Rohingya issue should be debated; crisis should be resolved for betterment of region

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.
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 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 Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 police posts and one army base in that state on August 25. While over 70 ARSA militants lost their lives, a dozen policemen were killed in the attacks. 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. HaY was set up in 2015 by Attullah Abu Ammar Jununi, a Pakistani national trained in Saudi Arabia. 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
ARSA’s aim is to ‘defend, salvage and protect’ the Rohingyas who are facing oppression by the state for decades. ARSA believes that it is working for ‘self-defence’ of Rohingyas. 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. 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.
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.

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