Rohingya crisis a concern for the region

If minority group’s suffering is ignored, the conflict may spread beyond Myanmar and Bangladesh. 

REACTING to insurgent attacks on some police outposts and an army camp on Aug 25, Myanmar security forces have unleashed a “war” of sorts against Rohingya Muslims – an ethnic minority group living for centuries in Myanmar’s Rakhine state – burning down their villages, killing their men and raping their women.

These can be termed as “crimes against humanity” and have resulted in nearly 500 dead and some 200,000 taking shelter in Bangladesh, which has hosted Rohingya refugees for more than three decades in varying numbers, depending on the level of oppression across the border.

Myanmar, then called Burma, became independent in 1948 from the British, a year after the latter’s withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Geographically, Rakhine state is separated from the rest of Myanmar by a barren mountain range. Ancient history gives the area its own separate past.

A distinct Rakhine kingdom was established in 1430 with its capital in Mrauk U located as a link between Buddhist and Muslim Asia, with close ties with the Sultanate of Bengal.

After 350 years of independent existence, Rakhine state was conquered by the Burmese in 1784. This annexation was shortlived as the territory was occupied by the British in 1824 and made a part of the British Indian Empire.

Today, the Rohingya are made up of about 1.1 million Muslim citizens of the Rakhine state but are not recognised legally as one of the 135 ethnic groups constituting a part of the citizenry of Myanmar.

It is perhaps not just a coincidence that the current attacks on the Rohingya follow on the heels of the report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission led by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan. The commission was set up with the active participation of the Myanmar government, albeit under severe pressure from the international community.

The government had earlier pledged to implement the commission’s findings. Now with the latest spate of violence, the prospect of implementation of the Rakhine Commis­sion’s recommendations appears remote and the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the Rohingya crisis may elude us once more.

The commission has correctly identified the central questions to be “citizenship verification, documentation, rights and equality before the law” and goes on to say that “if they are left to fester, the future of the Rakhine state – and indeed of Myanmar as a whole – will be irretrievably jeopardised”.

As we see it from Bangladesh, it is not only the future of Myanmar that will be jeopardised but that of this region itself, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Sept 6.

Given its historical links, China will take more than a passing interest in this affair.

And in this matter, it will be supported by Russia, judging from their pattern of voting at the UN Security Council on recent resolutions on the Rohingya issue.

The Arab and other Muslim countries will naturally be drawn into this fray as fellow Muslims are being slaughtered. Already there is sufficient reason for concern over the flow of Middle Eastern money in the region with distinct fundamentalist overtones.

We all know about Rohingya finding their way into various Arab and other Muslim countries with stories of atrocities, thus invoking a search for justice and a fight against a future of fear and intimidation through some sort of resistance, including with arms. The US is likely to be more interested than usual, given its deteriorating relationship with both China and Russia, the rising tiff in the South China Sea and tension with North Korea.

India has completely surprised and disappointed Bangladesh by its all-out endorsement of Myanmar’s position.

We, naively as it now appears, were hoping that the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Myanmar would at least help stop the violence and ebb the flow of refugees, if not solve the issue.

The rising terrorism that both Modi and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi have pledged to fight is created and sustained by oppression and ignoring the rights of a minority group. That has been the experience everywhere.

The emergence of ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) is something that should concern all. In the early hours of Aug 25, this group simultaneously attacked 30 police posts and an army base in the northern side of the Rakhine state. Twelve Myanmar troops and officials and 77 insurgents were killed.

This is by far the most audacious and damaging attack by the insurgents, who are mostly equipped with machetes, a few small arms and handheld explosives.

The emergence of such an armed group cannot be welcomed by any country wanting peace and stability in this region.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) termed this as the most serious escalation in the conflict. Obviously the biggest losers from the escalation and continuation of this conflict will be the two countries directly affected – Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has not yet taken any hardline position against its only other neighbour save India and has tried over the years to reach an understanding with Myanmar. It has internationalised the issue only to the extent of seeking humanitarian aid. It first received about 300,000 Rohingya refugees in 1978. Through negotiations, 210,000 have been repatriated, while the rest continue to live in Bangladesh.

However, the latest situation has changed everything.

Bangladesh will now be under severe pressure from the Arab and Muslim world to internationalise the issue and take a tougher stance.

The visits of the Indonesian and Turkish foreign ministers are indications of that.

If there is no change in the situation on the ground, Bangladesh will be left with little option but to harden its position, which will further complicate things.

Myanmar must realise that blaming all the current atrocities on the so-called terrorists and claiming that its security forces had nothing to do with the crimes committed, in spite of unvarying accounts of thousands of refugees to the contrary, is neither credible nor helpful in solving the conflict.

The Kofi Annan Commission has painstakingly worked out what international experts say to be a realistic path towards a peaceful resolution. Myanmar must pay heed to the recommendations of that report.

Suu Kyi needs to remember what she herself said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Whenever suffering is ignored, there will be seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.”

Mahfuz Anam is editor and publisher of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.