Reports of fresh atrocities against the Rohingya are again upon us, as a rising tide of refugees continues to pour in through the Bangladesh-Myanmar border since last week.
Officials in the United Nations have already described the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing. Since October 2016, an estimated 70,000 refugees entered Bangladesh to seek shelter against the backdrop of operations by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State.
The Rohingya crisis throws up a number of concerns for regional stability. Amid the global threat of militant Islamic extremism, the crisis in Rakhine State is fertile exploitation ground for radical Muslim terrorists. The potential emergence of an extremist religious insurgency risks destabilising the Bay of Bengal region in as dangerous a manner as the ongoing conflicts with terrorists in other parts of South Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indian-administered Kashmir.
Furthermore, the humanitarian crisis stoked by the situation has been an irritant for Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as distraught Rohingya refugees have been arriving via boats of human traffickers for years.
The impact of refugee arrivals on domestic politics can already be seen in south-eastern Bangladesh, where locals in Cox’s Bazar District complain of economic and social pressures created by the influx.
The future stability of Rakhine State, a strategically important coastal region, is also a matter of deep concern for both Myanmar and its neighbours, particularly China, India, and Bangladesh.
The Sino-Myanmar pipelines transport oil and natural gas from the Kyaukpyu seaport in Rakhine State to China. The Rakhine State coastline has been described by an Indian strategic analyst as China’s “second coast.”
India has invested in developing the Sittwe seaport as part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, as it seeks an alternate transit route to Northeast India through Myanmar.
The crisis in Rakhine State is fertile exploitation ground for radical Muslim terrorists
Bangladesh has sought road and rail access through Rakhine State to connect with China and ASEAN. Bangladesh has also expressed an interest to jointly develop a hydropower project in Rakhine State with Myanmar. Bangladeshi companies have been keen to invest in contract farming in the fertile plains of Rakhine State, in order to increase agricultural supplies for the food market in Bangladesh.
In the light of these issues, the Myanmar government’s escalation of persecuting the Rohingya has thrown into doubt the strategic plans of regional countries. Until a resolution is found towards recognising the human rights of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the crisis will fester.
The persistent arrogance and stubbornness of Myanmar’s government can lead the international community to step up for an intervention. The neighbours of Myanmar should request the UN Security Council to convene on a more frequent basis to address the situation.
Ideally, the Security Council should authorise a naval blockade for humanitarian purposes during periods of refugee exoduses by sea, to hold Myanmar accountable. Ultimately, Rakhine State may require a UN peacekeeping force.
Bangladesh and India, being the two constitutionally democratic neighbours of Myanmar, have an important role to play in addressing the situation. While relations between Bangladesh and India are currently clouded by their respective relations with China, to not have a joint response on the Rakhine State situation would be a betrayal of the ideals of one of modern history’s most successful humanitarian interventions in 1971 during the liberation of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh and India should coordinate a strategy on the conflict with other SAARC nations, particularly Pakistan and Sri Lanka. South Asian countries should take the lead in international efforts towards enforcing the human rights of the Rohingya, a population with South Asian ancestry.
A coordinated response, be it diplomatic or military, can be a rare show of unity and force by the countries of South Asia. The US, which often holds naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, can be courted to join such an alliance.
The international community should invest more efforts into achieving peaceful reconciliation and integration in Rakhine State. The lack of citizenship, secular education, and political leadership among the Rohingya are some of the obstacles towards peace, and have been propounded by Myanmar’s refusal to grant equal educational and employment rights.
Umran Chowdhury is a law student of the University of London International Program.