Published daily by the Lowy Institute

No safe return for Rohingya refugees

A larger struggle over the “soul” of the Myanmar state and society greatly limits the scope for international influence.

A refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, in March (Photo: Allison Joyce/UN Women)
A refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, in March (Photo: Allison Joyce/UN Women)
Published 4 Sep 2018 

This is the first of a series of three articles on the Rohingya crisis, with subsequent articles by Nicholas Farrelly and Andrew Selth to discuss the situation in Bangladesh and the potential danger from transnational terrorist networks.

The Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar published last week is likely to dominate debates about the Rohingya refugee crisis and international policy choices in the coming months.

The explicit call for five named, high-ranking Myanmar military officials, including Commander-in-Chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, to be held criminally liable for “serious crimes under international law” will ratchet up the pressure on governments across the world to refer the issue to the International Criminal Court and impose further targeted sanctions.

While the world sees the Rohingya as victims, many people in Myanmar see them as a threat.

The push for individual accountability, however, is oriented towards punishing past atrocities (or, more tenuously, preventing future ones). It will do little to help the nearly one million refugees presently in Bangladesh or address mounting concern about regional stability. That will require a very different set of international policies, focused around deep engagement, in-country advocacy and practical support, and sustained over the long term.

To understand why, let’s consider four key aspects of Myanmar politics, which impede the safe return of the Rohingya refugees to their place of origin.

An intractable conflict

First, the “Rohingya crisis” is not so much a crisis as a decades-old, intractable conflict. 

While international attention is naturally focused on the recent mass exodus, Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing Northern Rakhine State for decades. At times they have left in floods, usually in response to major military security operations; at other times they have left in trickles as a result of the cumulative stresses of everyday state repression, discrimination and poverty. But they have never been “safe”.

After past mass exoduses in 1978 and 1991, the majority of refugees were pushed back to Myanmar, but in the absence of any real improvements in the security situation there, the cycle of displacement continued unabated. To simply return them offers no resolution of the present “crisis” either, unless there are major changes in official attitudes, policies and practices first.

Victims or threats

Second, while the world sees the Rohingya as victims, many people in Myanmar see them as a threat.

Within the government (and the military in particular), the Rohingya are perceived as a threat to Myanmar’s territorial integrity. During the Mujahedeen uprising in the 1950s, there were calls by some Rohingya leaders for Northern Arakan (now Northern Rakhine State) to be annexed to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). More recent demands by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army for an autonomous Muslim region has again raised the spectre of secession.

For the Rakhine, the Rohingya stand in the way of their own long-standing dream of a Rakhine state for the Rakhine. Historically, deep tensions between the two communities have been fuelled by a toxic mix of mutual fear, distrust and competition for scarce resources. The post-2011 national political reforms have added fuel to the fire by raising the possibility that the majority group at the local level may gain political and economic power that the central state has hereto denied everyone.

Among Buddhist nationalists, including many monks and ordinary Myanmar people, the Rohingya are viewed as the vanguard of an expansionist and dangerous religion. This view is reinforced by a widely held notion that the country’s “Western gate” is under siege by Bangladesh’s 160 million Muslims, and has been compounded by the rise of the global Jihadist movement. Many Burman Buddhists believe their race and religion are under threat and must be protected, at all cost, to avoid the fate they say befell earlier Buddhist Kingdoms in Afghanistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, which are now Islamic countries. 

These fears may not seem rational to outside observers. But they are deeply held and make it very difficult for international calls for recognition of the rights of the Rohingya to get a hearing inside Myanmar.

Deep domestic divisions

Third, the Rohingya crisis is nested within two other complex political conflicts.

The ongoing security crisis in Rakhine State has put immense pressure on an already tense relationship between the National League for Democracy government and the military. 

Paradoxically, while State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticised for shielding the military against international demands for accountability, the military has been angered by her refusal to convene the National Defence and Security Council. This council was set up to coordinate government security policy and is the only institution that can declare a state of emergency (as the previous government did during the communal violence in Rakhine State in 2012). 

Further complicating matters for Aung San Suu Kyi, several opposition parties have taken advantage of the security crisis to challenge the government’s nationalist credentials and try to weaken its support among Burman majority voters in particular. Thus, they have effectively aligned themselves with the military in the political struggle that is already heating up in preparation for the 2020 elections. 

Although persistent rumours of a pending coup are probably overstated, Aung San Suu Kyi has reason to fear that any step by her government, which could be perceived as pro-Rohingya, would be exploited by her political enemies to weaken not just her personally but conceivably also the country’s embryonic democracy. 

Deep divisions also exist between the Burman-led government and local Rakhine people. 

Like other ethnic minorities, many Rakhine feel cheated by the new government that had promised federalism but is widely perceived to pay little attention to local voices and needs, having chosen instead to use its landslide victory in the 2015 elections to further consolidate power at the centre. There is thus a deep divide between national and local Rakhine state authorities – not to mention heightened anti-government sentiments across Rakhine society – which impedes effective local governance.

Competing external interests

Finally, the major external powers have competing interests in Myanmar. 

Western condemnation of the Myanmar government for its handling of the Rohingya crisis has presented China with a welcome opportunity to regain much of the diplomatic ground it seemed to have lost in recent years. This wider geopolitical game all but guarantees that Beijing will continue to provide diplomatic protection, as well as much-needed foreign direct investment and aid, and much reduces the cost to Myanmar of defying international demands for justice for the Rohingya.

In sum, the Rohingya are caught up in a larger struggle over the “soul” of the Myanmar state and society, which greatly limits the scope for international influence.

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