Myanmar, Bangladesh on the brink

Myanmar, Bangladesh on the brink

A Myanmar police officer stands watch as journalists arrive in Shwe Zar village in the suburb of Maungdaw town, northern Rakhine state of Myanmar, on Wednesday. (AP photo)
A Myanmar police officer stands watch as journalists arrive in Shwe Zar village in the suburb of Maungdaw town, northern Rakhine state of Myanmar, on Wednesday. (AP photo)

Pitting the might of a Buddhist-dominated state and its military against a dispossessed Muslim minority, the current catastrophe unfolding in Myanmar's Rakhine state may well mark a watershed in the politics of modern Southeast Asia.

The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has once again been displaying its characteristic zeal for scorched-earth counter-insurgency tactics honed over decades in other minority regions of the country -- Karen, Shan and Kachin -- but today in Rakhine given a more brutal edge by visceral anti-Muslim hatreds. As its willful and excessive use of force against the stateless Rohingya pushes yet another exodus of tens of thousands of refugees into Bangladesh and excites passions across Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, the Tatmadaw today has arguably emerged as a serious threat to regional cooperation and security.

Against this grim backdrop, Australia with a decades-long record of humanitarian assistance and peace-keeping, has a role to play in arresting a dangerous downward spiral.

Australia has a strong record of making significant contributions to peace and stability in the region. In the early 1990s, for instance, Australia's Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, and military commander John Sanderson, were instrumental in being the catalyst for a UN-mandated international response in Cambodia. Again in 1999, Australia led the multinational intervention in East Timor with the help of a number of Southeast Asian states including Thailand and the Philippines. Today, the Australian Defence Force is more capable than ever to respond to crises and disasters.

The Rakhine crisis presents an important opportunity for Australia to step forward as a regional leader in addressing a spiraling humanitarian crisis and in countering the radicalisation and violent extremism that will surely follow if the refugee crisis imposed on Bangladesh is allowed to fester.

Australian leadership would involve pledging -- and following through swiftly -- to fund new refugee camps inside Bangladesh that are now desperately needed. With Australian assistance and expertise, these would be camps where Rohingya refugees can be securely and humanely housed -- with clinics, mosques and basic schools -- pending their return to their homeland inside Myanmar.

One can only hope that in the coming months this latest eruption of the long-running Rohingya crisis will prompt the concerted international pressure on the military-dominated government in Nay Pyi Taw necessary to ensure that return with guarantees of safety.

In the short term on the humanitarian front, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) simply lacks the resolve and unanimity to act decisively. Indonesia has called for action and dispatched its foreign minister to Nay Pyi Taw; but is not well placed to act decisively. Indeed, given the religious dimension to the animosity, a leading role played by a predominantly Muslim country -- be it Indonesia or Malaysia -- in addressing this crisis is arguably a non-starter. For their part, Thailand's ruling generals have displayed a genuine affection for their Tatmadaw counterparts and co-religionists in Myanmar, and are otherwise distracted by domestic political drama. Other Asean members lack the capacity and commitment to play a leading role.

The United States, meanwhile, has President Donald Trump confronting the Korean nuclear weapons crisis, a reinvigorated insurgent campaign in Afghanistan and a plethora of other challenges in the Middle East not to mention flooding in the American Southwest. In short, Washington is severely distracted.

In the meantime, India is acutely concerned over Chinese influence in Myanmar and so likely will do nothing that could possibly be construed as critical of Nay Pyi Taw. Indeed, it appears India is actually looking to expel its own Rohingya refugees -- albeit without burning down their homes and raping their womenfolk. Bangladesh itself is totally overwhelmed by the scale of the refugee influx -- a state of affairs only exacerbated by catastrophic recent flooding.

That leaves Australia as the only regional player with the financial and technical capacity and diplomatic clout to take up a real leadership role that could convince a range of Asean and other states to make meaningful contributions.

It is unpleasant to think of tragedy as opportunity but this crisis would appear to offer an important opportunity for Australia to act as a responsible and compassionate player in the region where for various reasons others are falling short. Nor should that compassion be seen in purely altruistic terms: If squalid, make-shift border refugee camps are left to fester, the anger and extremism they will foment will migrate ideologically and physically to Malaysia, Indonesia and possibly even Mindanao.

In essence, action is required now as a preventive measure, to address humanitarian needs and hopefully to counter the prospect of further spread of violent extremism. Australian leadership would be about humanitarian assistance and countering extremism wrapped into one.

Australia has rightly sought to focus more on its own region to help bolster security and stability. A flotilla left Sydney harbour on Monday tasked to build relations and demonstrate Australian goodwill across the region.

Operation Rakhine Rescue is begging to be launched.


John Blaxland is head of the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and a former Australian defence attache in Thailand and Myanmar. Anthony Davis is a security analyst with the Jane's defence publishing group.

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