Australia and the Rohingya: we should be leading
1 Nov 2017|

In August, Myanmar’s military launched ‘clearing operations’ against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. According to the government, this was a response to a coordinated attack by the group against 30 police posts and an army base in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Ratheddaung. That attack claimed the lives of an immigration official, 10 police officers and one soldier.

With every passing day, the evidence of ethnic cleansing and military crimes against the Rohingya is mounting. And yet, beyond perfunctory statements, the international and regional communities have done very little to stop the violence and help those fleeing it.

Earlier this year, a report (PDF) by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported killings, forced disappearances, torture, rapes, arbitrary detention, deportations and forced transfers of Rohingya Muslims as a result of violence and persecution.

The Rohingya, whom Myanmar’s Buddhist majority consider to be Bengali, even though they’ve lived in what’s now Rakhine state for centuries, have been forced to seek refuge in Bangladesh, which doesn’t want them; nor is it likely to properly cater for such a large displaced population.

In addition to the 800,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, there are also more than 400,000 across Southeast Asia. Clearly, this is a major regional problem that demands a regional solution.

The Australian government has stated that it’s ‘deeply disturbed by what’s going on in Rakhine state’. It has called on the Myanmar government to resolve the crisis and has provided humanitarian aid to Bangladesh to help with the refugees. But there have also been efforts to absolve Aung San Suu Kyi of responsibility on the basis that it’s the military that’s really in control of the country.

In the past, Canberra’s position was that the crisis was Myanmar’s problem and a Southeast Asian matter. The focus was primarily on preventing Rohingya from heading to our shores. When Tony Abbott was the prime minister, he suggested that Australian intervention in the crisis ‘will encourage people to get on boats’.

Undoubtedly, the region has failed to address the plight of the Rohingya, who are described as ‘the world’s most persecuted minority’. The Myanmar government doesn’t consider this community of 1.1 million people, whose members speak a distinct dialect, to be one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. For the government, if another 100,000 Rohingya flee that means that it has solved its ‘Rohingya problem’.

Regional policymakers are concerned that the matter will become a casus belli for transnational jihadism unless it’s resolved—the Egyptian Salafi group Harakat Sawa’id Masr has already claimed that its attack on Myanmar’s embassy in Cairo was payback for the treatment of the Rohingya. However, beyond expressing concern, ASEAN has offered no substantive solutions. It has opted to provide not a statement of condemnation, but rather a statement of concern and ‘deepest condolences to all the victims and affected communities of the conflict’ (my italics).

Australia has decided to continue its $300,000 Defence Cooperation Program with Myanmar. The government says that the program is designed to ‘promote professionalism and adherence to international laws’ by the Myanmar military.

DFAT has maintained that such interactions, as well as the $66 million that it has allocated for development, encourage Myanmar to adhere to the laws of armed conflict and help to address structural problems caused by decades of international sanctions. In other words, our current position is that challenging the Myanmar government would undermine both our engagement with it and Myanmar’s growth and prosperity.

Australia has now secured a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, so we have an opportunity to play a key role in helping to resolve the conflict.

We could show leadership by inviting representatives of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar military, regional stakeholders (primarily from Malaysia and Indonesia), the Bangladesh government and the Rohingya community to a series of Track 1.5 meetings. The participation of the Rohingya should not depend on the Myanmar government. The meeting should also involve academics, who can provide context and tools for mediation and conflict resolution.

The meetings should be low-publicity ‘retreats’ aimed at capacity-building, dialogue and problem-solving. This would create some privacy for the discussions and underscore the fact that dialogue doesn’t equate with the legitimisation of actions, ideas or behaviour; rather, it’s about ensuring an open channel and empowering moderates.

The first retreat should focus on consultation and aim to generate new insights into the causes of the conflict and its possible resolution. One key question for the Myanmar government is why it has refused to give the Rohingya some sort of official status, if not citizenship.

We must also continue to engage in Track 1 and Track 2 diplomacy to fill gaps that Track 1.5 talks can’t cover, such as humanitarian aid and development assistance to Myanmar—a country with the second lowest GDP in Southeast Asia but with enormous economic potential.

One lesson from the Syrian conflict is that it doesn’t take much to turn government oppression into a long, bloody, destructive war. We must ensure that we don’t have a Syrian-type conflict in our region, acting as a rallying point for Salafi-jihadists and turning the Rohingya into a pool of Islamist recruits. That’s what happened in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Let’s act now before it’s too late.