Singapore and the Rohingya Crisis
Commentary | Syamilah Razali, Event Associate Editor
25thAugust 2017 marked the beginning of a ‘humanitarian nightmare’ with an exodus of over 723,000 Rohingya fleeing from destruction, persecution and violence in the Northern Rakhine province of Myanmar, driving them to seek refuge in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group who lack the recognition and protection of Myanmar’s Government, and are thus rendered stateless.
The mass migration was triggered by deadly attacks on police and army postsby the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group that fights for the rights of the Rohingya. ARSA was declared as a terrorist organisationby the Myanmar Government and the military responded to the attacks by destroying Rohingya villages and killing civilians.
The United Nations has described the brutal crackdown of the military as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.
As part of Singapore’s efforts to alleviate the pressing situation, the Singapore Armed Forces has delivered $270,000 worth of humanitarian suppliesto Bangladesh. Donated supplies include blankets, food, medical supplies, tents and solar lamps.
The Singapore Red Cross also plans to deploy medical, water, sanitation and hygiene teams to assist with relief efforts at refugee camps.
When Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan paid a visit to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, he noted that the living conditions of the refugees were much better than when they first arrivedand acknowledged Bangladesh’s efforts to improve their living conditions.
Unfortunately, as a land-scarce country, Singapore is not in a position to accept asylum seekers but is more than willing to contribute through the provision of humanitarian assistance.
While Singapore stands ready to provide another consignment of aid, Dr Balakrishnan has reiterated that Singapore would prefer to do so once Myanmar has ensured the safe repatriation of the Rohingyas.
In an oral reply to Parliamentary Questions on 2ndOctober 2018, Dr Balakrishnan revealed that an Informal ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (IAFMM) was held.
In this meeting, Foreign Ministers urged Myanmar’s Government to give the Independent Commission of Enquiry its full mandate to investigate and hold those responsible accountable for their actions. The Foreign Ministers also called on Myanmar to abide by its agreement with Bangladesh to provide for the safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingyas.
Myanmar was also urged to step up its implementation of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission on Rakhine State so as to address the root cause of the conflict, religious based ethno-nationalism.
Dr Balakrishnan emphasised that the responsibility for resolving the conflict lies with the Myanmar Government; this is a duty they should and must uphold.
The approach taken by Singapore towards the Rohingya crisis can be summarised as follows: have sufficient levels of transparency and accountability, address humanitarian assistance in the short term and try to promote a longer-term political solution.
On a broader regional level, ASEAN unfortunately has limited capacity to interfere in the crisis due to its distinctive principle of non-interference, or the “ASEAN Way” in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states.
However, the firm requests made at the IAFMM are seen as a departure from ASEAN’s usual mild tone.It also reflects increasing impatience among its member states about the slow progress of the situation.
In the same session on 2ndOctober 2018, Dr Balakrishnan explained that there is no force of law to compel Myanmar but ultimately the long-term solution is a political solutionand he hopes that in the long run, ‘cool heads will prevail, and people will do the right thing’. Furthermore, ASEAN has good reason to worry that an aggressive approach will result in Myanmar leaving the bloc.
The international community has also widely condemned the violence escalating the crisis. A series of Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) have been signed and sanctions have been placed on Myanmar by the United States and European countries.
But the effectiveness of the MoUs and sanctions remain to be seen. To date, no significant progress has been made in providing for the safe return of the refugees.
Singapore has largely taken a practical approach to resolving the issue in that it is willing to contribute through the way it knows best – the provision of humanitarian assistance.
However, ASEAN’s non-interference policy is a huge stumbling block standing in the way of progress.
The meetings that have taken place are a good start but ASEAN member states should develop an asylum policy that provides guidance for action to be taken when a member state's internal issues cause people to flee to neighbouring states.
The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights should also be strengthenedto allow for effective protection of victims and thorough investigation.
Until Myanmar takes serious steps towards providing for the safe return of the refugees, it is highly unlikely that the plight of the refugees improves in the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, let us contribute what we can with the resources that we have and as Dr Balakrishnan opined, let us stay hopeful and not give up on our solidarity and empathy for fellow human beings.
About the author: Syamilah Razali is a first-year Political Science major from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She also serves as the Associate Editor (Events) of The Convergence. A fierce advocate for women's rights, she is deeply interested in putting an end to discrimination and violence against women. Work aside, she loves to travel to gain new experiences and satisfy her wanderlust.