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Southeast Asia

Enough! High Time to Put an End to Rohingya Crisis

Shariful Islam



The world has witnessed a renewed genocide in Rakhine State over the Rohingya minorities. Such atrocities were also manifested in October last year which was also termed as the ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the UN official. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Rohingyas have been forcedly displaced by the state-sponsored violence.

Against this backdrop, around 1,30,000 Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh amid escalating violence.  This massive Rohingya entrance in Bangladesh has raised security concerns for the country.

Reportedly, Bangladesh has been hosting nearly half a million documented and undocumented Rohingyas since 1991 and has not deported any Rohingya refugee. Large-scale infiltration of Rohingyas into Bangladesh is observed in five phases: during 1978, 1991-92, 2012, 2016, and in 2017.

Myanmar government claims that Rohingyas are the illegal migrants from Bangladesh which the latter vehemently denies and argues that they should be repatriated. In fact, many Rohingyas say that their ancestors had lived in Myanmar for generations. Some ( Choudhury 2006; Kipgen 2013) claim that Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar for centuries and they are the descendants of Muslim Arabs, Moors, Persians, Turks, Mughals and Bengalis who came mostly as traders, warriors and saints through overland and sea-route. On contrary, Bangladesh disowns the Rohingyas on the legitimate grounds and has therefore denied them the refugee status since 1992. Although Bangladesh is not a signatory of 1951 Refugee Convention, the country hosts half a million Rohingyas in the country considering the humanitarian aspect of the problem and also the prospect of repatriation of the refugees to Myanmar. But the role of the UNHCR and international community regarding the repatriation is highly negligible. Instead of developing country, if Bangladesh would be a developed one, the response regarding the repatriation would be quite different. In fact, power-politics still guides the international politics and policy.

Rohingya refugees are found in different parts of Bangladesh. In his scholarly work, Ehsanul Haque contends that “The massive flow of them continues to pose major problems of food, health, accommodation, employment, access to land and business opportunities. The worst result is that all these problems in turn, jeopardise the public order and national security in Bangladesh” (Haque 2016:113). From the media reports, it can be claimed that Rohingyas are involved in different kinds of organized crimes including smuggling, arms and drugs trafficking, human trafficking. In addition, there is serious allegation that Rohingya refugees are fanning Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. They are also involved in passport forgery cases in Bangladesh which is a serious criminal offence.

Against the plight of the Rohingyas, the pertinent question is what can be done to resolve the crisis? In different times, Myanmar operationalized atrocities over Rohingyas in the Rakhine State. In fact, the world did very little to resolve the longstanding man-made humanitarian crisis. The role of the international community is also negligible to pressurize Myanmar government to resolve the Rohingya issue. In addition, the role of the UNHCR and IOM needs to be looked at very critically. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees did little to resolve the Rohingya crisis which merits serious attention.

The role of the international media and international human rights organizations also need to be looked at critically to this particular issue. In fact, the gross violation of human rights of the Rohingyas in Rakhine state received very negligible coverage throughout global media. I often wonder that if the same level of atrocities would occur in the United States or in the Europe, would the global media or the international human rights organizations or even the international community respond on the same pace?

Power-knowledge nexus is also manifested in this Rohingya issue. The volume of scholarship in this issue is very poor. This issue also becomes marginal in the agenda setting whether in media or in the academia which should not be the case.

There is also international politics over this issue. Human Rights Watch, for instance, thinks that “Bangladesh Should Accept, Protect Rohingya Refugees” and open her border for Rohingya refugees. International community also thinks that Bangladesh should let them in. It raises question that first of all, it’s not legal obligation for Bangladesh since she is neither a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol. Secondly, why Bangladesh? Why not Europe, India, China, Australia, Saudia Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia or the United States where there is ample space and opportunities? Thus, a coordinated approach from the international community is needed to resolve the longstanding Rohingya crisis.

Unfortunately, there is also politics over the Rohingya issue among our political parties who often prioritize their regime interest instead of national interest. For the sake of humanitarian grounds, long-term negative implications for Bangladesh are left out which merits serious attention. Thus, for the greater interests of Bangladesh, Rohingya issue should not be used as a political means by the political regimes in Bangladesh to uphold their narrowly defined regime interest.

It is time to recognize that Rohingya issue has created serious problems in Bangladesh in national security dimension considering the growing involvement of Rohingyas in different criminal activities in the country. The international community needs to acknowledge that Bangladesh has already done a lot in the Rohingya issue. Now it’s the turn for the Myanamr government and the international community to resolve the crisis. The role of China and India becomes important to resolve the crisis. In addition, the role of ASEAN to resolve the crisis becomes critical. It must intervene to stop the genocide over the Rohingya minorities.

