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Public Forum: Myanmar's Rohingya/Rakhine Crisis: Domestic Roots and International Dynamics - (Youtube and Summary Report)



Institute of Security and Internation Studies

A Public Forum - Myanmar's Rohingya/Rakhine Crisis: Domestic Roots and International Dynamics

Thursday, 11th January 2018 09.30 - 11.30
Room 105 Maha Chulalonrkon Building
Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

Speaker 1 - Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Fellow of ISIS Thailand, Former Chief Editor of The Myanmar Times 

Speaker 2 - Ms. Laetitia Van Den Assum, Member of Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, Former Ambassador of The Netherlands to Thailand 

Speaker 3 - Ms. Gwen Robinson, Senior Fellow of ISIS Thailand, Chief Editor of The Nikkei Asian Review

Speaker 4 - Dr. Supang Chantavanich, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Consultan/Advisor of ASEAN Research Center for Migration, Chulalongkorn University

Moderator - Assoc Professor Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of ISIS Thailand, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University



Summary Report:

The Rakhine crisis is very important for ASEAN. This year, Singapore is the Chair of ASEAN. When Singapore chairs anything, it always seeks concrete outcomes in line with where Singapore’s national and regional interests combine. This year will have an active ASEAN Chair on the Rakhine issue. Singapore has a good track record dealing with crises during its Chairmanship – in 2007, it dealt with the Saffron Revolution and was pivotal during Cyclone Nagis. The best of Singapore was on show. This year again, Singapore will be an active facilitator and bridge builder for ASEAN.

Whether ASEAN, Myanmar and the international community can work together is yet to be seen. Singapore needs to convince Aung Sun Suu Kyi at the same time as having the confidence of the Tatmadaw to make sure that ASEAN can play an appropriate role.

There are three levels of engagement. On the bilateral side, Thailand and Singapore have provided cash and humanitarian aid, as have Malaysia and Indonesia, albeit on a smaller scale.

At regional level, under the Singaporean Chair, ASEAN will have a substantial plan to help Myanmar. Singapore has already provided aid through the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre, which will be a key mechanism if it is accepted by Naypidaw and has a bigger mandate. It is also important to note that this year, Myanmar’s engagement with ASEAN will be ‘critical;’ only ASEAN can help alleviate whatever criticism that Tatmadaw and Aung Sun Suu Kyi are facing. Under the Singaporean leadership, engagement of Myanmar about Rakhine will be tangible. Singapore and ASEAN will need to maintain open communications with Aung Sun Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw.

In November last year, Aung Sun Suu Kyi called a meeting to brief the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN member states on the situation in Rakhine. She took the initiative by calling for a retreat. In ASEAN practice, a retreat is actually reserved for pre-Summit or ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meetings to exchange on sensitive issues. This broke the normal rules of engagement in ASEAN practice, but it is a good thing and could start a new protocol in the region.

Two countries are very important to Myanmar at this time – Thailand and Indonesia. So far, Thailand has done a very good job and will continue to play a low profile in order to keep the Myanmar government and military onside. Thailand has also contributed to helping the Tatmadaw soften its position and engage the international community.

Indonesia has played a critical role throughout the crisis in the last two years, while Malaysia has played a contrarian role on the issue, especially in the context of bilateral relations. Singapore will take a strong interest in making sure that ASEAN engagement on Myanmar comes out concretely, but with the ASEAN principle of non-interference and consensus, that will be very difficult, especially if Malaysia continues acting as a spoler. However, under Singapore, hopefully Malaysia’s position will soften and that Myanmar will be more open towards ASEAN. 


Moderator: Does this undermine ASEAN centrality and unity? Do you think the new Secretary General will be more effective?  

Kavi: The role of the Chair is important. Philippines tried to run away from the issue, but Singapore will confront it. But will the Rakhine issue divide ASEAN into “Muslim-ASEAN” vs “Buddhist-ASEAN?” Things will head up if Indonesia takes a stand, but so far President Joko Widodo has not made it a religious issue. However, if Indonesia reaches the same stage as Malaysia, then it will be problematic.

For now, ASEAN centrality will not be affected. Rakhine state has not yet become an ASEAN agenda like the South China Sea. It really depends on how the Chair approaches it, and fortunately, Singapore is best placed to influence Myanmar; last year, investment in Myanmar was USD8.2 billion -- 55% of this came from Singapore.


