The international community most possibly are not fully realizing the potential security threats the region and the world would face in near future unless the longstanding Rohingya refugee issue is resolved immediately thus compelling Myanmar in taking back over one million of their people from Bangladesh. Living off the land is natural for Rohingya, who lived a predominantly agricultural life in Myanmar. But now, according to the United Nations, less than four hundred thousand Rohingyas remain in Myanmar, compared to over one million in various refugee camps in Bangladesh.
According to media reports, due to delay in returning of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, lots of these refugees have started small businesses serving the needs of the refugee communities, ranging from simple tea shops to tailoring services. Full-blown fresh-food markets have also emerged, the trading jointly run by local Bangladeshi farmers as well as Rohingyas.
From an aerial view, it may look like an example of harmony. There is no doubt about the people of Bangladesh, especially Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s sympathy towards the Rohingya refugees, who are sacrificing a lot for these unfortunate community from Myanmar. But from a closer look, such mixing of Rohingyas with the locals and participating in commercial activities would definitely generate enough grounds of grave concern. Because gradually these refugees may ultimately melt into the mainstream. Of course, even such melting might not generate any concern unless the Rohingyas were having high-grievance towards those repressors in Myanmar. Clearly, Rohingyas have anger and they may infect such anger into the minds of the Bangladesh populace because of one main factor – both belong to the same religion – Islam. There is no guarantee about these over one million Rohingyas turning Bangladeshis initially aggrieved and finally sympathetic or even supportive of any of the counter-measure initiated by the Rohingyas, which would open a huge possibility for Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) or even Islamic State (ISIS) or even a joint force of ARSA and ISIS in waging armed struggle or jihad against Myanmar.
The Rohingya crisis
Discriminatory policies of Myanmar’s government since the late 1970s have compelled hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya to flee their homes in the predominantly Buddhist country. Most have crossed by land into Bangladesh, while others have taken to the sea to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Beginning in 2017, renewed violence, including reported rape, murder, and arson, triggered an exodus of Rohingya amid charges of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s security forces.
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority who practice a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. There are an estimated 3.5 million Rohingya dispersed worldwide. Before August 2017, the majority of the estimated one million Rohingya in Myanmar resided in Rakhine State, where they accounted for nearly a third of the population. They differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously.
The Rohingya trace their origins in the region to the fifteenth century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Rakhine was governed by colonial rule as part of British India. Since independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, have refuted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied the group recognition as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.
Neither the central government nor Rakhine’s dominant ethnic Buddhist group, known as the Rakhine, recognize the label “Rohingya,” a self-identifying term that surfaced in the 1950s, which experts say provides the group with a collective political identity. Though the etymological root of the word is disputed, the most widely accepted theory is that Rohang derives from the word “Arakan” in the Rohingya dialect and ga or gya means “from.” By identifying as Rohingya, the ethnic Muslim group asserts its ties to the land that was once under the control of the Arakan Kingdom, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based advocacy group.
The Myanmar government refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship, and as a result, most of the group’s members have no legal documentation, effectively making them stateless. Myanmar’s 1948 citizenship law was already exclusionary, and the military junta, which seized power in 1962, introduced another law twenty years later that stripped the Rohingya of access to full citizenship. Until recently, the Rohingya had been able to register as temporary residents with identification cards, known as white cards, which the junta began issuing to many Muslims, both Rohingya and non-Rohingya, in the 1990s. The white cards conferred limited rights but were not recognized as proof of citizenship. Still, Lewa says that they did provide some recognition of temporary stay for the Rohingya in Myanmar.
In 2014 the government held a UN-backed national census, it’s first in thirty years. The Muslim minority group was initially permitted to identify as Rohingya, but after Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the census, the government decided Rohingya could only register if they identified as Bengali instead.
