Almost 700,000 Muslim people from the self-identified Rohingya community have fled into Bangladesh since August last year, when Myanmar’s armed forces launched a massive counter-terrorist operation against a small group of Rohingya radicals who had attacked some 30 military and police outposts with knives and bamboo spears.
Myanmar has been widely criticised for the military action. The United Nations has said the crackdown appears to be a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”. It has triggered one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times.
In addition to the barely imaginable human suffering, the crisis has transformed Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations and will have a huge impact on the regional security landscape.
The exodus will likely soon reach its tragic end point: the complete depopulation of Rohingya from northern Rakhine state. As the world struggles to define a response, the crisis is entering a new, fraught and highly uncertain phase.
The speeches and actions of the nation’s leader and celebrated Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi highlight the views of many in Myanmar. To her, the Rohingya are Bengalis – Bengali-speaking illegal migrants from the land to the west now split into Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. Bengal has experienced economic cycles of prosperity and poverty over the centuries.
About one third of the population perished in the famine of 1770, as the Mughal Empire lay in ruins and the British Empire had not yet risen to replace it. Once-flourishing rural towns and villages were reclaimed by jungle as the residents fled or starved. Over the centuries the ever-present spectre of poverty has spurred Bengalis to migrate in their millions.
Most Myanmarese believe that the Rohingya are seeking to convert their Buddhist-majority country into a Muslim nation. As a result, international sanctions aimed at protecting the Muslim minority are viewed by many within Myanmar as an external attack on their nation. Since last August, nationalist sentiment in Myanmar has moved in favour of the military and against the Suu Kyi government with whom it shares power.
The Rohingya influx has meanwhile posed tremendous challenges for Bangladesh. The Dhaka government is struggling to shelter and feed the refugees, as well as ensure they have access to basic health services. Another challenge is keeping them confined in the camps. Bangladesh is now eagerly pushing for their safe return to Myanmar.
Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and will probably require more than a generation of good governance to catch up with its neighbours. The country only recently began its faltering journey to democracy and the road ahead is strewn with obstacles. One obstacle is the fact that Myanmar is clearly not a stable secular state, and is home to 100 different ethnic and religious minorities.
Though its statistics are notoriously unreliable, Burmans are believed to constitute 70 per cent of the population. Sunni Muslim residents and the less numerous Shia often have grandparents who were born in South Asia, while the great majority of Myanmar’s Chinese Muslims are of Yunnanese descent.
According to both Burmese and non-Burmese sources, Islam reached Arakan (now Rakhine state) as early as the 8th century. The conversion of local inhabitants to the newly arrived Islam was more by choice – their ruler’s or their own – than by force. “Rohingya” or “Rowangya” is assumed to be derived from Rohang, or Ram, the ancient Arabic name for Arakan.
The Rohingya crisis has re-ignited the interests of Myanmar’s neighbours and foreign investors. Myanmar’s top nine trading partners last year were all from Asia, with the US coming in 10th behind Vietnam. Thailand is the country’s second-largest trading partner after China, with natural gas imports from Myanmar accounting for a large chunk of trade.
Tough criteria in the newly forged Rohingya repatriation deal will make it difficult for the Myanmar nationals to return to their homes in Rakhine from Bangladesh, say experts. The verification process will require Rohingya refugees to submit documents to prove their past residency in Myanmar.
The documents include “old and expired citizenship identity cards” or national registration cards or temporary registration cards, according to the "Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State" signed between Dhaka and Nay Pyi Taw in November.
Once repatriated to Rakhine, the Rohingya will primarily be kept at temporary shelters for a “limited time” with restrictions on their freedom of movement as per existing laws in Myanmar.
Rohingya who have taken shelter in Bangladesh to escape persecution in Myanmar say they will fall foul of the verification process since only a few of them have residency cards. Also, it is still unclear whether they would be granted the same citizenship and rights enjoyed by Buddhists in Myanmar.
As with other regional crises, the role of international organisations like the United Nations is under scrutiny. A recent UN commission led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan called for promoting investment and community-directed growth to alleviate poverty in Rakhine, which Myanmar officials have supported.
But it also called for Myanmar to grant citizenship and other rights to the Rohingya. Members of the Muslim minority were stripped of citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights and rendering them stateless. Their freedom of movement and religious practice is restricted in Myanmar, where they also have limited access to medical care, food or education.
The role of the UN is crucial to the successful resolution of this regional crisis. Much now depends on its success in integrating security and justice in the measures it takes to alleviate the problem. Failure will mean that this latest Rohingya crisis may not be the last one.