Ms. Laetitia Van Den Assum

Member of Advisory Commission on Rakhine State

Former Ambassador of The Netherlands to Thailand


The commission headed by Kofi Annan finished its work on the 25th of August when it handed its report to Aung Sun Suu Kyi. This means that the report has no position on many of the issues which have happened since.  The serious crimes which have been alleged to have been committed as well as continuous denials from the Myanmar government and military of those crimes having happened is extremely worrying.

Despite the issues since the 25th of August last year, the Advisory Commission’s report is not irrelevant. It remains important because the Myanmar government commissioned it itself – there have been countless reports and recommendations over the years on how to fix the problems in Rakhine state, but none had the backing of the government or Aung Sun Suu Kyi herself. She took up contact with Kofi Annan very quickly after she took office in March 2016. Suu Kyi recognized that the situation in Rakhine had become untenable and that new approaches were urgently needed. She rightfully asked Kofi Annan to Chair a commission to look into the situation for not only the Rohingya, but to find a way to improve the lives of all ethnic communities in Rakhine state, which is the only way forward.

The Commission was owned by the government. It had international participation, but the majority of the Commission was made up of citizens of Myanmar, with support of 3 non-citizens. It was not a UN initiative; it was a Myanmar initiative. When Aung Sun Suu Kyi began the Commission, she urged its members to be bold but also meet international standards. This was at the beginning of her term, but she started this process with a positive mindset.

The Commission interviewed over 1000 people of all ethnicities throughout the entire state. There were, however, a number of factors which affected its work. First, six weeks after the Commission began, nine security personnel were killed by insurgents in Rakhine state on 9 October 2016. The subsequent military response resembled a scorched earth policy. This increased fear exponentially and made it harder for the Commission to get access to the entire state.

The second issue was that some stakeholders rejected the Commission from the very beginning. Members from the Arakan National Party and the USDP put forward a motion in the Union Parliament to abolish the Commission completely. That motion failed because the NLD had the majority, but a similar motion in the Rakhine Parliament succeeded. Many Rakhine politicians thus boycotted the Commission.

The third issue was government structure, which retains a high degree of power with the military. This made finding a coherent plan to deal with all of the problems exceptionally challenging. The NLD does not have much support in the Sittwe Parliament. It has a number of seats, but lacks a majority, and there is remains a huge military presence. The fourth issue is a lack of meaningful devolution of power and responsibility from the Union capital to state authorities.

The Commission’s report made 88 recommendations to alleviate the crisis in Rakhine state. They covered a wide range of topics including economic and social development, citizenship, freedom of movement, education, health, security, reform and access to justice. The report included recommendations about immediate short-term issues linked to significant problems in the north of Rakhine state, including immediate and unfettered humanitarian access to communities to provide aid and immediate media access. At present, these are both highly problematic issues.

The ethnic and Rakhine population would say the most important issue in their lives is addressed by the report’s economic and social recommendations. Successive governments have marginalized ethnic minorities in the state, and there has been a lack of significant government investment in infrastructure, education and job opportunities. 30% of all young Rakhines leave the state every year to try to make a living elsewhere. It is a marginalized population. For the Rohingya, their most important issue relates to citizenship. Their lack of citizenship has been used to remove their rights in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

Aung Sun Suu Kyi accepted the Commission’s recommendations on 25th of August, which was the same day that a new round of violence broke out resulting in the exodus of 655,000 people. The report has been generally well-received, but it still has to be implemented. The recommendations in it are not just about the Rohingya people, but are about the future of the state of Myanmar as it looks at the underlying issues of the crisis itself.

There is a human rights crisis, security crisis and development crisis. These have to be addressed simultaneously – starting only by rectifying the economic crisis would backfire. The recommendation in the report are appropriate for all ethnic groups in the state. Many recommendations are also immediately relevant for the debate about how to create conditions to ensure the voluntary, secure and dignified return of existing refugees. 

The three most important recommendations from the report:

1.      The closure of all camps that housed Kamein and Rohingya IDPs under conditions resembling detention.

2.      Easing the restriction of freedom of movement and ensuring rights of all people who live in Rakhine state.

3.      Credible process for citizenship verification, and the need to revisit a 1982 law that limits citizenship on an ethnic basis.

The Myanmar government has started an advisory commission with a mixed Myanmar and international membership to advise them on the implementation of the report.

The Rakhine crisis goes to the heart of the problems in Myanmar as a whole: the politics of identity, the politics of minorities, the dominant role of the Bamar, unaccountable armed forces, continuing military/industry complex, high centralized decision making, which are some of the characteristics of failing states. What Myanmar most needs is an honest national debate about what it means to be a Myanmar citizen in the 21st Century. This lack of debate is holding the country back.




