By Kalinga Seneviratne
With mounting demonstrations in support of Rohingyas in fellow ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) Muslim majority countries Malaysia and Indonesia, Myanmar’s de-facto leader and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi made an astute move to summon Foreign Ministers of ASEAN for a one-day “retreat” to Yangoon on December 19 to brief them on the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State where most Rohingyas live.
A first of its kind for ASEAN where a member country has summoned ministers to discuss an internal affairs, yet, it demonstrated that Suu Kyi is no hostage to western human rights groups who supported her long campaign to bring “democracy” to Myanmar.
The Myanmar government has been irked by the behaviour of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak after he participated in a protest rally in support of Rohingyas in Kuala Lumpur recently and appeared to be fuelling increasing public anger about alleged human rights violations against a fellow Muslim community in the region. Some 56,000 Rohingya refugees are believed to be living in Malaysia.
Many of Razak’s critics in Malaysia and in the region have accused him of using the Rohingyas to deflect corruption allegations against him in Malaysia and also waning support for his party among grassroots Malay Muslims.
Rohingyas are a Muslim minority of Bengali origin who have been living mainly in the northern Rakhine State in Buddhist majority Myanmar for generations. But they are not recognized as citizens by Myanmar nor are they recognized as Bengalis by Bangladesh. Recently, Muslim majority Bangladesh closed its border to Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar.
For years, Buddhists in Myanmar have viewed the Rohingyas as a threat since they are among the poorest in the country, and susceptible to exploitation by foreign jihadi groups.
The latest flare up started on October 9 when Muslim militants with suspected links to Islamists overseas are believed to be behind attacks on security posts near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, in the north of Rakhine State that killed nine police officers. Since then there has been a heavy crackdown against the Muslim minority in the region with at least 86 people killed and an estimated 27,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh according to human rights groups.
Thus Rohingyas have become the latest rallying point for western and regional human rights groups and Muslim activists as well as the international media, especially Al Jazeera. Rohingyas have also become a lucrative new source of income for human traffickers and asylum lawyers.
On the eve of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat in Yangoon, Amnesty International, which campaigned for long for Suu Kyi’s release during the military regime, released a report accusing her government of a campaign against the Rohingyas.
“While the military is directly responsible for the violations, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to live up to both her political and moral responsibility to try to stop and condemn what is unfolding in Rakhine State,” Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International‘s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.
But, many in the region see things differently. Thailand’s Nation newspaper published a report from Deutsche Press-Agentur (dpa) on December 16 that referred to an analysis of the International Crisis Group (ICG) with headquarters in Brussels. ICG has warned Myanmar that “a well-organised, apparently well-funded group” has been behind the recent attacks on the armed forces in Myanmar.
ICG says: “The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.”
While human rights groups working with Rohingyas on the ground such as Burma Human Rights Network has rejected the allegations, Priscilla Clapp, a retired U.S. diplomat who was the chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002, has in an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA) questioned the veracity of the accusations by outside nongovernmental organizations and others. She told RFA’s Myanmar Service on December 12 that those who support such charges “don’t known what the situation is”.
“They don’t understand the language, and people make things up,” she said. “They make things up just to spread rumors.” Myanmar government has also often accused international media of spreading “fabricated” news stories.
During the retreat, which was closed to the media although about 100 journalists have arrived at the venue, Suu Kyi is believed to have briefed the foreign ministers about the ground situation.
In a statement released to the media after the retreat, the Myanmar leader reiterated her government’s commitment to resolving what she termed “complex issues” with regards to the Rohingyas and argued that they need time and space to resolve it.
In a direct reference to those from outside the region who want to internationalise the issue, the statement said that it would be resolved among “ASEAN family members through peaceful and friendly consultations”.
In a commentary in Thailand’s The Nation newspaper, regional analyst Kavi Chongkittavorn argues that Suu Kyi has displayed her “political instincts and diplomatic finesse” to engage ASEAN where she has overall control of the process. “As such, she wanted to keep this sensitive issue within the region,” he noted.
Chongkittavorn is critical of the role of Malaysian Foreign Minsiter Anifah Aman who proposed ASEAN coordinating humanitarian aid and setting up an independent expert group to investigate conditions there. “It was unlikely these proposals would receive backing from Suu Kyi or other ASEAN members,” he argues.
“Kudos must also go to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who has served as an honest broker,” he notes. “Jakarta has politely declined to collaborate with Malaysia’s call to show solidarity as the world’s largest Muslim country, knowing full well that it could polarise ASEAN. Her position was clear that ASEAN should not get involved in the region unless Myanmar invites the group to help.”
Immediately after the retreat, Marsudi visited Bangladesh to argue for more compassionate attitude towards Rohingyas crossing the border to Bangladesh. She asserted that the solution to the crisis has to come from the source country and the region need to support whatever initiatives Myanmar government is taking to ensure inclusive development in Rakhine state.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Buddhist neighbour Thailand has offered $200,000 at the retreat to help displaced people in Rakhine state and intensified cooperation with Myanmar authorities to apprehend several local human traffickers and their trawlers operating near coastal towns in the Andaman Sea, disrupting the flow of Rohingya from both Myanmar and Bangladesh that is fuelling the international outcry.
“As Myanmar moves forward with economic and democratic development, there are high hopes the ongoing peace process will proceed to end the half-century of fighting with ethnic armed groups,” argues Chongkittavorn. “This prospect of peace would enable more refugees to return home.”