Similarly, under pressure from Buddhist nationalists protesting the Rohingya’s right to vote in a 2015 constitutional the referendum, then President Thein Sein canceled the temporary identity cards in February 2015, effectively revoking their newly gained right to vote. (White card holders were allowed to vote in Myanmar’s 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 general elections.) In the 2015 elections, which were widely touted by international monitors as free and fair, no parliamentary candidate was of the Muslim faith. “Country-wide anti-Muslim sentiment makes it politically difficult for the government to take steps seen as supportive of Muslim rights,” writes the International Crisis Group.
The Myanmar government has effectively institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. For example, Rohingya couples in the northern towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung are only allowed to have two children. Rohingya must also seek permission to marry, which may require them to bribe authorities and provide photographs of the bride without a headscarf and the groom with a clean-shaven face, practices that conflict with Muslim customs. To move to a new home or travel outside their townships, Rohingya must gain government approval.
Moreover, Rakhine State is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, compared to the 37.5 percent national average, according to World Bank estimates. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have exacerbated the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. This tension is deepened by religious differences that have at times erupted into conflict.
Rohingyas are forced to flee Myanmar
Due to extreme persecution, Rohingyas were forced to flee Myanmar and end up mostly in Bangladesh as refugees. Currently, there are over one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. In addition to this, as of October 2018, there are 80 thousand Rohingyas in Malaysia, a few thousand in Thailand and Indonesia as well in the Gulf countries. According to media reports, in recent years, hundreds of Rohingyas have fled to the Philippines and some other countries.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader has denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place and dismissed international criticism of her handling of the crisis, accusing critics of fueling resentment between Buddhists and Muslims in the country.
International response to Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing
In December 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama lifted sanctions against Myanmar, saying it had made strides in improving human rights. The move came amid a crackdown on Rohingya and was criticized by some as premature. A year later, new US sanctions were imposed against a Myanmar general for his alleged role in the military’s attacks in Rakhine and the U.S. government has continued to widen its sanctions regime on Myanmar military commanders in 2018, as evidence of the military’s atrocities mounts.
Advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Arakan Project, and Fortify Rights continue to appeal for international pressure on Myanmar’s government. In November 2018, Amnesty International stripped Suu Kyi of the Ambassador of Conscience Award it had conferred on her during her fifteen-year house arrest. During early 2018, the ICC’s chief prosecutor launched an investigation into alleged war crimes that forced the exodus of Rohingya.
Rohingyas falling victims of the transnational trafficking racket
According to a 2017-Reuters report, there is a clandestine sex industry boom in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. There had been similar reports by other news agencies and newspapers. The most alarming fact is, some of these trafficked Rohingya females is at risk of being manipulated and turned into suicide attackers. These girls and females are also trafficked into South Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives and some of them even are reaching the Middle Eastern nations. Meaning, gradually these Rohingyas – men and women are spreading throughout the region and beyond.
It’s a ticking time-bomb
Although there is visibly no real initiatives from the international community, especially the United States and the United Kingdom and putting pressure on Myanmar for the immediate return of those over one million Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh; unfortunately, on the other hand, India and China are either maintaining silence or extending support towards Myanmar. There are even reports about India forcefully pushing hundreds of Rohingyas into Bangladesh territory.
Gradually, the level of frustration and anger is on rising amongst the Rohingya refugees. While ARSA may always try to take full advantage of this situation, there is a sharp possibility of international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS forming nexus with ARSA and wage jihad with the target of establishing Caliphate – primarily in Myanmar and ultimately spreading it into other nations in the region. There has been allegation about Pakistani security agency Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) harboring ARSA, while the kingpin of this terrorist outfit is operating from Saudi Arabia. It is not unlikely that ISI may give training and at some stage supply weapons and explosives to ARSA-ISIS or ARSA-Al Qaeda nexus.
Silence or lethargy of the international community in resolving the Rohingya crisis is actually creating the worrying possibility of the emergence of a strong jihadist force in South Asia – which would be much larger in size and possibly even military strength.
It is unclear if the US President Donald Trump, the Western policymakers and the rulers in the Gulf nations are ready for seeing the emergence of another notorious jihadist outfit in Asia.
Damsana Ranadhiran is a retired intelligence official.