The handling of the Rohingya crisis threatens Myanmar’s fragile process of democratization, and poses a security threat for Southeast Asia as a whole. Yet as long as violence reigns supreme, a durable solution for Myanmar’s Muslim minority is unlikely to be found. (Featured Image © DFID)
Over the past forty years, Myanmar’s Muslim minority – more commonly known as the Rohingya – have suffered repression and violence by state and civilian actors.1 With the country taking steps towards democratisation, some hoped that the repression of Myanmar’s Muslims would also come to an end. But with the violence in Myanmar once again rising into a crescendo over the past weeks, such hopes have proven to be at least somewhat premature.
Luckily, not all optimism was unfounded. On august 24th, the ‘Advisory Committee on Rakhine State’ published a series of recommendations aimed at resolving the “political, socio-economic and humanitarian challenges that currently face Rakhine State” – home to Myanmar’s sizeable ethnic Muslim minority group.2 Amongst these were: citizenship recognition for Muslims, freedom of movement, relocation of internally displaced people and increased investment in Rakhine State. Hoping to bring about lasting peace in Myanmar, the report was a breath of fresh air in a conflict that has dragged on for the better part of four decades.
With its crackdown on the Rohingya, Myanmar’s government and military have over the past few weeks revealed incredible short-sightedness.
It was, however, not meant to be. Just one day later, on August 25th, Rohingya rebels attacked a series of police posts and an army base in Myanmar.3 In turn, the army responded with violent reprisals aimed at Rohingya villages.4 Rohingya refugees’ testimonies accuse the military of using attack helicopters against innocent civilians and setting fire to their homes, the latter of which has also been confirmed by satellite images.5 In total, some 400.000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the attacks of late August.
In an ironic and sad turn of events, the recommendations of the Rakhine State commission have been completely overshadowed by the resurgence of violence in Myanmar. Violence, perhaps unsurprisingly, once again stands in the way of peace. With its crackdown on the Rohingya, Myanmar’s government and military have over the past few weeks revealed incredible short-sightedness. Allowing the crisis to spiral out of control only threatens the security and political stability of this fragile country and its neighbours.
Rohingya: a Jihadi Target?
The attacks led by Rohingya rebels of late August are not the first of its kind. Last year, a Jihadi-aligned group based out of Bangladesh mounted a successful attack on Myanmar, killing several police officers and stealing some 50 weapons as well as thousands of rounds of ammo.6 Similarly to today, the attacks led to a crackdown by the military, which was accused of random killings, rape and setting fire to the Rohingya’s homes, who fled the country en masse.7 Attack helicopters were also involved.
Arriving in refugee camps across Southeast Asia, the Rohingya rarely fare much better than they do in Myanmar. Not granted citizenship in Myanmar or their host countries, the Rohingya are a de facto stateless people. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned of refugees being forced to stay in overcrowded refugee camps and even having to make do with makeshift shelters.8 Once there, Myanmar’s Muslims become a prime target for those preaching violence.
Myanmar’s Muslims become a prime target for those preaching violence.
It is not unthinkable that the stateless, unemployed and altogether desperate Rohingya may find themselves drawn towards violent action as the conflict in Myanmar drags on.9 With thousands of refugees spread out across Southeast Asia, this could cause the conflict in Myanmar to spread out to other countries, leading to more humanitarian drama and political unrest.10
In recent years, the plight of the Rohingya has also been picked up on by international jihadi organizations such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, who see the crisis in Myanmar as having strong propaganda and recruitment potential.11 Allowing jihadists to claim the Rohingya conflict is very likely to lead to an increase in violence, leaving any hopes of a peaceful resolution dead in the water. As such, finding a durable solution to the Rohingya crisis should be one of Myanmar’s government’s top priorities.
“Terrorists and Fake News”
But there are roadblocks on the way. Myanmar is still a fragile and young democracy. In 2015, it organized its first free elections in 25 years, with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) winning an absolute majority. The event marked a watershed in the country’s history, and a break with its past as a military dictatorship. Myanmar, so it seemed, was on a path towards democracy.
But not all have profited equally from this development. Even before the elections, Suu Kyi and the NLD’s silence on the Rohingya’s suffering were cause for international concern.12 The events of the past weeks have highlighted how the living conditions of Myanmar’s Muslim minority are still highly precarious. So far, Suu Kyi and the civilian government have proven either unwilling or incapable of addressing the Rohingya’s decades-long repression.
With the recent surge in violence, however, international criticism towards Myanmar has been on the rise. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, alongside the United Nations have taken to calling the conflict in Myanmar “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”.13
Aung San Suu Kyi believes Myanmar has no lessons to learn from the international community.
As one of the country’s most popular and powerful politicians, Aung San Suu Kyi has taken the brunt of the international criticism. Some have even argued for her Nobel Prize to be revoked.14 An online petition calling for the same has gathered over 400.000 votes at the time this article being written.15
Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the renewed violence has been dubious at best. For one, she does not refer to Myanmar’s Muslim Minority as Rohingya, opting instead to use the term Bengali so as to invoke their alleged foreign heritage.16 Suu Kyi has also blamed “terrorists” for the violence of the past month and has denounced international reports on and criticism of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya as “fake news”.17 In her first public speech after the attacks of August 25th, Suu Kyi boldly claimed she did not “fear international scrutiny.18 It took weeks for her to allow a U.N. fact-finding mission entry into Rakhine State, which it was finally granted yesterday.19
Roughly translated, Aung San Suu Kyi believes Myanmar has no lessons to learn from the international community. In her view, any solution to the Rohingya crisis must come from the country itself, without any foreign ‘assistance’.
Roadmap to Peace
So far, however, the track record of Myanmar’s government with regards to the Rohingya is far from impressive. Why the lack of progress? “Aung San Suu Kyi is stuck between a rock and a hard place”, says professor Lut Lams (KU Leuven).20
According to her, Myanmar can not afford to slide back into military rule. “Towards that end, Suu Kyi must avoid alienating her nationalist voters. If she speaks out on behalf of the Rohingya, she risks doing exactly that. And even though Myanmar is no longer a military dictatorship, the army still holds a lot of power in the country today. All of this severely limits Suu Kyi’s options.”
It does bear mentioning that in her role as ‘State Councillor’, Suu Kyi ordered the creation of the commission on Rakhine State. In his remarks on the final report of the commission, Kofi Annan even applauded her “leadership”.21 Perhaps, Suu Kyi’s attitudes towards her country’s Muslim population are not as tough as her public appearances may lead us to believe.
Suu Kyi will have to mediate between Myanmar’s Muslims on one side and the army and nationalists on another.
Despite having fallen from grace, Suu Kyi will prove pivotal in the handling of the Rohingya crisis. Maintaining the status quo is not an option. As the Rohingya crisis derails further, it risks reversing Myanmar’s democratization and threatens the radicalization of thousands of refugees across the region.22 In her role as state councillor Suu Kyi will have to mediate between Myanmar’s Muslims on one side and the army and nationalists on another. But as the events of the past weeks have shown, the military still prefers repression and aggression to peace talks.
“Unless concerted action […] is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalization, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State”, said Kofi Annan, after presenting the findings of the Rakhine State commission’s findings. One day later, his words would already turn out to be prophetic.