Seminar Report
The Rohingya Crisis: Current Situations and Implications


[Date] Wednesday, January 24, 2018, 14:00-16:00 [Doors open at 13:30]
[Venue] Ito International Research Center 3F, Hongo Campus of the University of Tokyo
[Organized by] Policy Alternatives Research Institute(PARI), the University of Tokyo
[Co-organized by] Global Leader Program for Social Design and Management (GSDM), the University of Tokyo
[Sponsored by] Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia
[Language] English
[Speaker] David Dapice(Chief Economist, Vietnam and Myanmar Program, Center for Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Professor Emeritus, Tufts University)
[Commentator] Toshihiro Kudo (Professor, GRIPS), Nobuhiro Aizawa (Associate Professor, Kyushu University)

Energy for Peace: Energy development and peace process

The Global Energy Policy and East Asia Research Unit of the Policy Alternatives Research Institute (PARI) has been working on a proposal for policies to resolve the energy issues in Myanmar as part of a commissioned research project from the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA). In the process, we came to discuss the peace process in Myanmar. Experience with large-scale power generation projects undertaken in recent years seems to demonstrate that solving energy issues in isolation tends to become a hindrance to the peace process.

Most proposals for resolving energy issues suggest large-scale generation and transmission systems, following the principle of “economies of scale.” In Myanmar too the World Bank and other donors have largely indicated solutions in this vein. However, in Myanmar, the areas around planned sites for power generation are often inhabited by minority groups, making it difficult to reach agreement between stakeholders regarding benefit sharing.1 This has made it difficult to gain social acceptance for large-scale power generation systems proposed to date, and their contribution to resolving Myanmar’s energy issues has been limited. Moreover, the projects tend to create friction with minority groups, and in many cases, they have become stumbling blocks to the peace process, which is a higher order national objective.

The unit has developed the “energy for peace” initiative with the ruling political party since 2017, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and has explored energy strategies that take the peace process into consideration. How should energy development proceed with something other than a large-scale system, while keeping the peace process in consideration? To answer this question, the unit has been engaged since 2016 in joint research with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) of the University of California, Berkeley, a global research institution in the field of distributed energy systems.2

The Others Within: The Rohingya crisis

In the process, the unit became acutely aware of the need to understand the peace process itself. A case in point is the issue of the Rohingya of Rakhine State, which drew global attention last year. The issue has been vigorously investigated by Harvard University Kennedy School Chief Economist and Policy Alternatives Research Institute fellow Dr. David Dapice,3 who presented a seminar on January 24. Myanmar and ASEAN research experts Professor Toshihiro Kudo of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) and Associate Professor Nobuhiro Aizawa of Kyushu University were asked to participate as discussants, and the audience comprising some 40 members from industry, government, and academia joined the discussion about the Rohingya issue.

At this point, we would like to briefly review the Rohingya issue. The Rohingya are a Muslim group who lived primarily in the Rakhine State of western Myanmar, though most now are in Bangladesh. Many of them are said to be descendants of people that relocated there after the first Anglo-Burmese War in the 19th century. Inside Myanmar, they are not recognized as indigenous Burmese, who are predominantly Buddhist, and have been subject to discrimination as illegal immigrants—the so-called “others within”. The current population is estimated at a little less than half a million people, but the rate of increase is higher than that of the Buddhist population, given the rural composition and low education levels of most Rakhine Muslims. Thus, the relative Rohingya population within Rakhine State had been increasing, also due in part to the migration of younger Rakhine Buddhists to other places with more economic activity. There have been concerns over tensions with increasingly alarmed Buddhists in the area.

To deal with the unstable political situation in Rakhine state, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi launched the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, to act as an impartial body.4 One year later, the commission made three broad recommendations : 1) that the Muslims living in the northwest part of Rakhine state be allowed freedom of movement, 2) that people living in the area for generations be granted citizenship, and 3) that Myanmar’s nationality law, which recognizes three categories of citizens, namely citizen, associate citizen, and naturalized citizen, be revised. The issue of unifying nationality should begin with a process of reexamination.

On the next day of August 24, 2017, when the recommendations were announced, an attack was made by an Islamic extremist group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), targeting the local police and government forces. According to the media, ARSA had attacked 30 locations in northern Rakhine during the night, working together with local villagers using crude home-made weapons. The army had viewed the incident as a massive revolt by Muslims in the region, and mounted a large-scale response, which has made some 700,000 refugees flow into Bangladesh. News of the event was spread through social media and other means, including partially exaggerated claims of modern-day “ethnic cleansing”. While the Myanmar government delays its response, criticism from international society is growing daily.

