Asean must show its met­tle over the Ro­hingya cri­sis

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - MD RIZWANUL IS­LAM Md Rizwanul Is­lam is an As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor at Depart­ment of Law, North South Univer­sity.

Though weeks have passed, the lat­est wave of atroc­i­ties on Ro­hingya has not shown any signs of tan­gi­ble im­prove­ment. As the rest of the world has failed to act de­ci­sively, the Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties have mer­rily con­tin­ued their ram­page, and only now en­gaged in talks which may best be de­scribed as cer­e­mo­nial while mak­ing fu­tile prom­ises such as the repa­tri­a­tion of Ro­hingya which would likely only have a sym­bolic or mi­nus­cule im­pact. The de­plorable state of af­fairs which the Ro­hingya in is al­ready well-doc­u­mented. This write-up will try to high­light that apart from the di­rect vic­tims of the atroc­i­ties, the in­ter­ests of many others are also in jeop­ardy due to the in­hu­mane treat­ment of the Ro­hingya.

Af­ter the Ro­hingya vic­tims, the sec­ond most af­fected groups are the gov­ern­ment and peo­ple of Bangladesh, par­tic­u­larly the peo­ple of south­east­ern Bangladesh where Ro­hingya mostly take shel­ter. While over­all, the pub­lic in Bangladesh feel strongly about the suf­fer­ings of Ro­hingya and many have ex­tended their help, there is al­ways an un­der­cur­rent of ten­sion and un­ease about the en­try of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ro­hingya into Bangladesh. When many in the most de­vel­oped economies har­bour hos­tile at­ti­tudes to­wards per­se­cuted peo­ple seek­ing refuge within their bor­ders; for a densely pop­u­lated, eco­nom­i­cally back­ward coun­try like Bangladesh, such a con­cern is un­sur­pris­ing. The longer the sta­tus quo pre­vails, con­cerns about the strain on lo­cal re­sources and in­fra­struc­ture will gain stronger mo­men­tum.

This would be fur­ther fu­elled by some stray in­ci­dents of des­per­ate Ro­hingya en­gag­ing in crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties which would be high­lighted by sen­sa­tional jour­nal­ism by some in Bangladesh and would be re­hashed by pro­pa­gan­dists on so­cial me­dia where wild claims can eas­ily be passed off as facts. As is gen­er­ally the case with pro­pa­ganda, much of it would be sim­plis­tic.

How­ever, it is the pub­lic opin­ion which has been a de­ci­sive, if not defin­ing force, pro­pel­ling the gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh to al­low Ro­hingya to take shel­ter in Bangladesh. But when the pub­lic opin­ion be­comes ad­verse, there may be a marked reversal in the poli­cies of the gov­ern­ment.

The com­mon peo­ple of Myan­mar have not shown any real con­cern for the Ro­hingya whom ap­par­ently many per­ceive to be in­trud­ers, not cit­i­zens. How­ever, the wider pop­u­la­tion of Myan­mar needs to wake up and re­alise that there is no end to the marginal­i­sa­tion of eth­nic mi­nori­ties by a bru­tal dic­ta­to­rial regime. While to­day it may be the Ro­hingya that are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the wrath of the regime, to­mor­row it may be another group. The bru­tal­ity per­pe­trated on the Ro­hingya may also de­hu­man­ise peo­ple and de­sen­si­tise them to vi­o­lence. And for sure, this would cor­rode Myan­mar’s fu­ture as a mem­ber of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity which may also have an im­pact on the fu­ture flow of for­eign in­vest­ment into the coun­try.

The re­gional pow­ers such as In­dia, China and Rus­sia’s mis­sion for strate­gic eco­nomic gains through the ap­pease­ment of the Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties may have short-term im­per­a­tives; but they may not be last­ing ones. In par­tic­u­lar, the bru­tal­i­ties on the Ro­hingya may be used by Mus­lim ex­trem­ist groups for in­cit­ing many dis­il­lu­sioned young peo­ple. Thus, the ap­peal of the ex­trem­ist groups may in­crease. And there may be a po­ten­tial in­flux of op­por­tunist racist at­tacks on Bud­dhist com­mu­ni­ties in their own back­yards. For sure, any such con­demnable at­tack may stir up com­mu­nal con­flicts and threaten the peace and sta­bil­ity in many parts of Asia. The loom­ing prospect of these should be dis­con­cert­ing for both In­dia and China, both of which al­ready face for­mi­da­ble sep­a­ratist move­ments within their own bor­ders.

In­deed, the Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties’ dis­dain for in­ter­na­tional law is man­i­fested not only in their per­se­cu­tion of Ro­hingya. The per­sis­tent vi­o­la­tion of the airspace of Bangladesh by the au­thor­i­ties of Myan­mar is also pal­pa­ble. The ut­ter dis­dain that the Myan­mar mil­i­tary is show­ing to in­ter­na­tional law, if it re­mains un­re­strained, is a threat to peace and sta­bil­ity in the re­gion. It may not be far-fetched that they would, in the not too dis­tant fu­ture, ap­pear as a real men­ace not only to the Ro­hingya or the greater pop­u­la­tion of Myan­mar but also to other coun­tries in the re­gion.

The story of the re­gional eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion of Asean is a re­mark­able one. From a loose club-like as­so­ci­a­tion of states, Asean is now pos­si­bly the third most eco­nom­i­cally in­te­grated re­gion in the world, just af­ter the Euro­pean Union and North Amer­i­can Free Trade Area. Con­sid­er­ing the eco­nomic and other di­ver­si­ties of the group of Asean states, their progress on re­gional eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion is con­sid­er­able. How­ever, it may not be too late for the Asean lead­ers to recog­nise that non-in­ter­fer­ence in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of mem­ber states should no longer hold due to the treat­ment of Ro­hingya. Af­ter all, the World War II has shown the world that per­sis­tent vi­o­la­tion of hu­man dig­nity within a state’s bor­ders may not take too long to pose a threat to the peace be­yond them.

If Asean con­tin­ues to play no role in this is­sue, its ex­ter­nal im­age will con­tinue to take a beat­ing. With the United Na­tions sit­ting like a lame duck, it is per­haps the mem­ber states of Asean who are best placed to ex­ert tan­gi­ble and cred­i­ble pres­sure on Myan­mar. For all these rea­sons, it is im­per­a­tive that world pow­ers ex­ert real pres­sure on the au­thor­i­ties in Myan­mar. Oth­er­wise, well-mean­ing or diplo­matic words about the atroc­i­ties may con­tinue to fall on deaf ears. While hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief to the Ro­hingya may mol­lify our con­science, it fails to make a real dif­fer­ence to the root of their suf­fer­ings.

If Asean con­tin­ues to play no role in this is­sue, its ex­ter­nal im­age will con­tinue to take a beat­ing.


A Ro­hingya girl holds an um­brella over her lit­tle sis­ter dur­ing the rain near the Bangladesh-Myan­mar bor­der as they en­ter Bangladesh at Tek­naf on Sept 8.

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