One needs to be realistic to unravel the Rohingya crisis
Political realism, the roots of which stretch as far back as ancient Greece, through to the likes of Machiavelli and Hobbes, provides a lens through which to examine international relations, with an emphasis on power and self-interest.
Some political realists acknowledge the role of ethical norms in global affairs and this perspective becomes particularly relevant when assessing the complex Rohingya crisis. In the Western context, legal frameworks, a free press, and democratic electoral systems often ensure politics and politicians operate within the rules of international law.
In Myanmar, however, a dysfunctional domestic legal system challenges the efficacy of the nation’s commitments to international conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As a recent report by the Arab News Research and Studies Unit think tank points out, despite the endorsement of human rights treaties by authorities in Myanmar, real humanitarian protections are lacking in practice. This is illustrated by the regime blocking medical care, and the perpetration of mass killings.
The traditional legal framework has proven insufficient in its ability to prevent powerful figures from disregarding the rules, thereby hindering international accountability. The challenge lies in ensuring dialogue and compliance with international obligations are more attractive options than violating the rules. The Arab News report explores some of the feasible solutions, not solely from a bleak political realist perspective, but also drawing on liberal political goals such as cooperation, justice, and moral discourse.
It notes that 1.6 million people displaced since the 1970s live in dire conditions in refugee camps. The statelessness of the Rohingya, a situation deliberately orchestrated by Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, denies them the full privileges citizens enjoy, leading to ethnic and religious discrimination. The crisis culminated in a campaign of mass murders and forced deportations in 2017 that has been recognized as genocide by the International Human Rights Clinic.
The internal politics and power struggles within refugee camps exacerbate the plight of the Rohingya, with dominant gangs hindering proper political organization. ARSA, a Rohingya insurgent group, organizes military counterattacks, complicating efforts to address the crisis. Prominent Rohingya figures, such as the late peace activist Mohib Ullah, faced threats and have even been killed in response to their calls for international justice, which exposes the challenges that exist within the camps.
The role of Bangladesh adds complexity to the crisis, through the nation’s focus on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, which is driven by questionable motives. As evictions, crime and strained resources create tensions between Bangladesh nationals and Rohingya, Bangladesh’s policies, including attacks on refugees and the withholding of basic supplies, raise ethical concerns.
In the West, despite the initial charitable concern about the plight of the Rohingya, support for aid has declined. Increased political attention and scrutiny can help to redirect resources and leverage Western influence to address the crisis. Historical precedents, such as the international pressure that motivated authorities in Myanmar to engage with the Kofi Annan Foundation illustrate the potentially powerful effect of active Western involvement.
An improved role for Bangladesh will require policy adjustments to improve conditions for the Rohingya and put an emphasis on their human rights, security and economic opportunities. Western nations must exert diplomatic pressure on Bangladesh, while promoting cooperative solutions and helping to ease domestic political pressures.
The statelessness of the Rohingya, a situation deliberately orchestrated by Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, denies them the full privileges citizens enjoy, leading to ethnic and religious discrimination.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The influence of China complicates the diplomatic landscape, through its use of its veto power on the UN Security Council to protect authorities in Myanmar and oppose Western intervention. But a reinvigorated Western political will could provide the motivation for a more realistic approach to refugee repatriation, through the provision of funding and the application of soft power to alleviate concerns on both sides.
The Rohingya, considered one of the most marginalized groups in the world, have endured a prolonged period of persecution. Despite attempts to provide them with humanitarian assistance, the response from aid agencies falls short of what is needed. Systematically deprived of basic human rights by governmental and societal authorities, the Rohingya face a world in which security is paramount, yet they grapple with a lack of safety and any prospect of this situation improving. They remain exposed to considerable risks posed by violence, criminal recruitment and militancy.
The limited intervention by the international community has transformed the issue of Rohingya refugees into a significant concern for Bangladesh. While the country makes considerable efforts to assist the refugees, there is a hesitancy to offer any form of support that might imply a more permanent presence is welcome, which results in avoidable suffering.
The obstructions put in the path of aid organizations and the denial of economic rights further compound the challenges faced by Rohingya refugees.
Myanmar, too, must respond to the global call to action to resolve this crisis. Sustained international pressure is an essential element in efforts to persuade authorities to address the root causes of the issue, recognize the Rohingya as citizens, and establish safeguards to guarantee their safety in their homeland. Overcoming racial and religious hostility will require a considerable display of leadership in Myanmar but there are precedents for success through ambitious international efforts.
Politics holds the potential in each faction to deescalate racial tensions. In the case of the Rohingya, political representation offers a platform for self-expression, organization and mobilization behind preferred solutions.
While bad politics plunged the Rohingya into crisis, effective politics at both the community and international levels will ultimately provide the solution to their plight. The Rohingya need encouragement to raise their voices, which in turn requires serious attention to be paid to conditions in refugee camps, including security and the actions of disruptive groups such as ARSA.
Active funding and support for community organizations within the camps are crucial. International actors can take steps, including media advocacy and public support, to redirect humanitarian resources and shine the sterilizing light of international scrutiny on the crisis to raise its profile.
As Madeleine Albright, a former US secretary of state, famously said: “A lot of people think international relations is like a game of chess. But it is not a game of chess, where people sit quietly, thinking out their strategy, taking their time between moves. It is more like a game of billiards, with a bunch of balls clustered together.”
Politics is the key process through which we can soften stances, advocate for better conditions and seek justice for victims.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC.