IO – In the northeastern corner of Myanmar, in front of the Bay of Bengal, there is the State of Rakhine. A crescent-shaped sliver of land, it is home to the Muslim-minority Rohingya who, for decades, has been subjected to a state-sponsored policy of oppression and grotesque violence.
Living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State since the fifteenth century when Muslims first came to the area in what was then known as the Arakan Kingdom, with many more Muslims following when the British Empire brought them in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from Bengal (modern-day Bangladesh) to work as agricultural workers, the Rohingya have, unlike other ethnic minorities, been denied full citizenship by the Myanmar government. This lack of statehood has enabled the Myanmar government to institutionalize discrimination against the Rohingya, which includes draconian restrictions on education, marriage, employment and freedom of movement.
Making matters worse, ultranationalist Buddhists perceive the Rohingya as a threat to their ethnic identity as a majority Buddhist-denominated country, and interviews with Buddhist monks in the international media often display a callous disregard for the Rohingya’s basic human rights. Myanmar’s Buddhists have frequently participated in acts of violence along with the military directed at the Rohingya. It has been a relentless exercise of ethnic cleansing, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya displaced from their homes, scores tortured and brutally murdered.
After the latest bloodbath, which erupted last August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights held interviews with people who fled Myanmar and found refuge in Bangladesh. In a U.N. flash report issued this past February, there were numerous stories told of mass gang-rape, killings, including of babies and young children, beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations by the country’s military, the Tatmadaw. And as usual, the Myanmar government either totally dismissed or downplayed what they insist are unfounded accusations.
In fact, more than half of the Rohingya residing in Rakhine, around 650,00 out of a total population of 1.1million, have fled to Bangladesh since 2017. Myanmar’s military reportedly placed land mines near border crossings with Bangladesh and opened fire on fleeing Rohingya seeking safe haven. There has been harsh condemnation by the international community, and the U.S.A. has responded by applying limited sanctions, but little else has happened in terms of stern and concerted efforts to punish and persuade the Myanmar government to stem the violence.
At the same time, most of the media covering the Rohingya story have forgotten this latest outbreak of ethnic cleansing is part of a wider and longer pattern of human rights abuses. Since the 1970s, the Tatmadaw has carried out a campaign of violence against most of their country’s major ethnic nationalities with the exception of the Bama, who make up roughly 60 percent of Myanmar’s 50 million people.
One well-reported case of wide-scale state violence against ethnic groups involves the Karen. Situated primarily in eastern Myanmar, the Karen were victimized first in the 1980s. In the 1990s alone more than 3,000 Karen villages were destroyed. By 2006, it was estimated 150,000 Karen were living in nine refugee camps inside Thailand. The Shan, another ethnic minority group, fared little better. In the late 1990s, the Shan faced the wrath of the Tatmadaw in full force, resulting in a mass displacement of 300,000 people. Many Shan are still stateless, living in Thailand and along its border with Myanmar. Finally, there is the tragedy of the Kachin starting in 2011, when a nearly two-decades ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army broke down and more than 100,000 people were displaced.
The Myanmar government has proven it is tone-deaf to voices of international protest and outrage. And despite the stiffer sanctions imposed upon the military junta before Myanmar started down the path of democratization in 2008, there has never been a consensus within its senior ranks that a change in policy could serve the regime’s better interests.
Not helping matters has been the stunning lack of moral leadership shown by Nobel Peace Prize winner and politician Aung San Suu Kyi. As a beacon of hope for a better Myanmar when she was finally released in 2010 by the military junta from a house arrest that lasted almost two decades and then appointed as her country’s State Counsellor in 2016, a position akin to Prime Minister, she has revealed herself as less of a political reformer than most of her admirers expected. In one interview with the cable news channel Al Jazeera, the Lady—as many of her followers call her—vehemently denied there was any ethnic cleansing taking place against the Rohingya.
Meanwhile, U.N. Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein recently said that the Myanmar government’s policies in Rakhine are a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” and added its actions are part of a “cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return.”
This raises the larger question of what, if anything, can be done to bring help to the Rohingya?
If there are any potential brokers for a solution, Myanmar’s largest neighbors, namely China and India, can be quickly discounted as a consequence of religious discrimination and conflicts of interest. Both countries have had long-standing tensions with their minority Muslim populations, while at the same time Beijing and New Delhi are actively pursuing massive energy projects in Myanmar. Neither country can be expected to take a leadership role or support any effort to extend help to the Rohingya in a meaningful manner.
ASEAN could potentially serve as a forum, yet with its traditional policy of non-interference this is unlikely. Until now, its response to the Rohingya crisis has been timid at best, with the usual bland platitudes of concern and slaps on the wrist.
Indonesia, the leader of the ASEAN community and also home to the largest Muslim population in the world, could easily and should do more to find a workable and realistic set of policies to alleviate the sufferings of the Rohingya.
So far, Jakarta’s policies toward Rohingya refugees and its diplomatic efforts have been somewhat mixed. Previous efforts to accommodate Rohingya refugees came to the test in 2015 when boatloads of Rohingya refugees approached Aceh’s shores and the military sent them back to sea. Shortly thereafter, only after international pressure was applied on the Indonesian government, Jakarta became more accommodating and allowed Rohingya boatpeople to enter and remain in Indonesia on a temporary basis.
Recent diplomatic efforts, such as Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s Formula 4 +1 proposal to Myanmar for restoring peace and allowing humanitarian access to Rakhine, and the Indonesian government’s support of the Indonesian Humanitarian Alliance for Myanmar to bring aid to Rohingya refugees are certainly steps in the right direction.
Yet more can be done. Given the Myanmar government’s intransigence on the Rohingya issue and the reluctance of ASEAN countries to move beyond polite and ineffectual roundtable discussions, it remains incumbent upon Indonesia— which possesses the regional status and Muslim credentials—to set an example that can be followed by others.
In particular, the Jokowi administration should do more to improve its refugee management policies, which could include measures allowing more Rohingya refugees into Indonesia, providing them with better welfare services, access to education and health care, and most importantly granting Rohingya refugees with rights to work. By taking these concrete actions—offering tangible help to the Rohingya who have managed to make the long journey from a place of suffering they have never been able to call home—Indonesia can claim a stronger stake in providing moral leadership, both for the region and the Islamic world.