The humanitarian crisis afflicting Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya has damaged the country’s political stability and shattered its image as a country moving toward democracy. Moreover, it has called into question the crisis-management credentials of ASEAN and the United Nations; and made a mockery of international institutions for conflict prevention.
Who are Rohingyas?
With 1.1 million members, the Rohingya are one of the world’s largest stateless ethnic groups. Most came to Myanmar as part of the expansion of the British Empire, after the Burmese king was defeated in 1826, but are still considered to be illegal Bengali immigrants.
How to handle the situation?
- First and foremost, the killings and atrocities against Rohingya must stop, which will be as difficult as it is necessary. For that to happen, however, Rohingya extremists must be contained. Contrary to the prevailing narrative in the West, the Myanmar military was provoked, after insurgents staged a series of attacks on police and army posts in August. Rohingya extremists have long-established links with foreign jihadists, including those of the Islamic State.
- It is precisely these concerns that Bangladesh and India have refused to resettle Rohingya refugees permanently, largely because they fear that jihadists could be among them.
- This tangled web of interests, coupled with the government’s failure, means that responsibility for protecting all of Myanmar’s people now falls to ASEAN or the UN.
- Once hostilities against Rohingya cease, the second step toward ensuring long-term peace will be the repatriation of refugees, which could prove to be a logistical nightmare.
- Assuming that the issues of violence and refugees can be addressed, Myanmar must grant international humanitarian access to the affected regions. ASEAN is well positioned to take the lead in shaping a regional response. ASEAN could also coordinate with the UN in managing emergency personnel.
- The fourth step is to hold enablers of the atrocities accountable. Myanmar’s government must undertake – or permit ASEAN or the UN to do so on its behalf – an independent and impartial investigation into the killings, identify the perpetrators, and subject them to transparent and credible prosecution.
- Finally, the government that Suu Kyi leads must repeal or amend all discriminatory laws and end official anti-Rohingya discrimination. The 1982 citizenship law did not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and they have severely limited access to health care, education, and employment, in addition to facing restrictions on their freedom of movement.
Myanmar’s democratic transition remains fragile, with civil-military relations, poverty, economic growth, and governance competing for attention. But the cessation of hostilities and resolution of the Rohingya crisis must take precedence.
These five steps will not heal all wounds or end every grievance. But they can help ease the suffering by discouraging further atrocities, deterring violent extremism, and improving border security. At the moment, this may be the best-possible outcome.
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