The Rohingya people are one of the most oppressed groups in East Asia, and their deprivation has rightly evoked international human rights concerns. These dispossessed Muslim peoples in Myanmar, who reside in Rakhine State on the Bangladesh border and speak a dialect of Bangla, are denied citizenship by both countries. Although their plight would seem to be an internal problem for Myanmar’s authorities, it has metastasized into a regional issue and raised concerns about security and the potential for regional ramifications.
The complexity of the Rohingya’s situation and the difficulties of solving it cannot be understood without an exploration and appreciation of its historical roots. While the international reputation of Myanmar is at risk, Muslim militancy could expand as well. Myanmar is on the cusp of developmental growth and is the object of much foreign assistance. However, the unresolved Rohingya issue and anti-Muslim sentiment more broadly could undercut growth in Myanmar at a critical moment while also raising considerable security challenges in that complex, multi-ethnic state. The Rohingya claim that they have lived in that region for centuries; there have been Muslim communities in that area for perhaps half a millennium. But both legal and non-legal migration into the area have been rampant in the past, complicating historical claims to the territory. The Myanmar government believes the Rohingya are essentially illegal immigrants, and therefore refuses to grant them status as an indigenous ethnicity, denies them citizenship, and seeks their return to Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government, however, will not accept them.
International attention was first focused on the Rohingya who fled Myanmar by sea, often in unseaworthy boats. Seeking asylum in Malaysia or Indonesia, they were sometimes washed ashore in Thailand, where some Thai authorities turned them back out to sea and others were forced into Thai fishing crews. Riots and bloodshed have taken place in the western townships bordering Bangladesh where the Rohingya are centered, but they have spread to Sittwe, the regional center where some 130,000 are in retention areas under horrendous conditions. The UN and Pope Francis have called for their protection and assistance.
Although anti-Muslim sentiment has been specifically focused on the Rohingya, such prejudice has generally evolved and strengthened in Myanmar, a country where some eighty-eight percent of the people are Buddhist and about four percent, including but not only Rohingya, are Muslim. This ethno-religious nationalism is led by some Buddhist monks who hold profound political legitimacy and influence. This prejudice, exacerbated by minor or even suspected incidents, is fundamentally based on a strong sense of vulnerability among the Myanmar authorities. These Buddhist leaders, who are members of the two-thirds majority Bamah (Burman) ethnic group, fear for the continuity of their culture—a fear likely to grow under increasing foreign influence in Myanmar. Many of these Buddhists fear for their religious heritage due to the increasing conversions to Islam and the rapid growth of the Muslim population. This fear is even more acute among the Rakhine Buddhists, who have been effectively regarded as second class citizens by the Burman authorities. Rakhine Buddhists, who have been marginalized and are generally poor, feel they have been ignored as international attention and aid has been concentrated on the Muslim Rohingya.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has played a prominent role in past regional violence. Muslims from the Indian subcontinent legally entered Burma when it was ruled by the British as a province of India until 1937. Following Burmese independence in 1947, a “Mujahid” rebellion for independence broke out, which lasted for fourteen years. Repressive treatment by Burmese authorities resulted in over 200,000 Muslims fleeing military raids in 1974 and similar numbers again in 1992. Most were repatriated under UN auspices but some tens of thousands remain in Bangladesh, which does not want them, and has recently proposed—over international objections—to isolate them on a remote, flood-vulnerable island in their waters.
The history of unrest contextualizes some of the recent security concerns surrounding the Rohingya. Osama bin Laden has written that repression of Muslims in Burma was of concern, and in the past several months a new surge in violence has stoked fears of instability. Armed militants in October 2016, supposedly with Saudi funding from a group called Harakah-al-Yagin, carried out an armed raid on Burmese military border staff, seizing weapons, killing many, and escalating tensions. This recent militancy has changed the response by the Burmese military, whose primary goal was previously national unity. They have engaged in more destructive repression, well documented by satellite surveys, and have thus altered the nature of the challenge through the intensity of their response—making amelioration more difficult but increasingly necessary.
The Myanmar government, recognizing the problem and its international implications, established a year-long commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan to explore the situation and make recommendations. But even the inclusion of an eminent foreigner like Anan brought criticism from some nationalistic circles that an outsider was involved in an internal Myanmar matter. Demonstrators in February 2017 also protested the arrival of a Malaysian ship carrying relief supplies for the Rohingya. In a hypocritical twist, the Myanmar authorities want the problem to be treated as an internal matter without foreign interference, yet they want the Rohingya internationally exported to Bangladesh as well.
Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now State Counsellor and foreign minister in Myanmar, has been vilified by the international media for not standing up for the Rohingya. She has called for the rule of law and peaceful resolution, but has taken no substantive measures to alleviate the crisis.
Kyi, as she has said, is a politician, and not a democratic idol despite her international reputation as such. As a politician, however, she is in a very delicate position. She wants her party to remain popular, which means she cannot in the present climate castigate anti-Muslim activities except when they turn violent. She must calibrate her party’s relations with the military, which still independently controls the coercive forces of the state down to local levels. The military seems deeply concerned over rising Muslim militancy, and Kyi cannot afford to defy it. To criticize them strongly in the current atmosphere would not only threaten the internal stability of the state, but could also legally invoke a state of emergency in the Rohingya area, opening the door for further escalation. She will thus be chastised locally if she appears pro-Rohingya or pro-Muslim, and internationally if she does not.
The international reputation of Myanmar is at risk. Its transition from an authoritarian military regime to a representative, pluralistic political system has been remarkable and swift. Arguably, it has been the sole success of the Obama administration in East Asia, for improvement in U.S.-ASEAN relations were dependent on improving U.S.-Burmese ones. President Obama changed Presidents Clinton and Bush’s Burma policy from “regime change” to “regime modification,” encouraging needed reforms.
As Myanmar seeks more international investment and maximizes its advantage as the geographic nexus between India and China, it must resolve the Rohingya problem, which now has the potential to implicate the region broadly through increasing militancy and migration. How the Trump administration will react to Myanmar, and to this particularly internationalized event, is unclear. The administration has not evinced major interest in human rights, and to date has effectively ignored Southeast Asia except for China’s role in the South China Sea. Quiet U.S. encouragement for internal reforms, including some self-administration for the Rohingya while reassuring the Rakhine Buddhist population as well, may be all that is presently feasible. Both intense public pressure and ignoring the problem are inappropriate strategies. It would be a mistake for the international community to attribute these substantive, seemingly intractable problems solely to terrorism or militancy, though the potential for those risks increase without grappling with the underlying political complexities. These complexities, however, require resolution by Myanmar.
David Steinberg is a specialist on Burma-Myanmar, the Korean Peninsula, Southeast Asia and US policy in Asia. He is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University, and was for ten years director of Asia Studies there. Previously he was a Representative of the Asia Foundation in Korea, Hong Kong, Burma, and Washington, D.C.; Distinguished Professor of Korea Studies, Georgetown University; and President of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs. Earlier, as a member of the Senior Foreign Service, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Department of State, he was Director for Technical Assistance in Asia and the Middle East, and Director for Philippines, Thailand, and Burma Affairs.