A missed opportunity to address Rohingya issue

opinion September 24, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Thailand must also take responsibility for the decision by Bimstec members to keep the crisis off the agenda



This past week, members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, commonly referred to as Bimstec, came together with experts and academics to discuss a wide range of security issues under a non-official Track 1.5 arrangement.

The members of this regional grouping include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. When these officials meet, it is considered Track 1, or the official track.

But a Track 1.5 permits them to come face to face with academics and other members of civil society who could be expected to raise sensitive issues currently in the headlines, such as the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that resulted in the mass exodus of Rohingya to escape the wrath of the Myanmar military. More than 400,000 have crossed the border into Bangladesh.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described the crackdown as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

The Track 1.5 meeting this past week in India was supposed to address security challenges in the region; it was supposed to be an opportunity to bring up a “holistic dialogue on all security-related matters among the Bimstec strategic community”. The idea is to resolve misunderstandings in a non-formal and non-binding manner.

Unfortunately, Bimstec Track 1.5 got cold feet and decided to leave this humanitarian crisis out of the agenda, worried about offending member countries, namely Myanmar and Bangladesh. Needless to say, an opportunity has been missed.

No one can deny that the Rohingya crisis is extremely sensitive for Myanmar, Bangladesh and the rest of the world community, including Thailand – a Bimstec member and a neighbour of Myanmar.

It is a shame that academics and experts caved in to demands from the official track and scratched the topic entirely from the agenda.

If anything, the decision by the state actors – and the willingness of the academics to go along – reflect the fact that neither the officials nor the experts have faith in the invited participants or the task at hand. 

If such misconceptions about a track 1.5 meeting become standard practice, then Bimstec should not have it at all. Thailand, as a Bimstec member, is not out of the loop. 

Bangkok has unabashedly lent its support to the Myanmar government by giving in to the request that Thai officials refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali”, to suggest that this ethnic group belongs to Bangladesh.

If they are afraid of getting into a war of words with the Burmese, Bangkok should look to Singapore as an example. The island-state was stressing the humanitarian principle and dispatched its relief organisations to Bangladesh to lend a helping hand to the refugees driven out of their home in Rakhine state.

Thailand does not seem to realise that it is being dragged into a conflict that is looking more and more like a battle between Buddhists and Muslims.

Buddhism is supposed to embrace tolerance and compassion, but sadly our leaders have chosen to put politics over principles, and ignored a major humanitarian crisis that has generated so much heated discussion all around the world.

We tend to forget the atrocities the Burmese soldiers have perpetrated against ethnic minorities along our border, how the Tadmadaw used to cross into the Karen refugee camps well inside the Thai border to carry out arson attacks. And when they couldn’t, the Burmese army would lob mortars into these camps, sending men, women and children running for their lives.

And let’s not forget how these soldiers used rape as weapon of war; it was the Burmese way of reminding the men that they were not capable of protecting their own women.

The fact that these attacks on camps took place on Thai soil, was a slap in the face of the Thai Army.

The Rohingya crisis has the potential to drive a deeper wedge between Asean members, with Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia on one side and Myanmar on the other. By siding with Myanmar, Thailand’s international standing is at stake.

Regardless where one stands politically on this sticky issue, no one can deny the humanitarian tragedy and the fact that innocent people are dying out there.