What is S’pore doing about the Rohingya refugee crisis?

Jan 11, 2017 06.00PM |

by Glenn Ong

THE plight of the Rohingyas – a Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State – has captured the attention of many in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak attended a rally in Kuala Lumpur last month (Dec 4), where thousands gathered to protest the treatment of the Rohingyas. Mr Najib said: “The world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place”.

He also called the crisis “an insult to Islam“. In Indonesia, 300 protesters gathered outside the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta last November, holding large banners which read “Save Rohingya Muslim from Slaughter” and “Stop Rohingya Genocide”.

“The world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place.”

– Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak

These protests are not surprising, given that many Muslims in the region interpret the refugee crisis as a persecution of the Muslim minority in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country.


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What is the Rohingya crisis?


Image Myanmar/Burma: Little hope for Rohingya IDPs by Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO(CC BY-ND 2.0)

Denied citizenship by the government in Yangon, the Rohingyas are stateless partly due to a 1982 law requiring all minority groups to prove that their residence in Myanmar predates the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. The Rohingyas, who are Sunni Muslims, speak a dialect similar to that of people in Chittagong, Bangladesh. This has led other ethnic groups to regard the Rohingyas as Bengali illegal immigrants, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Since 2012, however, more than 120,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar amid increasing military crackdowns. This has exacerbated the refugee crisis, with many pouring into neighbouring Bangladesh, and embarking on perilous sea journeys to Thailand and Malaysia. The refugee flows have also complicated efforts by governments to crack down on human trafficking.


What’s been said and done in Singapore?

As of last month (Dec 2016), Singaporeans have raised more than S$350,000 for victims of the refugee crisis in Myanmar, and also for earthquake victims in Aceh, Indonesia. In addition, the G has contributed US$200,000 (S$267,000) to a “trust fund to support emergency humanitarian and relief efforts in the event of refugee flows”, administered by the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Secretariat.

The refugee crisis was also discussed in Parliament on Monday (Jan 9), when Members of Parliament (MPs) Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) posed parliamentary questions about Singapore’s role in response to the humanitarian crisis.

In his reply, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said: “From Singapore’s perspective, we have emphasised that every government must ensure the safety and protection of all its people regardless of race or religion, and that all people must enjoy the same basic rights.”

He also said that the funds will be “channelled through Myanmar-based organisations to assist all affected communities, regardless of ethnicity and/or religion.”

He added: “At the same time, it is also the right and the responsibility of every state to secure its borders and to maintain internal security.” This basically means that aside from humanitarian aid, Singapore would be abiding by Asean’s principle of non-interference with the domestic affairs of member countries.

This echoes what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in June 2015. In an interview with foreign journalists, PM Lee said Asean “cannot solve all problems, and cannot compel any member to act in a certain way”.


Myanmar’s perspective

TMG asked Associate Professor Maitrii Aung-Thwin, a historian from the National University of Singapore, on what he thinks are the difficulties faced by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi – Myanmar’s de facto leader – regarding the crisis. In response, Prof Aung-Thwin said that her government faces two main challenges.

“The first concerns the difficulty of the government in presenting its position on what is essentially an ongoing immigration-socio-economic crisis,” he said. “Decades of transnational movement along the western border with Bangladesh, the borderlands of north-eastern India, and other coastlines in Asean has been simplified as a domestic political issue originating in Myanmar,” said Prof Aung-Thwin, adding that this misrepresentation has constrained the ability of the government to act decisively.

“Decades of transnational movement has been simplified as a domestic political issue…”

– Assoc Prof Maitrii Aung-Thwin, National University of Singapore

The second challenge concerns a lack of capacity by previous and current administrations to “address the needs of peripheral areas, such as Rakhine State and other borderland zones”. Prof Aung-Thwin said that this is due to Myanmar and Bangladesh’s complicated post-colonial history, which has “left both countries struggling to deal with internal divisions, civil war, and sectarian violence rather than economic development”.

Last month (Dec 2016), Ms Suu Kyi paid a state visit to Singapore, where she addressed questions regarding the Rohingya crisis in an interview with Channel NewsAsia:

She said she doesn’t think the refugee issue is out of control, but acknowledged that it was a substantial problem. “It’s not just Muslims who are nervous and worried. The Rakhine are worried too, they are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population percentage-wise,” she said.

She added that “we cannot ignore the fact that the relationship between the two communities has not been good and we want to try to make it better”.


How has the issue affected relations within Asean?

When asked about how the crisis has influenced dynamics within Asean, Prof Aung-Thwin said that the issue is one of several others that non-governmental organisations (NGOs), transnational advocacy networks (TANs), and mainstream media have used to “portray Myanmar as a pariah state, part of a larger discourse that was employed to render Myanmar’s military government as illegitimate”.

However, such a move has created a paradox of sorts. “These issues challenged and strained Asean’s ability to defend its member while maintaining its own credibility as a regional body,” he added.

On what Singapore can do to improve the situation, Prof Aung-Thwin said: “Singapore and the local media can help complicate the oversimplified representation of the issue”. In addition, Singapore can also provide a “neutral ground” for discussions and negotiations.


Featured image Myanmar/Burma: Still suffering from the impact of Cyclone Komen by Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO(CC BY-ND 2.0)

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