The Rohingya Crisis: High on Outrage, Short on Action

Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, use a makeshift footbridge near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. Bangladeshi authorities on Sunday took steps to restrict the movement of Muslim Rohingya refugees living in crowded border camps after fleeing violence in Myanmar, while that nation's military chief maintained the chaos was the work of extremists seeking a stronghold in the country. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

It has been more than a month now since the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) staged its well-planned attacks against Myanmar’s border police in Rakhine on August 25 and the subsequent “clearing operations” by the Tatmadaw’s (military) against the militants in northern Rakhine. This resulted in one of the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world—over half a million Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh; some 40,000 Buddhist, Hindu, and non-Muslim civilians are internally displaced; and more than 1,000 civilians and militants are dead. Although the Tatmadaw announced on October 13 that it would conduct an internal investigation into alleged atrocities committed by soldiers against the Rohingyas, a government-created commission that previously investigated the military’s alleged abuses in Rakhine following attacks by militants last year found “no evidence” to support such claims. The announcement may be part of the military’s attempt to deflect international criticisms of its excessive use of force in Rakhine and which served as the basis of the EU’s decision to cut ties with the Tatmadaw. Meanwhile, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on October 13 called to the UN Security Council to push for the repatriation of Rohingyas in Myanmar and for the government to ensure their safe return and provide assistance to rebuild their lives.

Beyond the strong international outrage over the suffering of the Rohingyas and other affected communities in Myanmar and Bangladesh, it appears there is still no meaningful concerted action at the international and regional levels. The immediate task is to save lives and protect vulnerable populations from atrocities—which is the primary responsibility of the Myanmar government, though it has not effectively done so. The international community is also falling short of its responsibility to respond effectively. This presents some basic but critical questions: What are some priority areas in responding to this humanitarian crisis in the region? What role can ASEAN play in cooperation with the UN, the Myanmar government, and other stakeholders?

On September 28, the UN Security Council debate on Myanmar underscored the need for international action to halt the violence and respond to the humanitarian crisis in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Myanmar authorities “to end the military operations; to allow unfettered access for humanitarian support; and to ensure the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees to their areas of origin.” He also stressed that “the violence in Rakhine—whether by the military or radical elements within communities—must end.” He expressed concern over the “current climate of antagonism towards the UN and non-government organizations” in Rakhine, which can lead to violence, such as the reported attacks on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the state capital of Sittwe. In his closing words, the Secretary-General stressed that the UN is prepared to work in partnership with the Myanmar government in addressing the urgent humanitarian issues in Rakhine; that it has “no agenda other than to help Myanmar advance the well-being of its people;” and it has “no interest other than to see all communities enjoying peace, security, prosperity and mutual respect.”

Despite the UN chief’s call for a united international response, members of the UN Security Council remained divided. China and Russia, for example, supported Myanmar’s position in dealing with the crisis. Specifically, China’s ambassador to the UN, Wu Haitao, stressed the need for the international community to be patient with the government and provide it with the needed support and help. His Russian counterpart, Vassily Nevenzia, warned that “excessive pressure” on Myanmar could only further exacerbate the conflict within the country. (Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a speech in September at the opening session of the UN General Assembly, told Gutteres that China supports Myanmar’s efforts to protect its national security and opposed the violent attacks by militants in Rakhine.) Meanwhile, many members of the Security Council joined the calls of the US, Britain, and France for an end to violence in Rakhine and a strong response from the 15-member Council.

For his part, Myanmar’s National Security Adviser U Thaung Tun told the Security Council in the same meeting that the crisis in Rakhine was due to terrorism and denied that ethnic cleansing or genocide were happening in the country. He asserted that security operations in Rakhine ended on September 5, and announced that a group of diplomats will be visiting Rakhine soon. He also invited the Secretary-General to visit Myanmar and called on the international community to work with the government “for democracy to take firm root,” and pleaded with the Security Council to refrain from measures that could exacerbate the situation in Rakhine.

Despite the claim of the Myanmar government that clearing operations by security forces were concluded on September 5, there are continuing reports of atrocities or threats of violence against the remaining Rohingya community in Rakhine. For example, a day after Aung San Suu Kyi’s diplomatic briefing on September 19, the government reported that twenty homes were burned and a bomb was detonated near a mosque in Mi Chaung Zay village in Buthidaung township. Some civilian refugees claimed that they were terrorized by Myanmar soldiers and vigilante Buddhist mobs razed their villages. Myanmar’s army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, however, blamed the ARSA militants for the explosion outside a mosque and accused them of forcing some 700 villagers out of Mi Chaung Zay. Some Muslim villagers trapped in Rakhine since the August 25 attacks have expressed desire to leave after receiving threats from Rakhine Buddhists, but were denied safe passage by the state government.

On September 27, the Myanmar government claimed that, since the ARSA attacks on August 25, some 84 people have been killed—including Muslims, Hindu, ethnic Arakanese, Daignet, Mro, and security forces—and that 44 people went missing. Security forces and Hindu villagers in northern Maungdaw also claimed that they discovered 28 dead bodies and unearthed 17 others, who were allegedly killed by ARSA militants. Since the first attack in October 2016, the government reported that there have been a total of 163 people killed and 91 missing in Maungdaw township. Meanwhile, human rights organizations claimed that, based on satellite photos, there was widespread burning of villages in northern Rakhine in the aftermath of the ARSA attacks. This supports testimonies of some refugees who fled to Bangladesh and is consistent with previous arson attacks on Rohingya villages in 2012 and 2016. On October 4, some 10,000 Rohingyas have reportedly massed near a crossing point into Bangladesh as they claimed that the Myanmar army is redoubling its push to drive the remaining Muslims from their homes. This also comes on the heels of the one-month ceasefire unilaterally declared by ARSA, which ended on October 9, but which the Myanmar military ignored. Amid reports of ARSA recruitment in Bangladesh, fresh militant attacks and escalation of violence in Rakhine cannot be discounted.

