Ethnic cleansing and some economic keys to peace


The UN has gone so far as to characterize the current turmoil in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, centring on the Rohingya community, as ‘ethnic cleansing. This development ought to alert the international community to the stubborn persistence of ethnicity in intra-state and international politics. Concurrently, the world would do well to put itself on notice that the recurrence of ethnic violence in our part of the world and outside it, is palpable proof that little or nothing has been done by the world community over the decades to manage the problem of ethnicity effectively.

The UN Human Rights Council is sticking to its task of highlighting the issue of ethnicity and its consequences for the rights of affected communities the world over. But the UNHRC’s ability to ensure states’ compliance with their international human rights obligations would be of prime importance in the world’s efforts at mitigating the suffering and ordeals of communities, such as the Rohingyas of Myanmar. The extent to which the UNHRC could get the international community unitedly behind it would be a crucial deciding factor in bringing relief to the affected ethnic groups. Those sections on the side of humanity and international human rights law would be hoping for an effective campaign by the UNHRC to get the world on to its side in this weighty issue.

UNHRC chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was quoted by the international media as being forthright on the Rohingya problem. He accused Myanmar of waging a "systematic attack" on the Rohingyas and warned that "ethnic cleansing" was on in the country. He went on to say that "Because Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed, but the situation seems a text book example of ethnic cleansing."

Those knowledgeable on the Rohingya issue would know that it is decades-long. The displacement of the community, who are of East Bengal origin, occurred in colonial times and the British were aware of the problem and its possible consequences. It is plain to see that it is economic hardships that are, in the main, compelling the community to seek refuge in Myanmar, away from their former homes in Bangladesh’s borders with Myanmar and India. A couple of years back the Rohingya community in Myanmar was believed to be some 800,000 strong but these figures could have been swelling to the degree to which economic and social pressures intensified on the group.

Observers’ minds would probably go back to the years of the Bangladeshi rebellion in the sixties and early seventies. Among the factors that compelled India to take sharp note of the Bangladesh problem at the time was the steady influx of Bangladeshi refugees from then East Bengal into India’s North-East regions. The heavy welfare burden imposed on India by the refugee exodus from East Bengal, among other crucial factors, compelled India to militarily intervene in the Bangladesh issue. Accordingly, refugee ‘receiving countries’ cannot be expected to stand idly by as their welfare burden increases.

However, the world ought to consider it essential to take a humane view of such refugee crises which are proliferating in both the East and West. The international community and South Asia, in particular, ought to be the wiser now on how such conflict situations should be managed. The majority of separatist movements in this region were, and are, triggered by socio-economic grievances among communities and it is the alleviation of such burdens that help in reducing the severity of these internal conflicts. The world community would do well to note that an armed Rohingya resistance group has, reportedly, come into being to fight for the community’s cause. However, as experience has shown, armed responses lead to spirals of violence that reduce all to losers.

It is not clear at the moment whether it is really ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Rakhine state of Myanmar that is, in the main, compelling the Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh, but the observer should not be surprised if, once again, economic pressures are compelling sections of the majority community in the Rakhine state to take a hard line on the Rohingya presence. It must be borne in mind that the scramble for land, for example, among ethnic groups is a causative factor in inter-ethnic strife in our part of the world.

The swelling refugee numbers and displacements from internal conflicts in South Asia, with inter-state ramifications, ought to prompt the policy position that a regional approach needs to be adopted to manage conflicts of this nature. India, in particular, is likely to strongly favour intra-regional consultations and economic measures to manage problems stemming, mainly, from material issues. On the basis of her experience, India would know that conflicts of a seemingly identity nature, are primarily sparked by socio-economic grievances. What better way to contain these conflicts than by addressing the material deprivations on a cooperative basis with all parties to the conflict?

Besides, India knows fully well that economic instruments could yield the best results in its conflict-ridden North-East region. Some of these conflicts are decades long and drive home the consideration that a well thought out strategy to link these border regions with India’s neighbouring countries on an economic basis offers the best prospects for all the stakeholders concerned.

So, it is to regional economic integration that these states must turn to resolve their law and order problems. Myanmar, being a member of ASEAN, is likely to favour this approach because she could gain considerably by acting as a bridge to India’s greater entry into the South-east Asian region. India and Myanmar could collaborate in ensuring that economic benefits, through cooperative links between them, accrue also to their mutual border regions where some of the current turmoil is occurring. If the disaffected communities in question gain by these initiatives there could be less reason for them to be rebellious and resentful.

Efforts by SAARC at economic integration may be leaving much to be desired but the same could not be said of cooperative economic links between countries of this region and ASEAN, which is the economic growth centre of the world. War is not an option in regions which are flush with economic opportunities. ‘

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