The historic election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party – the National League for Democracy – in 2015 was met with sighs of relief in the international community. The replacement of a repressive military junta by a Nobel Peace Prize recipient appeared to signal the beginning of Myanmar’s rehabilitation with much of the international community. However, since then there has been an increasing focus on Myanmar’s Treatment of the Rohingya – a minority Muslim group whose plight has gone unnoticed. The world’s reaction, and in particular the reaction of Myanmar’s regional neighbours, when faced with plausible accounts of violence directed against the Rohingya has been curiously muted. This is perhaps partly due to the halo effect of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election. Nevertheless, the fallout from the persecution of the Rohingya cannot be confined within Myanmar’s borders alone. The treatment of the Rohingya is likely to have significant consequences for the medium-term development of Myanmar’s relations with its neighbours.
Whilst ostensibly the military handed over power to a civilian government, the reality is a military still very much in control. A quarter of the seats in Myanmar’s parliament are reserved for the military, giving it an unofficial veto power over any constitutional amendments. So whilst Aung San Suu Kyi is a symbol of democracy, she wields little actual power.
Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country and an increasingly militant Buddhist feeling has manifested itself in the repressive treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. As an ethnic group, the Rohingya have faced restrictions on their rights to education, marriage, employment, and freedom of movement and were disenfranchised prior to the 2015 election. Over 300,000 have fled Myanmar after facing violence and persecution from the military. Yet, across the border they are met with more hostility as Bangladesh does not recognise their official refugee status.
The most recent violence against the Rohingya was triggered by the murder of nine police officers late last year. The military asserted these were murders committed by Rohingya militant group Harakah al-Yaqin (also known as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army). The military retaliated with ‘clearance operations’ supposedly in order to locate the perpetrators, during which there have been allegations of a multitude of atrocities including rape, torture, arson, and extra judicial killings. Currently, the military simultaneously denies media, human rights monitors, and aid workers access to the area.
This type persecution is extremely difficult to contain within state boundaries and the plight of the Rohingya has affected Myanmar’s relations with its neighbours. Primarily with Bangladesh which shares a border with Myanmar, but also its other Muslim majority neighbours.
Bangladesh and Myanmar share a land border of 271 kilometres, 150 kilometres of which lie in extremely remote areas, as well as a maritime border. Due to its porous nature, this border has been the main source of tension between the two countries. For example, in 2008 when Myanmar attempted to conduct exploration missions in the then disputed Exclusive Economic Zone, Bangladesh sent three naval ships as a warning. This resulted in a major standoff between the two countries. In recent years, the issue of the Rohingya has been a large part of the Bangladesh/Myanmar border dispute as thousands of refugees are using the border to escape violence at the hands of the Myanmar military.
The border between the two countries is extremely insecure partly due to its remoteness and the inability of both states to have a large policing presence. This has allowed drug traffickers and extremists to pass from Bangladesh to Myanmar, and refugees from Myanmar to cross into Bangladesh. Refugees International estimates that 29,000 Rohingya live in official refugee camps in Bangladesh, while another 200,000 reside in unofficial camps. These camps are denied basic aid or legal rights and despite pressure from the UN and other NGOs, the government of Bangladesh has taken very little action to comply. However, amongst these refugees are members of militant groups which are feeding into Bangladesh’s concerns about the threat from insurgent groups in the area.
The Rohingya’s ethnic origins are a complex matter. Though Muslims have had a presence in Myanmar since the 11th century, the majority of the Rohingya are decedents of Bengali Muslims brought to Myanmar by the British in the 1800s as agricultural workers. However, the 1970s saw thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims flee Bangladesh during the War of Independence. The government of Myanmar claims that the Rohingya were part of this exodus from Bangladesh. As a result, they claim that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants.
Bangladesh does not view the Rohingya as expatriates. Instead, it views this large influx of refugees as a security risk. Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmud Ali claimed “they have been involved in drug peddling, smuggling of illegal arms, human trafficking and other anti-social activities along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border” and concluded that he perceived them to be a danger to national security. Consequently, whilst Myanmar does not recognise them as legal citizens of Myanmar, Bangladesh is pressuring Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya.
