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Since the mid-1900s, periodic outbreaks of hostility and violence have led large numbers of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to seek safety in neighboring countries. In August 2017, violence broke out as the Myanmar army launched an offensive against the Rohingya in response to Muslim insurgents’ attack on the armed forces. The disproportionate levels of force aimed at Rohingya villages and the yet unknown cause for the Rohingyas sudden initiation of violence never quite added up, and the Myanmar administration did nothing the prevent the massive displacement of Rohingyas as refugees. Amongst them, a large number found shelter in Bangladesh. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered approximately one million Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers, mainly in Bangladesh (860,000), as well as in Malaysia (101,000), and India (18,000)—with smaller numbers in Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, and other countries. The actual numbers may be much higher considering undercounting and unregistered refugees.

Although the world perceived the Rohingya refugee exodus as a severe humanitarian crisis, the international community failed to pressure the Myanmar government to revise its positions, allowing the state to remain intransigent towards the plight of the Rohingya community. The host nations have been overwhelmed with the numbers, and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) remained immune to regional and international censure. At the same time, the elected National League for Democracy-led government had little interest in safeguarding Myanmar’s minority or ethnic rights.

Although the world perceived the Rohingya refugee exodus as a severe humanitarian crisis, the international community failed to pressure the Myanmar government to revise its positions, allowing the state to remain intransigent towards the plight of the Rohingya community.

The Rohingya problem is rooted in the disputed question of nationality and citizenship. The 1982 citizenship law only considers people from eight ethnic groups (Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Bamar, Rakhine, and Shan) as “citizens,” effectively excluding 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, including Rohingyas, from the rights and privileges afforded to citizens. The Tatmadaw has always rejected Rohingya calls for citizenship, and their leaders have argued that the current conflict had been fueled because the Rohingyas demanded citizenship. However, historical accounts suggest Rohingyas and Rakhine people have lived together in the Arakan province of Myanmar (then Burma) for centuries. The overthrow of the elected government in Myanmar and the latest military takeover has further underscored the grave plight of the Rohingya population. It is unlikely that the military will take actions towards the “safe and dignified return” of the Rohingya—particularly given that they were “the main perpetrators of the genocidal campaign that drove the largest numbers of Rohingya out of Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state in August 2017.” The irreconcilable positions over the definition of citizenship have not only resulted in periodic exoduses of the Rohingyas but festered unfriendly local ground conditions dimming the prospects of their return to their perceived homeland.

Limited Support Forthcoming

While the international community has tried to push Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya crisis, the scope for non-state actors, including activists, media, and various other pressure groups’ ability to influence state behavior remains limited. The possibility to address the gap amongst the government, the other nationals and the affected communities through subnational diplomatic efforts could be more effective than state pressure as they can “move across jurisdictional levels,” and work outside the fixed structures in which national governments traditionally operate. However, despite the scale of the Rohingya crisis, subnational diplomatic efforts by civil rights and advocacy groups in Myanmar and South Asia have not been very effective. The institutionalized military has shrunk spaces for subnational diplomacy within Myanmar’s polity—even “international humanitarian and health workers on the ground have operated through partnerships with local groups because of long-standing restrictions”—underscoring the limited space for international subnational actors in the country.

Evidently, the Rohingyas are not very welcome by their neighbors. Efforts by host nations to help repatriate the Rohingya were stymied in the face of the challenging conditions prevailing in the Rakhine region.  Moreover, viewing Rohingya Muslims through the “terror lens” in India and the wider region has made their status increasingly precarious. At the same time, South Asian states hold limited leverage over Myanmar to mend its policies and ensure dignified repatriation. India’s hesitancy to highlight this issue with Tatmadaw stems from its need to ensure border stability while others in the region have limited engagement and are unable to hold Myanmar accountable for its behavior. Chinese support in the face of western criticism of Myanmar has added to the Tatmadaw’s sense of impunity.

