Rohingya’s desperate plight shines light on widespread ethnic discrimination across Asean

Felipe Cruvinel
October 20, 2017

Felipe Cruvinel says Asean leaders must speak up and act on the prejudices that divide society, or risk seeing these simmering tensions turn into a humanitarian crisis, as has happened with Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims

While the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has taken the international community by surprise, the United Nations at least cannot claim it did not see this coming. In “suppressed” reports revealed by The Guardian this month, UN consultant Richard Horsey accurately predicted Myanmar’s brutal military campaign against Rohingya communities months before the current crisis erupted, while the World Food Programme revealed a food crisis made worse by aid cuts. Where the reports offered recommendations for addressing deteriorating circumstances, the UN’s local representatives allegedly “spiked” their findings to protect relationships with Myanmar’s government.

Further, one of the reports offers a frank assessment of ethnic tensions in a region that usually sweeps them under the rug. Whereas leaders across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations stick to the bloc’s core script of “economic growth, social progress and cultural development”, a closer look reveals violence and discrimination not only within Myanmar but across Asean. The Rohingya crisis, far from an exception, could draw global awareness to similar issues across Southeast Asia.

Like many conflicts in Asean, the political deprivations faced by the Rohingya date back far longer than recent developments – back even before the 1962 coup that brought Myanmar’s military regime to power. It was successive governments, though, that implemented discriminatory policies culminating in the junta stripping them of their citizenship in 1982. Any hope that the 2008 constitutional referendum and subsequent return to civilian rule would improve the Rohingya’s status has so far been dashed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of her government’s actions.

Ironically, Myanmar’s re-emergence may be serving as a catalyst for the crisis. With land seizure laws allowing the junta to effectively seize lands deemed necessary for “development”, Myanmar’s armed forces have used brutal means to displace the Rohingya in Rakhine state. These land grabs have occurred across Myanmar for decades, but it took hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh at once to attract global attention.

Myanmar’s current violence finds parallels across its borders. In Thailand, authorities are struggling to end an ethnic Malay insurgency in the south that dates to 1948 and has killed nearly 7,000. Though the military government in Bangkok insists peace talks are progressing, the deaths of four army rangers on September 22 suggest otherwise. The insurgent group responsible for most attacks, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, uses a strategy that resembles that of Myanmar’s Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army: specifically target local elements of the state rather than cause widespread terror.

In both Myanmar and Thailand, officials paper over the discrimination and ethnic divisions. As typified by Suu Kyi, they resent international attention when their internal divisions attract it.

In Malaysia, ethnic tensions provide the underpinnings for one-party rule. Kuala Lumpur’s ruling National Front coalition of Umno and its allies has institutionalised preferential treatment for ethnic Malay Muslims for much of the country’s post-colonial history.

If there is one common thread in these examples of ethnic tensions in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, it is that they all date back to the early days of modern statehood (if not to the colonial era, in Myanmar’s case). Other cases of systematic discrimination within Asean have far more recent roots but an equally difficult time attracting attention outside the region.

In Vietnam, for instance, there are the Lai Dai Han, mixed-race children who are in many cases the result of rapes perpetrated by South Korean military personnel. Unbeknown to many, South Korean soldiers under the command of Park Chung-hee formed the second-largest contingent of foreign troops during America’s involvement in Vietnam, numbering around 300,000 in 1964. The Lai Dai Han face similar challenges as mixed-race Vietnamese-American children, except the US has offered Vietnamese children of US servicemen special immigration status and the opportunity to immigrate to the US. South Korea has offered no such assistance to local women or their children.

In each of these cases, fellow Asean member states have mostly refrained from commenting out of a collective commitment to non-interference. As the Rohingya have helped demonstrate through their suffering, however, Asean’s studious silence helps exacerbate humanitarian crises and damages the group’s credibility. Respect for sovereignty is not enough for Asean to achieve its stated goal of social advancement. Instead, the bloc must strengthen its institutional goals to address and hopefully eliminate little-reported but deep-rooted ethnic divisions.

Felipe Cruvinel is working on a research project on data analytics in counter-insurgency as part of a PhD in international relations at the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland. His Twitter is @FCruvi