Priorities for International Action

This crisis presents and opening for the UN and ASEAN to work together with the Myanmar government and other stakeholders in crafting an effective regional response. Specifically, there are three priority areas for immediate action, namely: 1) prevent further escalation of violence in Rakhine; 2) respond more substantively to the humanitarian crisis; and 3) contain the threat of extremist militants, which could seriously undermine regional stability. These are essential to ensuring the safe return of refugees and internally displaced persons in Rakhine; they are also central to the realization of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission’s recommendations in the long-term. Indeed, these recommendations should serve as a roadmap for the Myanmar government, ASEAN, and the international community to work together to promote long-term peace in Rakhine.

Preventing further escalation of violence and atrocities should be the top priority in Rakhine. Specifically, through back-door diplomacy, ASEAN members must work together to persuade the Myanmar government and the military to cooperate with the UN in allowing an independent fact-finding mission to visit the country to verify and validate allegations of human rights violations and atrocities committed by all parties. More importantly, the investigative body should also assess the challenges and constraints faced by Myanmar police and security forces to effectively manage threats to peace and order in Rakhine, including the protection of civilians, which is quite critical considering what is happening there. No less than the chief of Myanmar’s police force has admitted weak security measures at the border with Bangladesh, which resulted in a series of attacks in Rakhine. ASEAN can play a crucial role in this regard, especially in providing assistance to the Myanmar police.

With the consent of the Myanmar government, some ASEAN members like the Philippines and Indonesia may volunteer to send their professional police officers contingent with expertise in civilian protection, including women police forces. Cambodia may also send land-mine clearing experts to help ensure the safety of refugees who will be returning to Rakhine from Bangladesh. Although the UN has called for an “orderly, voluntary, and safe” repatriation of refugees, and the Myanmar government has also made a commitment to do so in accordance with its own verification process, this can only be realized meaningfully if there are adequate civilian protection mechanisms in place. Thus, the Myanmar government should not hesitate to request assistance in this area from its ASEAN neighbors, with the support of the international community.

Another priority is to ensure more substantive humanitarian assistance to all affected communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and those in Bangladesh. With the exodus of more than half a million refugees from Rakhine, which include Rohingyas and Hindus, there is an urgent need for at least US$434 million humanitarian aid in the next six months to help some 1.2 million Rohingyas in Bangladesh, the majority of which are children. Specifically, the aid would cover food for half a million people, emergency shelters, and health care for children; and maternity care for about 24,000 pregnant refugees. International humanitarian organizations have called for a massive and immediate scale-up of assistance, which is urgently needed to save lives amid the high risks of disease outbreaks due to inadequate access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. The UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has also warned of cholera risk spreading as Bangladesh plans to build the world’s largest refugee camp for 700,000 Rohingyas. Human trafficking is also a concern, as refugees are vulnerable, especially women and children.

Indeed, international and regional organizations can do more to respond to this emergency. For example, donor OECD countries and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should provide increased humanitarian assistance for refugees in Bangladesh and ensure that they properly taken care of. Within its disaster and humanitarian assistance mechanisms, ASEAN can also contribute by sending medical personnel, social workers, and other humanitarian experts to assist refugees in Bangladesh and internally displaced persons in Rakhine. ASEAN has in fact a humanitarian trust fund that could be utilized to help refugees and victims of human trafficking. More importantly, ASEAN should do its best to persuade the Myanmar government to allow humanitarian access in Rakhine and coordinate with the UN and humanitarian organisations in facilitating the delivery of food, shelter, and health care to Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus who are currently trapped in certain villages affected by the communal conflict.

Finally, containing the threat posed by ARSA militants should be dealt with accordingly by the Myanmar government and the military with the support of ASEAN and the international community as part of preventing the escalation of violence in Rakhine and protecting vulnerable populations thereat. The risk of militants staging another planned attacks remains high amid reports of recruitment from among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, some of whom were quoted in international media reports as more than willing to join the ARSA forces. This would then exacerbate the cycle of violence as the Myanmar military is likely to respond accordingly with more lethal force against the militants, endangering civilian lives. In any event, ASEAN and its dialogue partners should continue to engage the military in Myanmar and persuade its leadership to abide by international standards on human rights protection and international humanitarian law. While targeted sanctions against the military is an important tool as part of holding it accountable for human rights violations, completely cutting ties with the Tatmadaw would be impractical and counterproductive in halting violence in Rakhine and in ensuring protection of vulnerable populations from atrocities.

Overall, ASEAN should be at the forefront of international and regional actions to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine and Bangladesh. Notwithstanding the recent bickering within ASEAN about its collective statement on the crisis, it must act collectively with “a sense of urgency and effective leadership,” as former ASEAN Secretary-General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan has aptly put it. Indeed, as he further pointed out, “ASEAN must now act again to address the Rakhine crisis. It will have to act fast to save lives and prevent the carnage from deteriorating and escalating into regional tensions. The world is watching. ASEAN’s credibility and profile are hanging in the balance.”