Ms. Gwen Robinson

Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand

Chief Editor of the Asian Nikkei Review


Despite Myanmar going though many phases, there has been none as disturbing as the situation in Rakhine state in the past few years.

The majority of Myanmar’s 53 million people does not have the same sense regarding the situation as those outside. There is a deeply integrated feeling of threat and insecurity by the presence of not just the Rohingya, but Muslims in general. Even among the urbane and educated population, there is a narrative that it is good to exclude the Rohingya, many claim that most incidents or abuses against them are simply fabricated so that they can receive resettlement in another country like the United States. Outside of Myanmar or in the West, we are not really aware about how ingrained these feelings are among Myanmar people.

There are two aspects that can be addressed.

Economic aspects and the fallout from the crisis are feeding into the political situation. There was a myth that the problems in Rakhine state would shrink once the number of tourists and foreign direct investment (FDI) increased.  However, the data suggests that the economy is doing well; GDP in 2017 grew by 6.4%, better than 2016 at 5.9%. The IMF also forecasts that the economy is expected to continue to grow by 6.7% in 2018. This figure reflects that there are some factors driving Myanmar despite the gloomy incident in Rakhine state:

1.      The government is now able to collect more tax revenue after a long period of dysfunction.  

2.      There is a lot more engagement from Asian countries relative to the West which has lead to an increase in FDI, especially in the oil and gas industry. Last year, FDI reached beyond the government’s target in the last financial year. The Myanmar government is fully aware of the West’s reactions and condemnation; however, this has not been followed up by substantial sanctions.

3.      The garment industry has been revived and is now robust after a long period of Western sanctions in early 2000s.

4.      The agricultural industry, which employs the majority of people in the Myanmar and Rakhine economies, has improved steadily and rapidly with inputs coming from foreign aid and funding to help farmers.

5.      The Myanmar government has successfully put in place key economic reforms by passing laws that attract foreign investment. Although Western companies are more wary about investment due to the Rakhine situation, many non-Western companies are attracted by the introduction of new laws, such as the reform on foreign investment which allows foreign investors to acquire up to 35% of a Myanmar company.

6.      The government has invested in key infrastructure, such as roads, railways, and power plants.

Second, Myanmar has pivoted from the “look West policy” that began under the pro-reform administration of President Thein Sein from 2011-2016, to the “look East policy” focusing on China and Japan under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

There is also greater engagement from some ASEAN Member States. For example, the Thai Beverage Public Company Limited is the biggest investor in the steel industry in Myanmar. Thus, Thailand, which ranks as the second or third biggest foreign investor in Myanmar, will support and have a close relationship with Myanmar.

Furthermore, non-Western tourists have also increased in Myanmar. Although many Westerners fears or have moral qualms about travelling to Myanmar, there is strong and increasing demand from Chinese, Asian, Russian and Israeli tourists.


Dr. Supang Chantavanich

Emeritus Professor of Sociology

Consultant/Advisor of ASEAN Research Center for Migration

Chulalongkorn University


Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh are countries within the international migration corridor. History suggests that Rohingya from Bangladesh have moved into Myanmar for centuries. During the 1970s–80s, they were repatriated to back to Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh through UNHCR; however, many could not live in Cox’s Bazaar and sought to return to Myanmar, which they considered their home. For Thailand and Myanmar, there was a steady a flow of people who escaped from Myanmar from the 1990s; ethnic groups including Kachin, Karen, Shan and Mon and moved into 9 refugee camps along Thailand boarder. 

What is the cause of a large number people – around 600,000 – crossing from the northern part of Rakhine state Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh?

When General Ne Win announced the Arakanisation policy of Arakan State; this was predicated on the notion that the Arakan state belongs to Arakan people. Those who are not Arakan should not be included. This policy was recently reiterated by General Min Aung Hlaing, who stated that “ethnic people live in the country, but did not build it.” From that period, the Rohingya were not included in Rakhine state as nationals.

More recently, in 2015, the national population census also did not include the Rohingya in the population. Myanmar officials explained that initially Rohingya would be integrated as origin of ‘Bengali’, but the Rohingya refused and asked to be included as ‘Rohingya’ instead. According to Myanmar law, Bengali are entitled to citizenship, while Rohingya are not.

