The forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state presents a grave risk to regional stability, according to several organizations. Since August 25, Myanmar’s security forces have conducted extensive and violent “clearance operations” against the minority group, instigating a refugee crisis which has seen over 700,000 people flee the country into neighbouring Bangladesh. This “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” has been characterized by widespread and indiscriminate violence against the Rohingya. To prevent them from returning to their homes, the military have systematically destroyed both property and any means of livelihood, and also reportedly engaged in serious crimes such as extrajudicial killings and rape.
The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar told the Security Council last week that the Rohingya crisis has “for some time gone beyond Myanmar’s borders” and impinges on regional stability. Yanghee Lee also emphasized that the scale of the problem means that the Rohingya face a considerable challenge in rebuilding their lives within the immediate future. The report tabled by Ms. Lee to the Security Council found that dispersal operations, such as the destruction of villages, was still continuing at the time of their visit on September 17. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch has also confirmed ongoing forced removals by government forces. This is despite claims by Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar government that clearance operations ceased on September 5.
The ongoing security operations and large refugee exodus pose considerable challenges for both Myanmar and the broader region. The International Crisis Group warned last week that the stateless Rohingya population currently in Bangladesh are potentially vulnerable to extremist ideological influences such as those propagated by transnational jihadist groups. Conditions within the overcrowded refugee camps only compound this problem. Not only are there food and water shortages, but the spread of disease and crime have also been widely reported by the media and humanitarian groups. In addition, Crisis Group cited the example of a bombing at the Myanmar embassy in Cairo last month to highlight the likelihood that the sustained attack on Rohingya Muslims is elevating the threat of terrorism. This follows the call of an al-Qaeda leader in early September for reprisals against the Myanmar government, and protests in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia.
There are two aspects which must be considered in approaching this issue. First and of most pressing importance is the need to craft an effective international response to the current humanitarian crisis. Governments must ensure that the UNHCR is fully supported in its role of providing care to Rohingya refugees so that conditions in the camps may be improved. It is also important that other nations are prepared to accept generous intakes of Rohingya refugees should that be necessary. Secondly, an attempt to find a long-term solution is necessary. This will involve cooperating with the government and military in Myanmar, and the attempt to reconstruct the position of the Rohingya within the contemporary national picture. Nations, such as Australia who have helped train Myanmar military forces, must make any future assistance contingent on meeting goals related to such human rights progress and social development.
The long-term risks to Myanmar and the region more broadly of further inaction on this issue are cause for concern. The entrenchment of violence and instability in the region will lock millions into a pattern of underdevelopment, exacerbating problems such as extremism. Large refugee migrations, in addition to constituting a humanitarian crisis, will also present inevitable challenges for neighbouring countries. The region cannot insulate itself from the effects of the crisis in Myanmar and should adopt a more determined and concerted approach to solving it.