Recent months have seen an upsurge of inter-communal violence in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state. The latest outburst of violence—which saw more than one hundred Muslim Rohingya killed and over thirty thousand displaced—follows an earlier wave of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. More insidiously, some Rohingya have been confined to camps where basic rights like freedom of movement, and access to basic necessitates such as healthcare and education is denied. Despite these grave abuses, which some have described as genocidal, the response from Australia and much of the international community has been muted.
The origins of inter-communal tensions and anti-Muslim sentiments in Rakhine are varied and complex.
Despite Muslims having inhabited modern Rakhine state in substantive numbers from at least the 9th century onwards, the escalation of Muslim Bengali immigration into the area during the British colonial period has created the perception that many Rohingya are ‘illegitimate’ illegal immigrants. Accordingly, citizenship has been denied to many Rohingya, despite almost all of them having roots in Myanmar that predate Burmese independence in 1948.
A number of armed Rohingya groups seeking secession have also operated a low-level insurgency in the region. Capitalising on the fear produced by the insurgency, as well as anxiety over the ‘Islamification’ of Rakhine as a result of Rohingya population growth, the firebrand, nationalist monk U Wirathu has lead the charge in fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment. Describing the Muslim Rohingya as ‘mad dog[s]’ and ‘the enemy’, Wirathu has advocated the resettling of the Rohingya to a third country.
In the context of an ethnically divided country whose focal point of commonality is the Buddhist religion, the Rohingya have thus become a convenient target against which a diverse population can rally.
Worryingly, with perhaps the exception of Malaysia, which has publicly questioned the legitimacy of Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN, key regional actors have done little to address the plight of the Rohingya. Australia is no exception, having failed to publicly apply any significant diplomatic or economic pressure on Yangon. Infamously, at a time when thousands of Rohingya were stranded at sea with no country willingly to permanently settle them, the then PM Tony Abbott responded ‘Nope, nope, nope’ to suggestions that Australia could help resettle some of the stranded asylum seekers.
There are many possible reasons aside from general apathy which can explain the paucity of Canberra’s response. The ostensible transition of Myanmar from military dictatorship to democracy and the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi have been greatly heralded in the West. It’s conceivable that countries such as Australia are neglecting the Rohingya issue since strongly criticising Yangon could empower the isolationist forces which kept Myanmar relatively closed for decades. Given that Australia itself has detained Rohingya at its detention facilities on Nauru, Canberra also risks appearing hypocritical if its condemnation of Myanmar is too strong.
There are also potential economic and geopolitical considerations behind the relative inaction of Australia and other regional players. Australian companies see Myanmar as an emerging market and a number of companies already have considerable projects underway. Myanmar shares a land border with China and could be an important player in any bid to contain a rising China.
Yet despite the attractiveness of inaction, it’s not without its potential perils. Indeed, failure by Australia and the international community to hold Myanmar accountable could set a dangerous precedent, whereby other countries in the region feel empowered to use the the tactics favoured by Yangon to deal with their own internal problems. Clearly, this would undermine Australia’s interest in the spread of core Australian values like democracy and human rights.
Moreover, inaction is bad for regional security. Radical Islamist groups have a proven track record of galvanising support for Jihadist causes amongst oppressed populations. Although the threat of Rohingya terrorism is clearly overstated, the Pakistani Taliban have publicly urged the Rohingya to rise up. In recent years, the radical Harakah al-Yaqin group—whose members have been trained in Pakistan—has also emerged. If countries like Australia fail to improve the situation of the Rohingya, it’s likely that support for such groups will grow.
Finally, the longer the oppression in Rakhine endures, the more likely the mass exoduses of Rohingya to countries like Bangladesh will continue. Clearly, this has the potential to destabilise a country that has no shortage of preexisting problems.
Thankfully, Canberra has a number of options to exert pressure on Yangon, so that the Rohingya’s rights are better respected. Aside from using bilateral diplomatic channels to call for better treatment of the Rohingya, Australia could use its formal dialogue with ASEAN to further pursue the issue. In the not unlikely event that Canberra’s calls are unheeded, Australia could leverage the possibility of economic sanctions and the $42 million in foreign aid that it provides to Myanmar annually.
Although the easy option, silence on the Rohingya issue is not in the long term interests of Canberra or the region. Australia should thus consider the merits of a more proactive approach.
Henry Storey is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.