In 2011, Myanmar’s government launched a “charm offensive” to showcase its political reform and liberalization. Among the changes promised by the country’s President, Thein Sein, was an “offer of peace to the armed ethnic minority resistance groups.” This pledge likely included the Kachins and the Karens minority groups, but not the Rohingyas—a predominantly Muslim ethnic group of approximately one million people from Myanmar’s Arakan State (near the Bangladesh border). Since the Rohingyas have no formal opposition leadership representing them to Myanmar’s government, they were excluded from the “offer of peace.”
Since 2012, there have been constant inter-ethnic riots in Arakan between the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities, with the former receiving tacit support from Myanmar’s military. The government has often disregarded violence against Rohingyas and the destruction of their villages in Arakan. This has resulted in the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingyas to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps on the Bangladeshi border. Thousands of other Rohingyas fled to Australia and other Southeast Asian nations by sea—a journey that for many was fatal.
The crux of the problem is that Myanmar grants citizenship to 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country, but not the Rohingyas. However, this was not always the case. Several previous governments in Myanmar have recognized the Rohingyas as citizens, but the military juntas of the post-independence era stripped them of their recognition. Paradoxically, the same juntas that stripped the Rohingyas of their citizenship ruled the country with an iron fist, mitigating the most recent round of violence against the Rohingyas.
The statelessness of the Rohingyas does not only lead to a lack of rights and protection, but also to stigmatization. Even Ko Ko Gyi, a former pro-democracy activist, said in 2012, "The Rohingya are not one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar at all. We see that the riots happening currently in Buthedaung and Maungdaw of [Arakan] state are because of the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh called Rohingya."
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is not prepared to provide greater assistance to the Rohingyas. For one, only Cambodia and the Philippines have become parties to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention extends a broad array of rights to refugees, emphasizing non-discrimination and, centrally, non-refoulement—the principle that no refugee shall be returned to a country where he or she fears threats to life or freedom. While Malaysia has accepted thousands of Rohingyas, it is not a signatory to the Convention and, in many cases, does not provide refugees the same protection dictated by the Convention.
If ASEAN continues to avoid its commitments to protect the rights of refugees, it follows that it will also continue to fail with regards to key human rights issues, such as protecting religious minorities and other marginalized peoples. ASEAN often couches its human rights policies in terms of “regional values” to justify its noncompliance with international law. This has led to gaps in ASEAN human rights mechanisms, including the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) of 2012, which protects governments and national laws at the expense of individual rights and human rights.
Until ASEAN aligns with the international community on human rights norms, it is unlikely that it will work with Myanmar to address the Rohingya issue. In the meantime, the suffering of the Rohingyas is becoming a rallying cry for jihadists. Consequently, the violence in Myanmar has spread beyond the Rohingya to include Muslims and Buddhists more broadly. ASEAN need to uphold international law, work with Myanmar to address its human rights violations, and provide protection to Rohingya refugees until it is safe for them to return home. Without such support from ASEAN, it is unlikely that the violence against the Rohingyas will cease..