During the 2015 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Kuala Lumpur, the regional bloc briefly and fruitlessly deliberated on the plight of the persecuted Rohingya ethnic group within Burma. The Burmese delegation refused to participate and absolved themselves of responsibility in the matter, declaring the Rohingya were no more than migrant Bangladeshis and unworthy of the attention given to other citizens. Neighboring Thailand, known to capitalize on migrant Rohingya for cheap labor, insisted that it could not serve as a permanent home for these refugees. Bangladesh, not an ASEAN member but purported by many to be the original Rohingya homeland, had already begun to address the situation two years ago with a strategy that has since flatlined. Malaysia and Indonesia, despite their religious connection to the victims, deferred any concrete action back to the Burmese government, emphasizing a domestic solution to this growing problem. Solving Burma’s ethnic violence has proven too demanding an undertaking for an uninterested ASEAN.
The conflict, and resulting refugee crisis, is multifaceted and should be approached in stages. Of greatest importance is alleviating the Rohingya’s immediate suffering. The reluctance of ASEAN is unacceptable in this regard. With or without the compliance of Burma, the other member states must take a lead in accommodating the refugees. They ought to orchestrate a system of shouldering proportional burdens, with particular emphasis on Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. An effective initial action would be to initiate military escorts to aid Rohingya boats attempting the precarious journey from the Burmese coast to safer shores. The route they embark upon is typically threatened by storms, pirates, or predatory elements of the Thai navy. The latter frequently intercept these boats to capture their occupants, so they may be used as slaves or low-wage labor. If military escorts are to do more help than harm, the member states involved must hammer out a policy of strict oversight from the highest military offices and cross-supervision during missions. One might envision Singaporean vessels ferrying Rohingya to Bangkok or Malaysian admirals leading a convoy to Jakarta.
The United States, China, India, and others with an interes in Burma’s stability can ensure these policies come to fruition, through finance. By lending monetary aid to the ASEAN nations that are in a position to shelter refugees, these larger powers can cajole them out of their recalcitrance. The wealthy Gulf states, who have religious ties to the Rohingya community, also have a role to play in jumpstarting this effort. On a larger scale, even the dithering Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) may find this crisis to be a cause around which to unify. Pakistan, although removed from the immediate region, has already housed numerous Rohingya and could position itself as the de facto leader in an OIC endeavor.
The next task absolutely requires the support of the external international community. Those with influence in Naypyidaw need to pressure the Burmese government to resolve the conflict and create conditions peaceful enough for the Rohingya’s eventual repatriation. Enter the United Nations. Key member states should encourage the future UN Secretary General to take up this issue and give high-level support to his or her efforts. Other governments need to assert that future positive diplomatic relations are contingent on abolishment of discriminatory practices and the introduction of policies designed to protect the Rohingya. A minor, yet important, detai in this process would be for diplomats and UN officials to use the word “Rohingya” both in public and private. This will discredit the current government’s dismissal of the Rohingya’s legitimacy as an ethnic group of Burma. Their plight originates from a systematic policy of impoverishment and marginalization. Quite possibly a crime against humanity, and certainly a contributor to the ethnic cleansing, this tactic should be grounds for the establishment of an independent international investigation into possible violations of international law by the Burmese government.
These external players could certainly accomplish some short- and medium-term goals, but they cannot eliminate the underlying animosity. Burma alone can make peaceful interethnic relations a reality. One of the few key actors capable of making the required first steps, although seemingly unwilling to do so at the moment, is Aung San Suu Kyi and her party – National League for Democracy (NLD). Their capitulation through silence is rooted in fear of antagonizing critical Buddhist voters. While this position was deemed necessary for the NLD’s success in the 2015 general elections, the party has since enjoyed a resounding victory and has no further need for politicking. Ms. Suu Kyi, as a beloved and respected leader, may have the capacity to sway hearts and minds, pushing the nation on a path towards reconciliation.This begins with acknowledging the Rohingya’s rightful claim as Burmese citizens and to reside in peace and dignity within Rakhine state. She could follow through with special visits to the embattled region and subsequent calls for the national legislature, which is controlled by the NLD, to vote on measures to restore peace. There are a litany of policies at the administration’s proposal; they just need the will to act and the violence will recede.