The world does not lack a shortage of humanitarian crises but among the most alarming and most neglected is the oppression of the Rohingyas, Myanmar’s Muslim minority. It is not only because the oppression is state-sponsored and because it has a brutal ethnic cleansing as its primary goal. There is good reason to believe it could metastasize into a full-blown case of genocide. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has warned that the present wave of violence by the Myanmar military includes mass murders, physical assaults and rapes followed by the physical burning of entire villages. Thousands of Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, which recently closed its borders to further refugees. Presumably other Rohingyas have taken to the sea as they have done in the past.
The provocation for the latest spike in violence is an attack, supposedly by a militant Rohingya group, that left nine Myanmar border guards dead last month. While the killing was reprehensible, the violent response by the Myanmar army is also reprehensible in every way: it is collectively punishing an entire ethnic group, there was no attempt to determine who was guilty of the attack and it is almost certainly disproportionate. There is a strong sense that Naypyidaw seeks any ready excuse to oppress its Muslim minority — or at times no excuse at all.
The international community seems to have put all its hopes in Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel peace prize-winner and global human rights icon. However, Suu Kyi seems to have concluded that given the antipathy of her people to the Rohingyas and her delicate relationship with the military, her best policy is silence and passivity. The world needs to find other means to pressure the Myanmar military in particular. This has its own problems. At the time of a growing great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, Myanmar holds an especially pivotal position. Countries like India and Japan, focused on constructing east-west connectivity as a response to China’s north-south plans for Southeast Asia, are wary of bearding Myanmar on such issues. China has no interest whatsoever of raising human rights issues with any country anywhere. Combined with the belief that Myanmar is going to be the next Asian tiger economy, the result leaves Naypyidaw sitting pretty. A collective response is needed to neutralise this geopolitical conundrum. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and perhaps South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh should consider engaging on how to offer a united front to Naypyidaw on the Rohingya issue. Malaysia and Indonesia have already begun taking more openly critical stances, but have constrained the debate by treating it as a matter of Islamophobia. New Delhi should begin to take closer note. If nothing else, there is now considerable evidence of the Rohingyas being recruited by Islamicist terror groups and Myanmar’s policies are directly responsible for this.