingya deserve better treatment, and this as soon as possible – that is, before the crisis becomes one of full-blown Islamist terrorism and extremism. Rohingya have lived and owned property for centuries in Myanmar – pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial alike. Therefore, the Myanmar government should confer proper citizenship on the Rohingya, ensure safe and secure repatriation of Rohingya refugees, restore their property rights (land and homes), and create a general atmosphere of peaceful coexistence in Rakhine state.”

» Arabinda Acharya teaches at the National Defense University at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His latest book is Whither Southeast Asia Terrorism? (The views herein are his own and do not represent any institutions with which he is affiliated.)

Abhishek Srivastava

… has meant that India, just as it has since independence, continues to face serious challenges with illegal migration from neighbouring countries. India’s geostrategic location, its improving economic position (especially in recent years), and its liberal democratic credentials together make the country attractive for migrants – including, in past decades, illegal migrants from Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh. During the independence movement of Bangladesh, millions of migrants came to India and never went back. During the civil war in Sri Lanka, millions of Tamils came to India to settle. More recently, Rohingya Muslims are migrating from Myanmar to neighbouring countries – most massively to Bangladesh, but also to India.

On the Rohingya question, India finds itself in a difficult spot, strategically and politically speaking. New Delhi is not just trying to balance interests across its relationships with Myanmar and Bangladesh, but also has its own internal reasons – in particular, security-related reasons – to worry about the onslaught of refugees. As a non-negligible number of Rohingya are ending up on Indian territory, India fears radicalization of this group. On this logic, there have already been some statements by Indian ministers calling for the deportation of some 40,000 illegal Rohingya immigrants.

The relationship between India and Myanmar remains and has long been very cordial, and is based largely on shared civilizational and even religious connections. India also plays a significant role in the economic development of Myanmar. The border areas between India and Myanmar (a 1,600-kilometre-long land border, and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal) are very vulnerable to the activities of insurgent groups, and so India wants to strengthen bilateral military-to-military relations not only to train the Indian military, but also to establish a counter-terrorism mechanism along its borders. To be sure, there are many more policy and economic areas available that could help to open up new avenues of dialogue and collaboration between Delhi and Naypyidaw. These include education, information technology, health and medicine and, to be sure, tourism. But just as India must weigh its relationship with Myanmar against its major relationship with Bangladesh (where the Rohingya issue is viewed largely through a humanitarian lens), it must keep Myanmar engaged in counter-terrorism while simultaneously working to contain the flow of migrants, and then creating conditions on the ground for the repatriation of refugees already in Bangladesh and India.”

» Abhishek Srivastava is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi.


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