The Rohingya crisis: A ticking time bomb for Myanmar?

The Rohingya crisis: A ticking time bomb for Myanmar?

The recent boat crisis of Rohingya refugees has dominated headlines and attracted international attention to one of the world’s most prosecuted minority groups. Living in apartheid-like conditions in the Buddhist-dominated Rakhine state, Rohingya Muslims suffer oppression and discrimination in many forms.

While Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia have promised to temporarily shelter 7,000 Rohingya refugees for 12 months, it is unclear what comes next.

Thailand has sent its military to rescue refugees stranded at sea, and on May 29, it hosted a meeting with 17 countries to discuss refugee and human trafficking issues. Myanmar attended on the condition that the term ‘Rohingya’ was not used – a sign of how oppressed the minority group is within the Myanmar society. Even the pro-democracy Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, refused to speak out for the rights of the Rohingya.

The Rohingya issue is a continuation of the communal conflict between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority in Myanmar, which is institutionally embedded in the structure of the state. To name a few examples, the ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ Ashin Wirathu, whose ‘969 movement’ led to widespread violence against Muslims, was called a “symbol of peace” by President Thein Sein.

The national census collected in 2014 and released in 2015 also excluded the Rohingya minority. Meanwhile, ongoing ethnic tensions in Myanmar are a ticking time bomb for its societal stability, where investments could be threatened if conflict turns violent.

Potential for renewed violence and sanctions remains high

Myanmar suffered from long-standing sanctions from the West until 2011, when President Thein Sein came to power and started a series of political and economic reforms. Since then, Myanmar has opened its doors to foreign investment. However, societal stability remains weak, caused by entrenched communal conflict that sometimes turns violent.

In 2012, for instance, the clash between ethnic Buddhists and Rohingya in the northwestern Rakhine state left at least 200 dead and 140,000 homeless.

Recent international criticism of Myanmar’s position in dealing with the Rohingya crisis was met by 400 nationalists, including 40 monks who took to the streets to protest, asking the international community not to “bully” Myanmar.

Minority Muslims in 2012 attempted to bomb Myanmar’s Embassy in Indonesia in retaliation for the government’s long-standing discrimination against the Rohingya.

The recent birth control regulation that requires women to wait 36 months between children calls for civil disobedience from Rohingya people, who fear – alongside many in the international community – the legislation will be applied selectively and restrict the growth of the minority population. Therefore, the potential for renewed violence is high and remains a flashpoint that could undermine long-term prosperity.

The persistent discrimination of Rohingya minority people and other human rights abuses continue to attract foreign sanctions, limiting the scope of investment in Myanmar. US President Barack Obama has renewed executive authority for US sanctions on Myanmar for another year, because “concerns persist regarding ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, particularly in Rakhine State“.

Activists and NGOs have also called for more sanctions against Myanmar to improve the humanitarian situation of Rohingya in the country. It is unlikely that there will be a new wave of sanctions from the international community; however, should this take place, Myanmar’s economy will inevitably suffer, affecting investment which the country greatly needs.

Furthermore, tougher measures from the international community will likely spark resentment from the general public in Myanmar, and likely see last week’s anti-Rohingya rally being repeated.

Social instability caused by ethnic tension is always a risk for any investor, says Cem Ozturk, Kroll Advisory Solutions Senior Director. Risk consultant Maplecroft perceives the persistent oppression against Rohingya Muslim in Rakhine state as threatening “societal stability and increasing reputational risks for investors”.

The ongoing communal tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya minority add further pressure to existing political tensions, as well as political risks, such as a fragile peace agreement with an armed ethnic group. As the 2015 election draws closer, it remains questionable that the government will be able to deliver on promises of stability.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Qingzhen Chen

Qingzhen is a GRI Senior Analyst and a research analyst for an international information company. Her research focuses on China and the Asia Pacific. Previously she was a market researcher for PwC. She has gained regional knowledge from internships with the UNDP, China Policy, and the Royal United Services Institute. She holds a BA in Politics and East European Studies and an MSc in Security Studies from University College London.