Despite the warming of relations since the election of the new democratic government, the issue of the border is still a large one. Yet it is an issue that sees little hope for resolution given the difficulties for both states to police the border more securely. It would require a huge expansion of state presence and capacity to create a secure border in states that have a multitude of other issues demanding their attention. So even though Aung San Suu Kyi claims to want to build cordial relations with all its neighbours, the border will remain at the forefront of Bangladesh/Myanmar relations.
ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)
ASEAN was formed in 1967 with the aim of promoting intergovernmental cooperation amongst the states of South East Asia. Traditionally, ASEAN has followed an extremely consensual style of politics and in the past has been reluctant to criticise the actions of its members. So it would be unrealistic to expect a strong reaction against Myanmar’s actions towards the Rohingya. Myanmar has been a member of ASEAN since 1997, though it was denied its tenures as chairman until 2014. As expected, ASEAN has shown few signs that it will overturn its custom of non-criticism in the case of Myanmar. In general, it has preferred to remain quiet on the issue of the Rohingya. Recently, however, two member states have become uncharacteristically vocal on the issue.
Both Malaysia and Indonesia, as Muslim majority states, have called on Myanmar to abandon its discrimination and violence against the Rohingya. Indonesia has offered to lend its diplomatic services to the issue, claiming to be “more than ready to play a bridging role” between the government of Myanmar and Myanmar’s Muslim community. The Malaysian government, however, has taken a more vocal and critical position in its support of the Rohingya. In December last year, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak questioned Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize due to her failure to protect the Rohingya since her election. This year at a rally in Kuala Lumpur, he proclaimed “the world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place. The world cannot just say ‘look, it is not our problem’. It is our problem”.
The fact that Myanmar’s neighbours haven’t taken more interest in the Rohingya’s persecution is really a symptom of the low-key consensual way in which ASEAN and other regional actors tend to operate. Unfortunately for the Rohingya, powerful words are not enough to put an end to their plight but it is all even the Muslim states of ASEAN are willing to lend them. Despite political rhetoric, Myanmar’s relationships with its ASEAN members will likely be undamaged by its human rights violations in the near future. However, should the treatment of the Rohingya start to have practical consequences for more countries other than Bangladesh, we may see a more direct criticism of Myanmar.
Growing Danger of Extremism
One possible flash point is the potential for radicalisation amongst the Rohingya. Neighbouring countries are concerned that the repression of a Muslim minority by non-Muslims could create a breeding ground which extremist organisations are able to exploit and which they fear could spill over into their own countries.
In January this year, whilst addressing foreign ministers at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Prime Minister Razak voiced his concerns that DAESH will infiltrate the Rohingya. This came after Malaysian authorities claimed to have detained a suspected Indonesian DAESH supporter planning on entering Myanmar with the intent to carry out attacks. Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of the Malaysian police counter-terrorism division, claimed that it is likely that more would-be fighters will follow. Similarly, Indonesia claims to have prevented a bombing plot with suspected DAESH links aimed at the Myanmar Embassy.
The fear, anger, and desperation felt amongst a people facing extreme levels of violence, create the perfect storm for radicalisation and extremism. Indeed, one armed militant group, Harakah al-Yaqin, is already active in the area. Like many Muslims groups, Harakah al-Yaqin appears to have links with groups in Saudi Arabia. This is perhaps the first sign we can see the issue becoming transnational, and gives the potential for international jihadi interest.
Furthermore, South East Asia is no stranger to the presence of Islamic extremism. The Philippines, in particular, is dealing with the menace of DAESH within its own borders. In May it declared martial law on the island of Mindanao following the taking over of Marawi by DAESH linked militants. The presence of Islamic extremism, particularly related to DAESH, is growing in South East Asia with networks stretching between Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Myanmar risks magnifying this pre-existing problem in South East Asia which could work to destabilise the region.
