ASEAN TACKLES ROHINGYA PERSECUTION, RELIGIOUS TENSIONS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA by: Benjamin Small

Representatives of China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and others debate solutions to the Rohingya persecution and refugee crisis as well as general religious discrimination during an unmoderated caucus.

Representatives of China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and others debate solutions to the Rohingya persecution and refugee crisis as well as general religious discrimination during an unmoderated caucus.

In sessions on religious tensions Thursday and Friday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) representatives grappled with the oppression of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and the resulting refugee crisis in the region.

The most pressing issue before the committee was the plight of the Rohingya people — an ethnic minority — most of whom are Muslim. In late 2016, the Myanmar government began a series of devastating crackdowns in the Rakhine State. The military and police actions came as a  response to Rohingya insurgent attacks in October 2016.

The Delegate from Myanmar, Eric Tostevin, acknowledged the existence of the military crackdown.

“Myanmar certainly recognizes the attacks in the Rohingya state and we certainly do not condone any actions which violate human rights,” he said. “The Myanmar government would like to investigate more information on the matter — especially because there is a lot of misinformation from different sources concerning the refugees.”

Tostevin also recognized the autonomous nature of the military branch of the government, noting, “there have been a few isolated incidents with the military.”

Other representatives were quick to deem Myanmar’s crackdown as a violation of human rights.   

Some accounts currently place the death toll at over 10,000, including nearly a thousand children. The international community has condemned the largely autonomous military branch’s actions, allegedly including arbitrary arrest and executions, gang rapes, and civilian violence,  as violations of human s rights violations — allegedly including arbitrary arrest and executions, gang rapes, and civilian violence.

India, among other nations, emphasized the pressing nature of the crisis and its humanitarian consequences.

“India as a country believes that [the persecution] is at least verging on genocide,” said the delegate from  India, Seamus Connor.  

Connor further stated that ameliorating the Rohingya refugee crisis would positively impact religious tensions in the nation.

“By focusing on alleviating the problems of refugees, we can also try to address Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya, while trying to encourage it to transition to a more democratic government,” he said.

Many delegates raised the issue of Myanmar’s sovereignty when introducing possible solutions to the persecution and refugee crisis. The Delegate of the People’s Republic of China, Jaelan Scott, affirmed China’s support of refugees.

“China helps refugees and conditions refugee camps,” he said. “But China also has its five principles of nonintervention. So we do not believe, necessarily, in meddling in the affairs of other nations. It’s up to each sovereign nation to choose how they handle those issues, so we don’t impose on them.”

In terms of a long-term solution, Scott said he supports measures to improve the economic stability of many ASEAN nations, reduce inequalities, and, hopefully, mitigate religious tensions in particularly destitute regions.

“We believe that the economy is a major problem regarding religious and ethnic tensions, so if we’re able to improve economic stability then these religious tensions will hopefully be mitigated,” he said. “China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative has been used throughout numerous countries, specifically in ASEAN as well as Europe and Africa. We believe that by investing in this infrastructure and implementing these bilateral agreements that, hopefully, will alleviate the economic wage gap and provide these religious minorities with some sort of identity and stability.”

Several representatives, most notably that of Bangladesh, Aadi Kulkarni, asserted their belief that immediate, short-term solutions to the pressing refugee crisis should take precedence over long-term solutions.

“I think, in general, we’re heading in the right direction, but it seems like there are a lot of big-picture issues that are trying to be solved with long-term plans, while it seems pretty clear that plight of the Rohingya is a current issue that needs to be addressed immediately,” he said. “There are obvious ways to address it that are on more than just a macro-level.”

Kulkarni elaborated that the Rohingya persecution and refugee crisis deserve ASEAN’s undivided attention because of the massive loss of life and suffering as well as the destabilizing nature of the surge in refugees on the region. Furthermore, he noted that failing to address the persecution would “undermine the power of ASEAN in the global community.”

Indeed, Bangladesh has felt the effects of the refugee crisis first-hand. By September 2017, the majority of the 400,000 Rohingya refugee had fled to the nation.

In the Friday session, delegates began to formulate solutions to the Rohingya refugee crisis as well as to broader religious discrimination.

“We’re focusing on a more tolerant and secularized education program as well as additional infrastructure that could be used to alleviate poverty, and [on] relocation of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar … to other nations such as Australia, China, Russia, and South Korea,” said the Delegate of Indonesia, Evanna Peng.

Peng said she is eager for ASEAN to pass a resolution, protecting the vulnerable Rohingya people moving forward.