The long read: how to permanently solve the Rohingya migrant crisis

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar so far this year, many on rickety boats that have simply been abandoned at sea, who are mainly the victims of human trafficking. The situation in South and South-East Asian waters has grown so desperate that global coverage of the crisis has finally convinced some of the regional players to take action.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have agreed to take in about 7,000 migrants between them and Thailand is considering a similar approach. The United States and other donors are expected to cover some of the costs of providing shelter and care for the migrants.

But these countries have only agreed to host the migrants for a year. None of the countries are agreeing to settle these refugees permanently, most of whom are from the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, although Bangladesh’s foreign secretary estimated in May that about 30 per cent of the migrants at sea in the current crisis were from Bangladesh.

As Myanmar’s political system has opened up over the past four years, making a transition from authoritarian army rule, ethnic and religious tensions have resurfaced, and waves of attacks on the Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority have devastated the community.

Targeted attacks have displaced at least 140,000 Rohingya, according to a report by advocacy group Fortify Rights. The paramilitaries attacking the Rohingya appear to be tolerated and even encouraged by some sectors of the armed forces, and they also enjoy ties to a group of hard line, nationalist Buddhist monks, who travel throughout Myanmar calling for the expulsion of the Rohingya.

In addition, western Myanmar reportedly contains vast mineral riches, and paramilitaries and average citizens may be assaulting the Rohingya in the hopes of gaining access to the wealth in the lands under the homes.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in the first quarter of 2015, about 25,000 people attempted to flee their home countries (primarily Myanmar) on traffickers’ boats in the Bay of Bengal. This figure was double the number on the same period in 2014.

A European model?

However, a lasting solution that stops the Rohingya from fleeing Myanmar is not impossible. In Europe, where countries are facing a migration crisis of much larger proportions, the European Commission has devised a plan for resettling refugees that would divide up migrants based on an EU member’s prosperity, number of refugees already taken in, unemployment rate and other factors. South-East Asian countries could establish a similar formula, based on GDP, unemployment rate and others, to determine how many refugees should be resettled.

This plan still has many details to be worked out, and European leaders face many domestic political groups opposed to resettling migrants; still, it is a plan that might work, which is much more than South-East Asia has. International powers could also make promises to resettle a certain number of the Rohingya each year for the next decade – public promises to which they could be held. Although the Rohingya might take time to acclimatise to the United States, Washington has taken in large numbers of migrants from vastly different cultures before – the Hmong in the 1970s and 1980s, or the Bhutanese in the past 10 years.


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Although South-East Asia is poorer than Europe, the region contains several extremely wealthy states, such as Singapore, that could fund the resettlement. Japan, battling with China for influence, is also searching for ways to spend its aid money. Funds for the resettlement could also come from Arabian Gulf states, whose leaders and people have taken a close interest in the Rohingya.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference has established a contact group on Rohingya issues, and an OIC delegation saw first-hand, during a trip to the country in 2013, the environment for Muslims in Myanmar. Hundreds of protesters, including Buddhist monks, marched to denounce the OIC simply for visiting. And OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu visited displaced persons camps in western Myanmar. “I was crying,” Ihsanoglu said after touring the camps, which are little more than open-air prisons. “I have never had such a feeling.”

Gulf funding, and the imprimatur of the OIC, could also convince Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur to resettle the Rohingya. Stories of these migrants being abused have been covered widely in the Indonesian and Malaysian media, and many Indonesian and Malaysian political and religious leaders have called on their governments to resettle those fleeing Myanmar; the impediment is the two countries’ lack of funds for migrants. Charles Santiago, an MP from the Democratic Action Party, the second-largest party in the Malaysian parliament, said last month: “State-sponsored violence has been unleashed against the Rohingya ... They became stateless in their home country.”

Still, any long-term solution requires a dramatic shift from the Myanmar government, and quiet dialogue has proven ineffective with Naypyidaw – or with other countries in the region, like Thailand, that have in the past apparently tolerated the smuggling of the Rohingya.

Only global attention led to the beginnings of a solution in recent weeks, and only continued global pressure is likely to have an impact. Thailand has begun to act against traffickers in recent weeks largely because of fears that reports of smuggling through the country will affect the reputation of its seafood industry, which allegedly has used slave labour, and because the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, wants to show that the junta is tougher on corruption than its previous elected predecessors. Combating corruption, after all, was one of the junta’s stated reasons for launching a coup.

Although Thailand largely ignored the crisis in early May, by the last week of the month the foreign affairs ministry’s permanent secretary, Norachit Singhaseni, declared: “Thailand stands ready to tackle the problem and indeed we have already taken the initiative and provided critical humanitarian aid.”

The Thai foreign minister, Thanasak Patimaprakorn, further admitted: “The influx of irregular migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an alarming level.” This was an admission Bangkok had never made before.

Myanmar failings

Myanmar leaders continue to try to cast doubt on the idea that there is a migration crisis at all, although officials attended the conference on the crisis held in Thailand in May. Shortly before this, the army’s commander in chief stated some of the refugees are Bangladeshi, are just posing as the Rohingya “to receive UN aid” and had no real reason to flee.

Myanmar officials also reportedly refused to attend the meeting unless it was pitched as a broad discussion about migration, rather than a meeting to address the Rohingya crisis. At the meeting, Myanmar “categorically refused to discuss its role as a cause for the crisis”, said Matthew Davies, of Australian National University, an expert on human rights in South-East Asia.

Then, in June, the Myanmar government announced that it would take steps to prohibit migrants – primarily Rohingya – from fleeing the country by boat, while doing nothing to address the discrimination and violence that prompts Rohingya to flee. In fact, the government passed a family planning law in mid-May that many Rohingya and Muslims believe is designed to limit Muslim birth rates.

And while the summer monsoon may temporarily reduce the number of Rohingya boarding boats, when calmer weather returns in the autumn experts expect the numbers fleeing to be similar to the exodus in the first quarter of this year.

Suu Kyi silence

This tolerance of abuses against the Rohingya is not unique to the Myanmar army and favoured political parties. Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has made no major statements on the Rohingya during these crises at sea. Ko Ko Gyi, a well-known democracy activist and former political prisoner, has declared that “Rohingya [Muslims] are not one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar at all ... genetically, culturally and linguistically [these] Rohingya are not absolutely related to any ethnicity in Myanmar.”

Although no comprehensive surveys have been taken of Myanmar citizens’ views on the Rohingya, many analysts believe that anti-Muslim rhetoric is popular among the Buddhist masses, which may explain Suu Kyi’s silence in advance of national elections to be held by the end of the year.

Although the National League for Democracy is set to win, it cannot count on the support of all of Myanmar’s numerous ethnic minorities, many of whom could vote for smaller parties; more than 70 already have registered.

As several Myanmar political analysts note, the NLD must win a significant part of the Burman and Buddhist majority to win control of parliament. In addition, the NLD has to win a supermajority of parliament if it has any chance to change Myanmar’s constitution, which was essentially written by the military. Or perhaps, notes Suu Kyi’s biographer Peter Popham, Suu Kyi “sincerely believes the story of Buddhist victimhood” told by Buddhist nationalists, who circulate DVDs in Myanmar and use social media to claim that Muslims are taking over the 4 per cent of the population in Myanmar, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist.

Suu Kyi’s silence has been condemned internationally. She was pointedly not invited to address a conference on the Rohingya issue held in Oslo in May. Another former Nobel laureate, the Dalai Lama, said Suu Kyi should be doing more to address the plight of the Rohingya.

The pro-army party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party is also trying to woo ethnically Myanmar and Buddhist voters; the army party is unlikely to be popular with ethnic minorities, many of whom have fought long civil wars against the military regime, which ruled for 50 years. In Myanmar’s first-past-the-post voting system, the USDP, which does not have the broad national support of the NLD, further needs to find districts in which it can make political strongholds. Parts of western Myanmar’s Abakan State, where the majority of attacks on Rohingya have taken place, are being targeted by USDP leaders as political strongholds.

The Myanmar president, former general Thein Sein, is not running for re-election, but he is a member of the USDP. The USDP’s leader for the elections, Thura Shwe Mann, is also a former general.

Given both major parties’ need to win Buddhist, Myanmar voters, it is not surprising that the government has helped create a climate that encourages discrimination against Rohingya.

Naypyidaw has consistently made it difficult for Rohingya to obtain Myanmar citizenship, and has branded most of the Rohingya community as illegal immigrants, despite significant evidence that many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

International pressure

Outside actors could influence Naypyidaw to change course, albeit probably not before the autumn elections. The US president, Barack Obama, has publicly called on the government to end discrimination against the Rohingya. But without exercising any leverage over Naypyidaw, the US is unlikely to have any impact on Myanmar’s policies.

Not only the United States but many other countries providing aid and investment have too rapidly agreed to normalise trade and aid relations, although Myanmar needs these relations far more than most outside countries need ties with Myanmar.

Fears among western countries that without a stronger relationship with Naypyidaw, Myanmar will become a kind of Chinese vassal state are unfounded. Myanmar launched its reforms five years ago in large part, aides to the president say, because the former regime feared the country was becoming too dependent on Beijing. Slowing down the flows of aid and investment until Naypyidaw stops tolerating massive attacks on Muslims would help change its approach to the crisis; only international pressure has forced the Myanmar government to take the limited actions it has already embraced, like attending the conference in Bangkok.

The Arabian Gulf countries, Europe, Japan and the United States would have to work together to make aid and investment dependent on a more proactive approach to the Rohingya crisis, but such a shift is not impossible. Besides strong concern about the Rohingya in Europe and the Gulf, the US Congress has become increasingly sceptical of the Obama White House’s engagement with Myanmar. Norway, which wields significant influence in Myanmar because of its vast support for development and peace programmes, has also begun to play a larger role in advocating for the Rohingya, hosting the Oslo conference.

After the election in Myanmar, the first elected government in five decades will be desperate to demonstrate to citizens they can deliver jobs and social programmes. And these will be heavily reliant on foreign money. What’s more, a policy linking further aid and investment to a shift in Naypyidaw’s approach to the Rohingya would send a clear signal to reformers in the next government that foreign countries will support them, and try to help protect them against Buddhist paramilitaries who might attack them.

Though some in the NLD have condemned the Rohingya, other NLD leaders, who could play a role in a post-election government, have already taken courageous stands in condemning the anti-Muslim violence and calling for equal rights for all. A shift in foreign countries’ policy towards Myanmar would help strengthen these voices, and possibly force Suu Kyi to end her silence.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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