The world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis is spiraling out of control in Asia, causing human suffering of horrifying proportions. But there is a bold and practical solution to the Rohingya disaster that no one is talking about. Not surprisingly, it has to do with money.
More than 500,000 men, women and children of the ethnic Muslim minority Rohingya have been driven from their homes in Myanmar, seeking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh after fleeing from villages burning to the ground and witnessing family members being raped, beaten or killed. International television coverage of this crisis is indisputable: it is on par with the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s.
The media spotlights the Myanmar leadership for allowing its people, military, and some religious leaders to persecute the Rohingya; a difficult fact to fathom given that the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has long symbolised hope for the repressed. Ms Suu Kyi and her generals are clearly uncomfortable with the negative attention. Ironically, international pressure has driven the Nobel Peace Prize winning leader and the junta closer together.
No leaders have stepped up with a solution to the Rohingya crisis. Ms Suu Kyi’s agreement on Monday to repatriate refugees is hollow since it requires they prove their Myanmar citizenship, something repeatedly denied to Rohingya.
The UN appears unwilling to push the Myanmar leadership into action. Redirected blame and denials of complicity will continue, delaying a fix, until two sub-texts of the discussion are addressed: money and security.
Emergency humanitarian efforts cost a lot. Governments are wary of committing significant aid, lest they get stuck with a large, recurring bill. The Rohingya also happen to be settled around an area rich with resources (Sitwe) through which an oil pipeline now flows to China. China reportedly paid US$3 billion (100 billion baht) to the Myanmar government for use of the pipeline and expects it to be safeguarded.
Myanmar generals view the Rohingya as a threat to emerging financial interests and national security. Although the minority group’s own armed defenders, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, have made it clear they have no connection to Islamic terrorists and are solely focused on the protection of their people, skirmishes with local military, coupled with the unregulated migration of Rohingya between Southeast Asia and the Middle East (an estimated 200,000 Rohingya are working in Saudi Arabia), make Myanmar authorities nervous.
Five governments have the ability and responsibility to create a Rohingya solution that addresses concerns about finance and security: Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, China and the UK. These countries have played a role in the historic mishandling of the Rohingya and have profited in some form from their displacement. It’s time for payback.
The Rohingya are a people without a country because the colonial British government of the 19th century let them wander within artificial boundaries to what is now Myanmar, but was then treated as a province of British India.
Dominant ethnic groups were never happy with Rohingya settlements. Once India and Myanmar gained their independence, Britain left behind the Rohingya problem. Things only got worse.
More recently, the Rohingya have been treated as 21st century slaves in Southeast Asia.
Over the past decade, large boatloads of desperate Rohingya families were trafficked to Thailand where they were placed in jungle holding camps before being sold across the border to businesses in Malaysia. Many died while waiting in those camps. Thai police and Freeland, an international civil society organisation that combats organised crime and corruption, in 2015 uncovered a criminal supply chain that trafficked thousands of Rohingya.
The underground slave highway was protected by a corrupt Thai army officer and politicians. In June, Thai court sentenced Lt Gen Manas Kongpan to 27 years in prison as a main culprit.
Thai investigators also tracked down much of the traffickers’ ill-gotten gains, which amounted to millions of US dollars. They also identified criminal supply chain “nodes” inside Myanmar and Malaysia. To our knowledge, this intelligence has never been shared among enforcement agencies in these bordering countries.
Now is the appropriate time for Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia to meet and share knowledge on Rohingya trafficking and come up with a solution for a sustainable Rohingya peace.
These governments can jointly review intelligence on cross-border criminal rings and corrupt officials that profited from Rohingya slavery. This collaboration will enhance national and regional security: the criminality and corruption behind human trafficking is a bigger threat to civil society in Southeast Asia than Rohingya migrants.
Such collaboration will also enable authorities to track down and seize sizeable criminal assets. The list of Rohingya slavery beneficiaries will include mysteriously wealthy enforcement officers and politicians, as well as small, medium and large companies that used Rohingya for farming, fishing, and construction labour.
There will likely be Rohingya criminals identified too who helped traffic their own people. Forfeited assets can be used to create a Rohingya refugee restitution fund.
Unwitting beneficiaries of Rohingya slavery, such as large farm owners or fishing companies, can voluntarily offer financial assistance to the fund, while pledging to improve due diligence on their future recruitment of migrant labour.
Thailand did the right thing by prosecuting officials that aided and profited from Rohingya slavery. Valuable information from Thai investigations can now help Myanmar and Malaysia identify their own nationals and companies that got rich off the back of Rohingya suffering. Forfeited assets can finance the care and re-settlement of the Rohingya, so that they do not become susceptible to traffickers or other dangerous organisations.
The UK, for its historical role in marginalising the Rohingya that led to this situation, can finance and broker three-way country talks. China can contribute a fraction of its Myanmar oil pipeline profits to support resettlement.
Ms Suu Kyi needs a solution that helps her depend less on army generals. She and her country need to take responsibility. But she alone cannot fix this problem, nor is she or Myanmar solely responsible. It’s time for all who bear responsibility for the Rohingya situation to collaborate and pay for peace and security.
Kraisak Choonhavan and Steve Galster are, respectively, Chairman and Director of Freeland (www.freeland.org).