The Third Way: Swapping citizenship

In understanding the Rohingya issue, various questions can be asked. For example, if one tries to ask why ARSA revolted, it might be possible to point to the relationship between Islamic society and their oppression by the Myanmar military and Rakhine Buddhists. In the recent seminar, Professor Emeritus Dapice focused on the issue of ensuring the “human security” of the Rohingya refugees who fled as well as Muslims remaining in Rakhine state. Amid overlapping tensions between Islam and Buddhism, Myanmar and Bangladesh, it is not easy to ensure the human security of the refugees. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of human security.

The professor provided the following three approaches to resolve the issue: 1) Accept the report of the Annan commission. This is most preferred if possible. However, the report was submitted before the exodus of late 2017, and needs to be updated to take that into account. 2) Return the refugees to a refugee camp in Rakhine. Myanmar and Bangladesh have negotiated the process for this, but few have applied to return and only 5% of those were accepted. (If this fails, they would likely remain in Bangladesh in miserable temporary camps.) 3) Grant Bangladesh citizenship to Rohingya who are fleeing inside Bangladesh. In return, allow Buddhists living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (a Bangladesh territory near the Myanmar border) who want to relocate to Myanmar to do so, on the condition that they are granted Burmese citizenship and resettlement aid.

If the first means can be realized, it would certainly be ideal. On the other hand, it is unlikely to be accepted by the military, Buddhist groups in Rakhine, and most Burmese. It must be admitted that the likelihood of this approach being realized is extremely low. The second approach is the current policy of the national governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, but there is a risk that it could simply fail – progress is slow and the number willing to move appears to be modest. Even if the refugees were safely returned, the friction with Buddhists in the area will increase, so it is likely that the same kind of risk will arise in future. If conspiracy grows stronger between the returning refugees and extremist Muslim groups such as the ARSA, it is feared that the political situation may become unstable. There are already signs of this in Bangladesh, with some extreme Islamic recruiting. However, if refugees want to return and are accepted by Myanmar, they should return under the best conditions possible to create for their return, even if few are likely to be in this group.

This makes it worthwhile considering the third approach. Naturally, the idea of exchanging citizenship is highly unusual. There are likely to be various issues to overcome in implementing it. For example, would it be possible to strictly maintain national border controls after the exchange? Also, would people who rely on local resources for their living accept the idea of giving up the land they have inherited from their ancestors? Meanwhile, from the Bangladesh perspective, does the benefit of avoiding a border conflict and allowing Buddhists from the Chittagong Hill Tracts to leave outweigh the cost of granting Bangladesh citizenship to Rohingya, even with international resettlement aid for them?

Source: Al Jazeera

Involvement of the International Community

Considering these factors, it might not be easy to recommend proceeding solely with the third approach. In crafting the process for returning refugees , it seems that further investigation should be made regarding the issue of refugee nationality after their return in accordance with an updated version of the Annan report. This applies to Muslims remaining in or returning to Rakhine and Buddhists moving there. If these issues can be addressed, exchanging citizenship should be considered seriously as an option. In this case, it is probably important to gain a deeper understanding of recent political trends among Buddhists inside Bangladesh. For example, in 2012 in the Bengali territory of Cox’s Bazar, there was a movement by Muslims to expel Buddhists. The priority should be to obtain a deeper understanding of the implications of such an event for Bengali politics onward.

Whichever approach is taken, the important thing will be for the international community to support the process going forward. Currently, the two governments are aiming to return the refugees in two years’ time under a bilateral agreement made in November 2017. It should be noted that the agreement will maintain a certain distance from the international community.5 This diplomatic attitude is understandable as criticism from the international community has become acute. Yet, there is a certain limitation to how far the return of the refugees can proceed between the two parties acting alone. The fact is that the return of the refugees that had been scheduled to start on January 23, 2018 was immediately postponed due to lack of preparation – and there is no indication that many of the refugees want to return under current conditions. In this situation, the important interest of human security of the refugees remains at stake.

The Rohingya crisis has served to increase Myanmar’s isolation from the international community. This is a most ironic result of the country’s democratization, for which everyone, including the international community, had insisted upon for many years. The international community is now called upon to remain tenaciously engaged while presenting diverse options. Our “energy for peace” initiative would intend to assist the international community in achieving a productive dialogue. We hope it will fuel this dialogue going forward.