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Rohingya Crisis Needs a Regional Solution

Dr. Sampa Kundu is Research Assistant at IDSA Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 08, 2017

    Myanmar is witnessing a brutal episode of violence since August 25, 2017 between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists (who reportedly enjoy support from the Myanmar state too). Some 2600 houses (as reported by the state-run New Light of Myanmar) have allegedly been burnt, more than 100,000 Rohingyas have been forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh and approximately 1000 lives have been lost.1 Given the scale of death and destruction in such a short span of time, this latest phase of internal violence can easily be termed as the most horrifying in Myanmar’s recent history. The ‘cleansing’ operation by the Myanmarese authorities, which has led to such a dreadful occurrence, was launched on August 27, primarily against the ‘Bengalis’ or Muslims residing in Rakhine State in response to the attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 police posts and one army base in that state on August 25.2 While over 70 ARSA militants lost their lives, a dozen policemen were killed in the attacks.3

    Rohingya Militancy

    While the origin of the Rohingya crisis goes back to the 1950s, it started attracting greater attention only during the present decade because of large-scale violence and the resultant unprecedented refugee flows into neighbouring countries in South and South East Asia. In addition, the fears expressed by the present and the previous governments regarding a nexus between the Rohingyas and Islamic extremists (especially the Islamic State) have also led to a rise in interest about the issue.

    Immediately after Burma’s independence, a Muslim ‘mujahideen’ group emerged in Arakan State demanding equal rights and an autonomous Islamic area. Although this insurgency was subdued, it gave rise to several armed rebel groups in subsequent decades. One of the more prominent of such groups was the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), which was active in the 1980s. More recently, the Harakat al-Yakin (HaY), later renamed as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), came into prominence with the October 2016 attack on government establishments, that led to the death of nine police personnel.4 HaY was set up in 2015 by Attullah Abu Ammar Jununi, a Pakistani national trained in Saudi Arabia.5 ARSA is still a small group and mostly depends on money earned from drug trafficking and training and support from a few Rohingya immigrants who are settled in Saudi Arabia.6

    The ARSA’s aim is to ‘defend, salvage and protect’ the Rohingyas who are facing oppression by the state for decades.7 ARSA believes that it is working for ‘self-defence’ of Rohingyas.8 While the Rohingya rebels have indulged in violence, it needs to be noted that there are other Muslims, both in Rakhine state and elsewhere in Myanmar, who do not indulge in militancy.9 It needs to be pointed here that the Burmese authority denied citizenships to the Rohingyas by law, passed in 1982. Now, by escalating the military operations against all Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, the government is perhaps only increasing the scope of popular support enjoyed by the ARSA, which, at present, remains limited. Further, the 2008 Constitution of the country has allotted three important ministries to the military, including home affairs, border affairs and defence, as well as almost 25 per cent seats in the parliament. This implies that the present government may not have sufficient control over the military. Hence, having a control over the military operations against the Rohingyas would require the present government to have a more robust cooperation with the armed forces.

    Implications for 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. In November 2016, a person was arrested in Indonesia for planning an attack on the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. He reportedly claimed affiliation with the IS.10 The IS, in some of its public messages has stated its concern over the repression of the minority Rohingyas by the majority Burman-led governments. Although ARSA has reportedly denied any connection with the IS, suspicions persist about linkages between the two groups. To clear the ambivalence regarding the connection between the ARSA and the IS, on August 26, in an interview with Asia Times, an ARSA leader mentioned that they are fighting to stop the state-led oppression against the Rohingyas in Myanmar and get citizenship rights to them.11

    The systematic deprivation and gross violations of basic human rights have forced Rohingyas to flee their native land and seek refuge in neighbouring states including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and India. They have been unable to rebuild their lives in most of these countries due to the lack of opportunities provided by the host nations to contribute to the economy of that country even through semi-skilled and unskilled labour work as well, due to the growing fear of their linkages with Islamic extremism.

    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. Thus, after meeting with the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar Armed Forces, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, in Northern Thailand on August 31, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan referred to the Rohingyas as ‘Bengalis’ (as desired by the Myanmar government who considers the Rohingyas as illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh). General Prawit also urged the Thai media to use the term ‘Bengali’ instead of Rohingyas.12

    Bangladesh’s Border Guards meanwhile are not permitting fleeing Rohingyas to enter the country, leaving hundreds of refugees stranded in the border areas. Bangladesh has received the most number of refugees in the recent crisis primarily for two reasons. First, geography makes it easier for Rohingyas to cross the border into Bangladesh. And second, Rohingya Muslims are culturally and ethnically closer to the people of Bangladesh, given that they are descendants of Bengali-Muslims from the Chittagong area who had migrated to present-day Myanmar during the British Raj.13

    As far as India is concerned, a few days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first bilateral state visit to Myanmar on September 5-7, Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, stated that India needs to deport those Rohingyas who are illegally staying in India. The Supreme Court of India, hearing a plea by two Rohingya refugees, has instructed the government to inform it about the detailed plans with regard to the deportation of Rohingya refugees. Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta is expected to present the government’s stand on the subject to the Supreme Court on September 11.14

    India’s tough stand on deporting Rohingyas back to Rakhine State in the midst of the ongoing violence has evoked criticism from national and international human rights activists. The India-Myanmar Joint Statement, released when Prime Minister Modi visited Nay Pyi Taw, noted that the situation in Rakhine State has a ‘developmental as well as a security dimension’.15 India will help Myanmar under the Rakhine State Development Programme and both sides are expected to finalise the implementation plan of this programme in the coming months. It will cover 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 and so on. The Joint Statement, however, has no specific mention about the recent clashes between the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists or exodus of the Rohingyas from Myanmar or India’s plan about deportation of some 40,000 Rohingya refugees who are reportedly staying in India.

    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.

    Response from Myanmar

    To address the Rohingya crisis, the Myanmar government and its de-facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have taken a few steps. In September 2016, Suu Kyi appointed an advisory commission, comprised of six members from Myanmar and three international members, led by former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, to investigate the situation in Rakhine State. However, the commission was not mandated to investigate individual or specific cases of alleged human rights abuses. A few hours before the ARSA-led attack in Rakhine State on August 25, 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.16

    However, it seems that Myanmar may take several more years to even begin to discuss the possibility of granting citizenship to the Rohingyas. In most speeches and documents delivered by government leaders and officials, the Rohingyas are referred to as Bengalis who have migrated from Bangladesh. Hence, one way of handling the situation might be considering aspects of citizenships to the Rohingyas who are living in Myanmar for centuries now.


    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. ASEAN, India and Bangladesh need to discuss the Rohingya crisis together to work for an optimum solution to the problem. 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. 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.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.