On Sunday, 2 September, hundreds of Buddhist monks joined protestors in Mandalay in show of support for President Thein Sein’s anti-Rohingya plan.
Numbering 800,000 in Myanmar, the Rohingya are one of the largest ethnic minority groups in the country. Although they have lived in Myanmar for many generations, they are unwelcome and the Myanmar government considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Currently, there are about 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. However, Bangladesh does not recognise them as Bangladeshi and considers them to be Myanmar citizens. Thus, unwanted by both Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Rohingya are essentially stateless. The United Nations considers the ethnic group to be one the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities.
The Rohingya issue escalated in June this year when violent clashes between the Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state killed at least 80 people and displaced more than 60, 000 people.
President Thein Sein has suggested that the "solution" to the Rohingya issue would be to deport them to any country (besides Bangladesh) willing to accept the Rohingya. The other solution would be to hold the Rohingya in camps. The plan to deport the Rohingya and make them refugees has been criticised by the UN refugee agency, which refused to endorse a plan that would create even more refugees.
Myanmar has been reluctant to engage with ASEAN regarding the Rohingya issue. According to Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, the Rohingya issue is an internal issue, and other ASEAN states should uphold the policy of non-interference which it adheres to and not intervene.
In an opinion piece in The Nation, Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn, assistant group editor of the Nation Media Group in Thailand said, "A pattern has emerged – if it has to do with ASEAN, the government preferred assistance from individual ASEAN members or without the collective ASEAN label". It also prefers working with international organisations to avoid "the Islamisation of Rohingya at all costs".
The reverse is also true, with other ASEAN members, safe for Indonesia, reluctant to comment or initiate any action which could politicise the issue or bring religion into the fray. ASEAN is fearful that any response on its part could put a damper on the progress made toward democratisation and reform in Myanmar. In another opinion piece, Mr. Kavi said, "ASEAN is facing a new dilemma over how best to deal with the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, without tearing apart the already fragile solidarity or further damaging the principle of non-interference".
However, ASEAN has been encouraged to engage with Myanmar on the Rohingya issue. “In the long run, the issue would be best dealt with through an ASEAN-wide approach in the context of human rights and democracy, which is considered an ASEAN issue,” said Mr. Kavi. There are various instruments through which ASEAN may do so. For instance, there is the ASEAN Charter and the blueprint for political and security which provides ASEAN with the mandate to handle the issue.
According to Mr. Kavi, for the sake of Myanmar’s democratisation and reform process, it is best that ASEAN and Myanmar work together on the issue. To many outsiders looking in, Myanmar’s deep-seated resentment and xenophobia towards the Rohingya is incomprehensible. The Rohingya issue, which has existed for decades, is likely to remain unresolved in the near future unless mindsets in Myanmar are changed. Perhaps this is where the other members of ASEAN, many comprising of multiple ethnic groups, could come in and provide an example for Myanmar.
Op-ed: Rohingya plight further divides Asean [Jakarta Globe (Reprinted from Straits Times), 5 September 2012]
Op-ed: Myanmar sending mixed signals to Asean [The Nation, 3 September 2012]
Report: Mandalay Monks Hold Anti-Rohingya Protests [The Irrawaddy and Associated Press, 3 September 2012]
Report: Myanmar moots camps, deportation as ‘Rohingya’ solution [AFP, 12 July 2012]
Report: Mass Myanmar monk rally backs anti-Rohingya plan [The Straits Times, 3 September 2012]
Op-ed: Intolerant Myanmar [Bangkok Post, 5 September 2012]