Head of Border Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)
The security situation for 1.3 million Muslim Rohingyas living in Myanmar is becoming increasingly untenable. If this situation deteriorates much further, ASEAN can expect to be facing a mass migration crises before the year is out.
Unfortunately for the Rohingyas, the window of opportunity to prevent this humanitarian crises is rapidly closing. Put simply, if Jakarta doesn’t respond soon, it will be too late. If this crises can’t be averted through careful diplomacy, the flow of refugees from Myanmar is likely to rapidly reach a magnitude that will overwhelm the region’s capacity to respond.
For 25 years the maritime border security situation in Southeast Asia has been relatively stable. ASEAN’s geographic isolation from the Middle East, Africa and South America has served to insulate it from the mass migration crises in Europe and North America.
In early 2015, almost 25,000 Rohingyas took to boats to escape persecution from Myanmar's Buddhist government. This mass migration flow caused a crisis across Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Over the last month, the situation for the Rohingyas has once more entered a state of rapid and deadly decline. The Myanmar government alleges that on Oct. 9 an insurgent Rohingya group launched coordinated ground assaults against several border guard posts, killing nine police officers and five soldiers.
Since the attacks, the Myanmar government has deployed large numbers of police and military forces to the Rakhine state. According to official Myanmar reporting, 69 suspected insurgents and 17 security force personnel have been killed since the attacks began.
It is alleged by international advocates that Myanmar’s government forces have shot scores of people, raped women, burned houses and stores and looted property across Rakhine state. These attacks have universally targeted the Muslim Rohingya minority. Various non-government organizations have reported that in excess of 30,000 Rohingyas are now displaced by the violence.
The 2015 Rohingya crisis demonstrated how upsurges in persecution can lead to sudden and large migration flows. The events of the past few weeks have been described by some observers as the biggest surge in violence against the Rohingya for at least four years. Bangladeshi officials are already reporting that the number of Rohingyas attempting to cross the border from Myanmar by land and sea is rising by the day. With an estimated population of 1.3 million Rohingyas in Myanmar, the potential for a mass migration crises in the region is clear. The conditions are now ripe for sparking a crisis that could see tens of thousands of people displaced across the region.
In late 2014, European nations were receiving similar warnings of the possibility of a mass migration crisis involving Syrian refugees. At the time both the European Union and many of its individual member states failed to heed the warnings and were ill prepared for the mass migration crisis that followed.
The Europeans learned that in the face of mass irregular migration, border security measures quickly fail. Europe's 2015/2016 migration crisis clearly demonstrated that on its own a maritime blockade is not enough to contain desperate people. This is why prevention and early intervention are critical.
While well intentioned, the United Nations has had little impact on the situation on the ground. At present, the UN is lobbying the Myanmar government to allow much needed aid to be distributed in Rakhine state. With US president-elect Donald Trump’s imminent ascendancy to the Oval Office, American engagement in the Asia-Pacific is on pause and its future uncertain. The strained relations between Myanmar and China ensures that Beijing is unlikely to intervene to secure the Rohingyas' fate. Australia’s long commitment to the Middle East and the war on terrorism have seen it walk away from the Mekong states, so is unlikely to proactively engage with Myanmar.
If the crises is be averted, help will need to come from within the ASEAN region. However, ASEAN moves far too slowly to be a real option. As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia has a religious and regional obligation to come to the aid of the Rohingyas. If this is not enough, heading off a costly humanitarian emergency is also in Indonesia’s self-interest.
Indonesia needs to lobby for Myanmar to halt its security operations in Rakhine state as soon as possible. Furthermore, Indonesia should offer humanitarian assistance for the 30,000 displaced Rohingyas. In the longer term Jakarta will need to harness bilateral and multilateral efforts to address the persecution of the Rohingyas if a more permanent solution is to be found.
If Indonesia doesn’t act soon to end the persecution of the Rohingyas, the region may face a humanitarian crises that stretches from Rakhine state to the archipelago’s shores.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.