Disenfranchisement and Desperation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State: Drivers of a Regional Crisis

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The situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State is driving a regional crisis. Systematic discrimination against Rohingya Muslims has contributed to the largest regional outfow of asylum seekers by sea in decades. Humanitarian conditions in Rohingya villages and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps are dire, and Rohingya suffer frequent abuses at the hands of Myanmar authorities.

In May 2015, the region was forced to grapple with the results of these conditions, as thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers were stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea, making international headlines. ASEAN leaders met at the time in the hopes of resolving the crisis, but failed to craft a regional response to the drivers of the outfow, which are rooted in Rakhine State.

In the months since, these underlying drivers have been compounded by an increasing sense of desperation among Rohingya, driven principally by political exclusion. The disenfranchisement of an estimated one million Rohingya voters, as well as the rejection of dozens of Rohingya parliamentary candidates in advance of the 8 November general election, has led many Rohingya to believe that there is little hope for their future in Myanmar. With no opportunity to take part in perhaps the most consequential election in Myanmar’s history and no hope of any political representation, Rohingya feel they are being forced out of the country.

Furthering this perception is the proliferation of anti-Muslim hate speech and sentiment across Myanmar and the government’s failure to address this growing threat. If left unchecked, Buddhist extremists will continue to vilify Rohingya for political purposes, and further episodes of inter-communal violence could erupt in Rakhine State and other areas, driving still more Rohingya to fee their homes.

During 2015, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) undertook two fact-fnding missions to Myanmar to assess the situation and further investigate the root causes of the Rohingya exodus. APHR’s team of parliamentarians and researchers met with government offcials, religious leaders, civil society representatives, and UN agencies, as well as Rohingya and Rakhine community members and IDPs.

The fndings were clear: ASEAN risks another full-blown crisis as a result of unresolved conditions in Myanmar. Unless serious steps are taken to address the situation of deprivation and despair in Rakhine State, many Rohingya will have no other option but to fee in search of asylum elsewhere.

The next wave of refugees is coming. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have already fed by sea, but nearly a million more are still undergoing heavy persecution throughout Rakhine State. When the remaining Rohingya begin to leave, they will be extremely vulnerable to human traffcking to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The events in May 2015 shined a spotlight on ASEAN’s lack of preparedness to deal with this looming threat. With sailing season set to begin in the coming weeks, regional governments must act urgently to ensure safe and legal means for seeking asylum. Should they fail to do so, Rohingya will face further humiliation, rights abuses, and even death as they are forced to fee intolerable conditions in Rakhine State.

Fundamentally, ASEAN policy must be aimed at ensuring that the factors driving Rohingya to fee Myanmar are properly addressed. In addition to providing humanitarian aid, ASEAN and its individual member states must pressure the Myanmar government to end human rights abuses and systematic discrimination against Rohingya. They must also ensure that people seeking asylum are able to access fair refugee status determination procedures and humanitarian assistance.

Other international actors, including the UN, the EU, and the United States, have a role to play as well. In addition to pressuring the Myanmar government to end its policies of oppression, they must work to convince ASEAN member states to more robustly address the drivers themselves.