While the world watched the latest 2017 exodus with despair, several international organizations and agencies spoke up for the Rohingyas including the United Nations, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Norwegian Refugee Council, and even the 2020 International Court of Justice, which ordered Myanmar to safeguard its Rohingya minority groups and imposing emergency “provisional measures.” Arguably, past economic sanctions have never succeeded against the Myanmar military, who remain enabled by international business links including access to Myanmar’s profitable gem, oil, and gas industries. Unfortunately, the international community, including regional organizations such as ASEAN, was otherwise unable to ensure any remedial measures despite hollow statements of condemnation. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), comprising Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Thailand, has failed to address this issue. Indeed, the sub-regional conversation is informal at best and unable to drive home the point.

While India and Bangladesh are not signatories to the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, both countries have provided support and shelter to Rohingyas—albeit in significantly differing capacities. From time to time, non-state actors at the subnational level, especially in Bangladesh, India, and Malaysia, have attempted to pressure their governments to ensure added protection for Rohingya refugees—admittedly with little success. While the central governments of Sri Lanka and India have been largely silent, Bangladesh has attempted to press Myanmar to re-examine their erstwhile damaging policies. Despite a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh for the Rohingya repatriation, the commitment remains unfulfilled. Rohingyas also fear returning to Myanmar without any reassurances from the military. In India, advocacy from the media and civil rights defenders—such as resistance to an Indian Supreme Court ruling that allowed Rohingya deportations—failed to pressure the Indian government to stop their decision to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. In another striking example, Malaysian immigration authorities transferred 1,086 Rohingyas to the Myanmar navy for return to Myanmar despite a court order blocking the move.

In a few instances, while Rohingyas have found local support from Muslim communities based on their shared religion, they have also been the cause of local tension over religion, economic concerns, environmental degradation, and other factors. While there was strong condemnation by the Sri Lankan government for an attack on Rohingyas by a group of Buddhists in 2017, the fact that Muslim refugees are unwelcome in the island nation has not been lost on observers. Similarly, in Nepal, Rohingya refugees have been forced to restrict themselves to certain areas due to local pressure. Inevitably, the Rohingya refuges remain confined to camp life in host nations with bleak prospects for the future.

While most host nations have extended humanitarian assistance to persecuted Rohingyas, their inability to condemn nor compel the Myanmar government to address their relationship with the Rohingyas points to the existing political dilemma faced by South Asian states.

The religion factor worked in several refugees’ favor in Indonesia. While local secular civil society organizations urged the Indonesian government to take political and legal actions to protect Rohingya refugees, Islamic civil society organizations were also able to compel the government through appeals to Islamic humanitarianism—putting Indonesia in sharp contrast to Bangladesh’s despite being a Muslim country. In Bangladesh, facing local resentment, local advocacy groups, media, and academia have asked for greater support for Rohingyas and their safe return and rehabilitation to their homeland. It has also been pointed out that: “the lack of a representative structure constrains the Rohingya refugees ability to address challenges that arise in everyday camp life, from service provision to redress for grievances.” Further, “despite the escalating need,” donor support has continued to decrease each year, affecting the operations of local NGOs and civil society groups.

While most host nations have extended humanitarian assistance to persecuted Rohingyas, their inability to condemn nor compel the Myanmar government to address their relationship with the Rohingyas points to the existing political dilemma faced by South Asian states. Hawks who raise security concerns at hosting refugees have often silenced many non-state actors who highlight the plight of Rohingya refugees. Thus, India’s refusal to offer asylum in favor of building houses in Arakan province points to the limited appeal of subnational diplomacy for Rohingyas.

Subnational diplomatic efforts have not enabled an environment of greater understanding of the Rohingya crisis. However, the newly founded anti-coup National Unity Government (NUG)—comprising of elected members of parliament, ethnic and civil society leaders—is proposing to repealing the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law. These efforts should be buttressed by subnational initiatives to better protect and safeguard the Rohingya’s future. Consolidated subnational efforts can enable safer ground conditions that would end the discrimination and persecution faced by the Rohingyas to would provide a future that is not tainted by violence and hostility but lived with dignity and safety.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a joint-series run with 9DashLine exploring the role of subnational diplomacy in South Asia.

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Image 1: United to End Genocide via Flikr

Image 2: UN Women via Flikr

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