In April and May this year, around 25,000 Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar and, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh fled their countries on boats organized by people smugglers. Many hundreds reportedly died along the way. Around 8,000 of them were stranded in the Andaman Sea until late May, when the governments of Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia agreed to provide temporary shelter. At the same time, mass graves of Rohingya smuggled through the jungle into Malaysia were discovered.
The international community, including the government of Myanmar and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has a responsibility to protect Rohingya Muslims. A declaration issued at a meeting of regional leaders in Bangkok on May 29 provides an important framework for doing just that. Attention and resources should now be focused on delivering on the commitments made there.
The Rohingya crisis itself is not new. But it is complex and multi-faceted. There are around 1.3 million Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, mostly living in Rakhine state. In 1982, they were made stateless by government legislation and to this day the government maintains that they are illegal “Bengali” immigrants. Prejudice against them is deep-seated. Not only the country’s majority Buddhist Burmese—whose radical elements lead the charge against the Rohingya—but also other ethnic minorities exhibit strong prejudices against them.
In October 2012, violence erupted between the majority Rakhines (Arakanese) in Rakhine state and the Rohingya. Around 200 people were killed in the violence and more than 100,000 forced to flee their homes. Since then, there has been periodic inter-communal violence, including clashes in May 2013.
The Myanmar government’s response to the unfolding crisis has been decidedly mixed. On the one hand, it has repeatedly promised to pursue reconciliation and address the citizenship issue. On the other, it has tried to contain the violence by imposing ever-tighter restrictions on the Rohingya. Around 140,000 live in appalling conditions in internally displaced person camps and a series of laws has tightened discrimination against them—a point recognized by successive UN human rights special rapporteurs. However, public opinion in Myanmar strongly supports the government’s strong line. Efforts to ease the persecution are often met with resistance, street protests, and violence.
Herein lies a crucial dilemma. Myanmar’s transition to democracy and the opening up of free speech has sharply exacerbated inter-communal tensions and prejudice. Myanmar is a country largely held together by its military; one where the government faces around a dozen armed separatist groups. Amongst other things, with democratic opening comes a stronger voice for hardline Buddhist nationalists and the further marginalization of the Rohingya.
Given how fragile Myanmar’s transition is, and the great underlying potential for violence around a general election scheduled for later this year, the government and other actors engaged in the election process need to tread very carefully. Already, popular protests and general disorder have forced the government to retreat from its earlier position of allowing Rohingya to have voting rights. Likewise, it was plausible fear of communal violence that caused the government to backtrack on allowing the Rohingya to self-identify in a national census.
None of this means that pressure should not be brought to bear on the government to improve the protection of Rohingya. It is simply to emphasize that the situation is neither straightforward nor lacking in hidden dangers. It is not difficult to see how ill-conceived international pressure could result in a far worse series of crises.
There are a number of reasons why the region’s leaders have found it so difficult to resolve this problem. ASEAN itself remains wedded to the principle of non-interference in its member states’s domestic activities, which limits the amount of pressure that can be brought to bear on Naypyidaw; outsiders have to strike a careful balance between encouraging the regime to reform and actions that could increase the country’s social and political fragmentation during its fragile transformation; and the region’s governments are only too aware that an influx of migrants could add to the demands for social services and pressures on their own vulnerable communities, heightening the risk of inter-communal violence.
Yet, while we must recognize these challenges, they do not absolve the region of its protection responsibilities. Not only have all the relevant states committed themselves to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as well as a range of international legal instruments that grant intrinsic rights to the Rohingya, but ASEAN’s own Declaration of Human Rights applies to all people in Southeast Asia regardless of “race, gender, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth, disability or other status” (Article 2). It affords rights to life (Article 11), personal liberty and security (Article 12), asylum (Article 16), and nationality (Article 17). It provides freedoms from servitude, slavery and people smuggling (Article 13), torture and cruel and degrading behaviour (Article 14). It also affords freedom of movement (Article 15). These are the rights that the region’s leaders themselves say underpin the emerging ASEAN community.
The region’s response to the Spring 2015 crisis was slow, but significant. Governments responded to domestic pressure calling for them to do more to protect the Rohingya. Eminent Southeast Asians such as Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN secretary-general, and the popular Malaysian columnist Marina Mahathir—both, incidentally, members of the High Level Advisory Panel on R2P in Southeast Asia—called upon governments to shoulder their protection responsibilities. The parliamentary network ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights did likewise. That the pressure to act came from within the region suggests that, gradually, the ideals of the ASEAN community are starting to shape the region’s humanitarian policies.
More importantly in the immediate term, the recent Bangkok declaration contained a realistic roadmap for resolving the problem—one that is likely to have influence because it comes from within the region itself and includes the government of Myanmar. Critics complained that the declaration did not mention the Rohingya by name or blame the crisis on the government of Myanmar. Neither was likely, not least because the government was itself a signatory to the declaration, but its absence would have doomed any initiative to failure. Nor would either of these statements have added to the protection of vulnerable communities.
Substantively, the declaration achieved three important things. First, it created a process for resolving the immediate crisis through the granting of temporary shelter for Rohingya in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. The region also agreed to step up search and rescue efforts and end the practice of turning boats around. It is now for the rest of the region, including states such as Australia and Japan, to do their share in fulfilling R2P by assisting the process of turning temporary shelter into longer-term resettlement. The declaration invites the UN High Commission and the International Organization on Migration to lend their assistance. Significantly, and almost unnoticed by external commentators, it made specific note of the particular protection needs of the most vulnerable groups, including women, children and unaccompanied minors, and called for particular attention to be paid to their protection needs
Second, it establishes new impetus for efforts to stem the tide of human suffering by furthering cooperation to end people smuggling. This includes the usual security-focused measures such as enhanced intelligence sharing and measures to strengthen national law enforcement. But, again, almost unnoticed, among these measures were “enhancing legal, affordable, and safe channels of migration.” Countries agreed to empower their populations to enable them to migrate in a safe, legal, and orderly fashion.
Third, and significantly for a region so committed to non-interference, the declaration called for action to address the “root causes” of the problem. In addition to focusing on issues of economic development—which are hugely significant in Rakhine state, which is among Myanmar’s poorest for all living there – it made specific mention of human rights, committing parties to “promoting full respect for human rights and adequate access of people to basic rights and services such as housing, education and healthcare…” This is nothing short of remarkable: a regional declaration recognizing that human rights lay at the heart of the matter and committing states to their promotion.
The recent Bangkok declaration therefore constitutes a viable roadmap for addressing the protection crisis confronting Myanmar’s Rohingya population and fulfilling R2P. The challenge now lies in ensuring its implementation. This process should be led by ASEAN and its member states in partnership with Myanmar, but supported by the wider international community. In particular, in the first instance, the wider community has a responsibility to ensure adequate resettlement places for Rohingya refugees, to support frontline rescue services, and to support the provision of humanitarian aid. In the longer term, international assistance needs to be carefully calibrated to address the needs identified in the Bangkok declaration.
At the same time, ASEAN, the UN and other interested parties need to begin assessing the very real risks of election-related violence across Myanmar later this year, which—as a recent fact-finding mission by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights found—includes a credible risk of crimes against humanity. A concerted prevention effort, involving multiple actors ranging from the UN in New York to civil society and private sector actors inside Myanmar, will be needed to support the country at this most difficult time in its transition.