The Rohingya Crisis: Dragging our feet will lead us towards the Mud

With international watchdogs united in their condemnation of Myanmar’s campaign in Rakhine State, the comparative silence from the Australian government has been deafening.

A major humanitarian crisis is occurring in Australia’s immediate sphere of influence and yet, despite the warnings from observers in the region, the relative hush on the floor of parliament is palpable. For the most part, DFAT’s vague – almost Charlottesville-like – condemnation of “all abuses of human rights” is thought to be an adequate stand-in for actual action while Julie Bishop’s announcement this week that $10 million of aid will be sent to the region is clearly lacking an accompanying strategy to definitively resolve the crisis.

If it’s true that our outrage at the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State is delimited to the Chief of Army wagging his finger at his tatmadaw counterpart during a joint military conference, then it shows a remarkable lack of imagination in the government’s ability to solve problems. But there’s no reason why small powers like Australia can’t do more. At the very least, it’s upon us to start brainstorming what a real solution to the crisis might look like. Such a policy discussion must begin with a more detailed examination of the current problems facing the Rohingya, in order to understand which retardant is best suited to put out the fire.

The Rohingya, of course, have been the world’s most vulnerable Muslim minority for decades, but the trigger of the latest documented oppression is clearly linked to the emergence of a disruptive new political actor in Rakhine State.

Augured by sporadic skirmishes which began in October last year, on August 25th, members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – a group that seeks the establishment of an independent state for Rohingya Muslims – launched a co-ordinated series of attacks on outposts controlled by the government.

Also known as Harakah Al-Yaqin (Arabic for the “the Faith Movement”, literally the “Movement of Certitude”), ARSA fighters have been labeled “terrorists” by the office of Aung San Suu Kyi and accused of links to the global jihadist movement.

Though it is true that some members of the movement are thought to have received “practical training” in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan, according to the International Crisis Group, the available evidence suggests that ARSA’s “approach and objectives are not transnational jihadist terrorism”.

This knowledge should not draw a collective sigh of relief though, because if the problem continues to go ignored by the international community, there is every likelihood that the body-politic which comprises the ARSA militancy could transform into a local incubation chamber for a more serious strain of extremism. The possibility of an ideological swing towards a radical pole is indeed worrying, particularly as a sense of desperation amongst Rohingya refugees look set to become the status quo. The banner of jihad, we must remember, apart from being an effective mobiliser for extremists across the ummah (the supra-national Muslim community) also symbolises an escape from suffering for many who fly it – a false pathway to salvation for those without hope the world over. After all, the word “salvation” is a part of ARSA’s name.

Research for one, shows that there is a positive correlation between long-term state-directed oppression and religious extremism at the grassroots level.

Take, for example, the anthropologist Cabeiri de Bergh Robinson’s important study of the rise of jihadism in Kashmir. Examining how “being a mujahid” (one who undertakes jihad) became a valued socio-political category amongst Kashmiri refugees, Robinson was able to map how jihad gradually acquired cultural importance within communities who had previously emphasized “being a muhajir” (one who migrates to protect his family and live honorably as a servant of God elsewhere).

The shift toward jihad, according to Robinson, corresponded not only with continued oppression by the Indian state but was also tied to a shared communal feeling amongst Kashmiri refugees that suffering quietly outside the homeland was no longer adequate to challenge an entrenched and unjust status quo.

Especially for younger Kashmiris, “being a refugee” became culturally-synonymous with “victim” and joining the armed struggle became a means for self-empowerment in the midst of “the international community’s refusal to acknowledge and act on human rights abuses by the Indian state”.

Above all else then, what Robinson’s research shows us is that radicalization, as a phenomenon that is often linked to victimhood, is reversible only insofar as victim-producing conditions (like repressive violence by the state and indifference from the international community) can also be reversed.

Breaking with common wisdom then, when we think about the archetypal “sanctuaries” in which jihadism flourishes we shouldn’t only be thinking of “the ungoverned spaces of the world” but also of overgoverned spaces – places where a violent state is predatorily intent on delivering ordnance instead of order. In Robinson’s study, such a sanctuary might include a troop-encircled IDP camp in Indian Kashmir where a young “mujahid” sees military repression on all sides. In today’s Rakhine State, this is a rice paddy near Maungmaw where a Rohingya farmer has his land seized and then watches his family cut down by a helicopter gunship.
Moroever, if the situation remains unresolved, it is likely that young members of the Rohingya émigré in Bangladesh will respond violently to the “vicarious suffering” of their kinsmen and will continue to cross the border to join armed groups. Such an eventuality will surely cause the crisis to spiral further.

But even as ARSA’s resistance contributes to Rakhine’s destabilisation, the group has already spelled out the circumstances under which they could be brought to the negotiating table. In an interview with the Dhaka Tribune, a spokesman for ARSA suggested that “surrender” was possible if a safe zone for Rohingya inside Rakhine State could be provided by UN peacekeepers with an international mandate. Similarly, ARSA’s periodic press releases consistently raise the possibility of a cessation of hostilities to allow for UN and other humanitarian convoys to provide aid to Rohingya still living in Myanmar.

Naturally, there are a number of bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of an international peacekeeping operation with a mandate inside Myanmar. Legalities surrounding Myanmar’s sovereignty aside, China (and its veto power in the UN Security Council) also presents itself as an unknown geopolitical quantity.

Nevertheless, establishing a UN safe zone comparable to the one enforced by the French-led Opération Turquoise at the end of the Rwandan Genocide is not an insurmountable task. And inaction, as Robinson’s examination of the radicalisation process shows, is not an option here.

One hopes that if our post-9/11 foreign policy blunders have taught us anything, it is that proactive measures to combat extremism are preferable to reactive measures. Here, unlike in Afghanistan, where direct intervention has long since lost its utility – our outlook for counter-terrorism should be predictive – focused on prevention instead of attrition.

By exerting greater pressure over Myanmar to reign in the actions of its military and by creating an internationally-mandated safe zone in which the Rohingya can find protection, the current crisis in Rakhine state offers a rare opportunity where the perennial roots of terrorism can be pruned before they gnarl and grow.

Jihadist sentiment has not yet become widespread amongst Myanmar’s Rohingya but if the current trend continues and the crisis remains ignored by the international community, that’s a “not yet” that won’t last. The future of Rakhine State should be cause for everyone’s concern.

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