Approximately 600,000 people moved into Bangladesh, but around 6,500 Hindus were also part of the group. This reflects that it is not only the plight of people who are Muslim, but it is a combination of people who desperately feel the need to escape violence.

What are the possible solutions to this refugee crisis?

I.       Spontaneous repatriation 

UNHCR has begun a survey in Cox’s Bazaar to serve as a database when the refugees are ready to be repatriated. According to the agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Rohingya can be repatriated to their homes only if they have a national verification to prove that they used to live in Rakhine State.


The agreement seems to be unrealistic and cannot be accomplished overnight. For example, Thailand and Myanmar have discussed the possible repatriation 100,000 refugees who live in the camps along Thailand-Myanmar boarder. After three years, only a pilot group of 60 people were repatriated with the UNHCR as witness. Thus, it is unlikely to repatriate more than 600,000 people in Cox’s Bazaar to Myanmar without significant resources and preparation.

II.    Local integration within Bangladesh

This is an unlikely solution as the Rohingya were once unable to live in Bangladesh and had to move back to Myanmar. Moreover, there are different perspectives within different generations regarding which country is viewed as their ‘home land’.  Thus, even within the same group of people, different generations have different views of where they are from and where they belong.


III.  Granting citizenship.

Although the Myanmar government agreed that they will grant citizenship to those who return, it is important to discuss with the Rohingya what their expectations of citizenship are.

Among the above solutions, repatriation also requires economic development within Rakhine state, focused towards ethnic minorities. Most foreign direct investment tends to land in Yangon and big cites. This is because the Myanmar government does not encourage investors into areas they cannot directly control. As a result, the economic conditions for ethnic minorities continues to be poor, which is not enabling for their livelihoods in the future. Thus, it is also essential to expand economic development in those areas.


Question and Answer

Public Question: A lot of foreign media has come under attack for being biased about this issue. How do you think that foreign media can actually write about this issue in a truthful manner that can please both sides?

Gwen Robinson: The facts alone speak for themselves, however, Western media is usually full of emotional adjectives. There is also a perception and use of the term ‘foreign media’ – is Japanese or Chinese media included in this? Non-Western foreign media, there is not the same kind of emotionalism, but it doesn’t mean that Asian countries are supporting or condoning the actions in Rakhine state. Some Western media organizations adopt an emotional tone because they are presenting a story to their audiences. Asian media does the same. So does Al Jazeera.


Public Question: What are the perspective of other ethnic groups towards this issue?

Laetitia Van Den Assum: It is an important point. It has been suggested that the general view among many in Myanmar is a negative view about the Rohingya people. A lot of the discussion I have found is based on history – there are clashing historical narratives which are not easily let go. Many people go back to 1825 to define Myanmar citizenship – this is Myanmar’s right to choose this system, but it is bewildering and exclusive.


Moderator: Is it true that even the other ethnic minorities in Myanmar also do not like the Rohingya?

Laetitia Van Den Assum: After 25 August, the first group that spoke out was the Karen Women’s Union, which boldly announced that they did not approve of the military’s actions. The KNU and other ethnic groups spoke out too.


Public Comment: The biggest victim and stakeholder to this problem is Bangladesh. Bangladesh was born in 1971, and since then, there has not been any Bangladeshi of any ethnicity to cross over to Myanmar. This is the official position of the Bangladesh government. There has not been a single diplomatic note from Myanmar or Thailand that a Bangladeshi has illegally moved to either country.

I have heard the narrative that there is interchange across a porous border over time. This is incorrect. It is only people who have moved from Myanmar in Rakhine state into Bangladesh.

In 1978, the first 200,000 came into independent Bangladesh. We had a bilateral agreement between the two governments in which the Myanmar government recognized the Rohingyas as ‘lawful residents’ of Myanmar.

In 1992, when the second bout of Rohingyas were persecuted and 250,000 headed into Bangladesh, they were recognized in another agreement which is still the basis of the current arrangement signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh governments. This agreement recognized Rohingya as ‘members of Myanmar society and residents of Myanmar.’

The position of the Bangladesh government and the historical fact is that no Rohingya has gone from Bangladesh into Myanmar. Currently between the period of August 2017 and January 2018, half a million Rohingyas ran in fear of their lives to Bangladesh due to systematic human rights abuses, as recognized by the UN General Assembly.

There are now 700,000 Rohingya people who have entered Bangladesh. We urge the international community, including Thailand, not to consider this as a bilateral problem. This is a complex regional and international problem which has created regional instability.