Should Islamic extremism gain a foothold in Myanmar, we can expect to see a clash between two radicalised religions. In contrast to its reputation, Buddhism has seen a steady growth in militancy within Myanmar. It is a movement led by Ashin Wirathu a Buddhist monk who was recently banned from giving sermons by Myanmar’s top Buddhist authority, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. He was released from prison in 2012 after being charged with inciting religious conflict. Branded “the face of Buddhist terror”, Wirathu leads an anti-Islamic movement named the 969 movement. His sermons are centred on Islamophobia and spreading his anti-Muslim rhetoric. In 2012, inspired by his preaching, riots spread across Meiktila, a city in central Myanmar, and left over a hundred people dead and a mosque burnt to the ground. Wirathu has been fanning the flames of religious tensions in the country and if we do see Islamic extremism grip Myanmar we can be sure that Wirathu’s followers will respond. This could leave Myanmar thrown even deeper into civil conflict, adding more warring factions into the already crowded conflict.
With that being said, whilst there are worrying signs, it is possible to overestimate the danger of DAESH and other Islamic extremists turning Myanmar into their next battle ground. For example, Harakah al-Yaquin does not appear to, so far, have any international jihadi agenda. Instead, its primary motivation appears to be Rohingya militancy rather than international Islamic extremism. Additionally, DAESH currently has its focus elsewhere; Myanmar is hardly the greatest prize for transnational jihadi organisations. However, though the threat level may not be great at this time, Myanmar and its neighbours cannot afford to become complacent. If violence and persecution against the Rohingya Muslims persists, then extremists groups will eventually seek to capitalise on the desperation of an abandoned people.
Myanmar’s Treatment of the Rohingya and its effect on tourism
In addition to its strained relationship with other countries in the region, the treatment of the Rohingya is also likely to hinder Myanmar’s economic progress. One of the main economic casualties is the fledgeling tourism industry.
Myanmar opened its doors to the world in 2011 and was tipped to be one of the hottest new tourist destinations with its untouched scenery and magnificent temples. But so far, the results have been disappointing. In 2013, The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism developed a plan that aimed to bring 7.5 million visitors to the country by 2020 and the number of hotels nearly doubled to 1,300 between 2010 and 2015. However, these figures were ambitious to the point of fantasy and now those new hotels stand half empty. Occupancy rates are, at best, at 50% even in the peak season between November and March. Data shows that visits to Myanmar have declined by as much as 38 percent in 2016, falling to 2.9 million from 4.7 million in 2014. The new capital Naypyitaw, which was built at great speed in the 2000s, now resembles a ghost town despite the official claim that its population is 1 million.
People are simply not flooding to Myanmar as they are to countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Even Sri Lanka, a country with its own questionable human rights record and 26 years of civil conflict which only recently ended, has seen fast growth in its tourism industry. A large part of this is due to Myanmar’s “brand” which has been corrupted by years of violence being reported by the international press. At the current time, there is no safe travel in the northern part of the country with the Shan State in the north east seeing particularly high levels of violence. The democratic election has done little to dispel this image of violence emanating from Myanmar. The treatment of the Rohingya will do nothing to change this view and will continue to harm Myanmar’s attempt at building a fledgeling tourism industry.
Ultimately, should Myanmar continue with its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, it jeopardises its re-integration with neighbouring countries. It is at risk of becoming a breeding ground for extremism, both Islamic and Buddhist, which will create real practical problems for its neighbours’ security. Only then are we likely to see pressure mount on Myanmar to stop its persecution of the Rohingya. Furthermore, its economic growth will be stunted by the damage to its country branding as, in its current state, it is unable to capitalise fully on the potential for a lucrative tourism industry. These are important consequences for Myanmar and if they cannot desist from their persecution on human rights grounds then perhaps self-interest may triumph.
Lead image: The Blankpage
Olivia Gass is an MSc in International Relations and Global Issues student at the University of Nottingham and a contributing writer for PGW.
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