Thailand can ignore the Rohingya crisis no longer

It’s time for Thailand to take up a leading role in helping ease the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Failure to do so now would only exacerbate an already grievous problem afflicting the Kingdom and the entire region. Nearly a million refugees from Rakhine, including 700,000 fleeing violence at home since August last year, are now being sheltered in Bangladesh. The number is growing, as people keep moving out of the strife-torn state due to violence that has reportedly been non-stop.

The situation will not easily be resolved. Local authorities are complicit in the violence against the Rohingya, and Rohingya militant groups have taken provocative action of their own. Both sides are begging for further repercussions.

The exodus since last August is just the tip of the iceberg. The United Nations’ rights agency and the global Rohingya diaspora have accused the Myanmar government and military – the Tatmadaw – of wilful ethnic cleansing in Rakhine. The UN agency has urged the Security Council to investigate possible genocide following a series of reported atrocities.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult to bring such a case before an international tribunal due to the diverse stances adopted by the parties involved. As well, international opinion is divided on how best to deal with the crisis. Several countries have strongly criticised the Myanmar authorities, singling out de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi, for mishandling the situation. Others though – notably the Association of Southeast Asians, of which Myanmar is a member – have insisted on quiet assistance to the government to cope with, rather than solve, the problem.

While Asean has been repeatedly urged to play a more significant role in resolving the crisis, its member-states are disunited in their assessments of what’s happening and it has refrained from addressing the causes at their root. Malaysia and Indonesia have pressed for action, but others want to stay clear. That leaves Asean incapable of doing any more than dispatching humanitarian assistance to Rakhine. Given its close proximity, Thailand should be stepping into the breach and assuming the leadership in guiding the region’s hand.

Thailand badly needs to speak out about the Rohingya issue, if not out of compassion, then because it could become a problem for the country if more refugees begin coming here in a bid to escape the terrible conditions of the Bangladesh border camps. Tight controls on our own frontier and harsh treatment imposed on trafficking syndicates have lately kept the flow of refugees to a minimum, but those restrictions could ease. Without an effective solution soon, it is highly possible that the Rohingya could resume their southward and eastward flights.

Thailand’s military regime has little or no credibility to defend democracy and human rights, but it could exploit its good relations with the Tatmadaw for the sake of humanitarianism. It is important to note that the assistance Thailand and other countries have sent to Rakhine is patchy and inadequate.

By Asean protocol, Thailand can do little at the moment as a member of the bloc, which Singapore currently chairs, but it could take an important individual role in serving as a bridge connecting Myanmar, the rest of Asean and the international community. Our generals, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, might be preoccupied by domestic affairs, but our diplomats in the Foreign Ministry are keen to take the initiative if there is the political will to support them.