Most importantly, Myanmar needs to stop genocide over Rohingyas from a more democratic and humanitarian ground. In fact, historical evidence candidly suggests that Rohingyas are the descendants of Muslim traders who have been in Myanmar for more than one hundred years. Thus, it raises question that why these Rohingyas will be subject to discrimination, torture and chauvinism by the Buddhist majority there?  Why the plight of the Rohingyas will not be heard, and resolved by the international community? In fact, coming in this 21st century, such genocide is quite unexpected and hence, unacceptable.

Thus, Myanmar needs to stop denying the basic rights of the Rohingyas for the sake of humanity and greater interests of Myanmar. In fact, due to the Myanmar’s transition to democracy, along with the world, Bangladesh also expected that there will be qualitative shift in Myanmar’s policy to resolve the longstanding Rohingya crisis. But unfortunately it did not happen. Resolving the contentious Rohingya issue is a must to explore and harness the untapped potentials in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations. From Bangladesh side, a strong, and united stance is expected with regard to dealing with Rohingya issue. Bangladesh needs to use friendship with India and China to pressurize Myanmar government to resolve the issue. Finally, the international community needs to wake up and act to resolve the crisis at the earliest at least for the sake of humanity or it will be too late.

The writer is an Assistant Professor in International Relations, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. His works appeared in India Quarterly, Journal of Bangladesh Studies, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of South Asian Studies. Mr. Islam has authored a number of book chapters. He can be reached at shariful_ruir[at]

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Southeast Asia

Thai universities must look beyond ranking

Rattana Lao



National University of Singapore

Bangkok – The recent 2018 Asia University Rankings published by the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine is calling attention for the state of Thai higher education.

Unlike its Asian neighbors, Thai universities are falling behind.

The National University of Singapore maintained its number one status for the third consecutive year due to its continuous improvement in teaching and research environments, greater citation impact and higher amounts of industrial income, said Ellie Bothwell of the Times Higher Education.

This year, the numbers of universities being ranked increased from 300 to 350 universities. Japanese universities are amongst the most qualified universities in Asia with 89 universities made it to the list. 63 universities from China are included in the top 350.

The picture looks worrisome for Thailand. Only ten universities made it. However, none of them was ranked in the top 50. The best performing university from Thailand was Mahidol– with ranking of 97th place, same as that in 2017, while the oldest higher education establishment, Chulalongkorn University, is only 167th place amongst 350 institutions.

Should we be concerned about this?

Yes, and no.

Given that ranking has been taken as a face value that it equates the overall quality of higher education, the poor performance sends a negative signal. It is a setback for Thailand’s aspiration to become the regional hub of education in Southeast Asia. How can we be a regional center when the best of our universities are far behind that of Singapore and Malaysia?

This is also bad for internationalization process. The low performance is discouraging for potential research partners and foreign students to come to Thailand. It lowers Thailand’s attractiveness and competitiveness.

While the results are not promising, what is worse is how they are used and interpreted by policymakers and the media to create, what professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi of Teachers College, Columbia University called “a scandalization effect”. That means, results from international league tables haven been used as external forces to generate reforms pressure at the local level.

Thailand is no exception. Since Asia Week published the first Asian universities ranking in 1997, Thai politicians, policymakers and the media have used the international results to create reform pressure. A decade long of higher education policy analysis confirmed that boosting the ranking seems to be the only policy goal for most Thai policymakers.

But ranking is not everything.

Mrs. Ruangrat Wongpramote, Assistant Secretary General of the Education Council poignantly said: “ranking helps us to mirror the reality. It is a good tool for us to know where we are standing in comparison with others. But it does not tell us everything. There are more pressing issues in Thai higher education.”

These issues include quality of the students, quality curriculum and quality teaching.

Firstly, Thailand has to shift its focus from quantity students to quality students.

For the past 100 years, the system has done well in terms of access. There were only five universities in the first 50 years of Thai higher education and all of them were established in Bangkok Metropolitan area. Now the official record reported that there are 151 universities across the country – with 81 public universities and 75 universities in most of provinces. The expansion has made it available for more than 2 million enrollments.

While the massification provides more equitable educational opportunities for students, the mismatch between skills and jobs requirement, low quality of English proficiency and lack of critical thinking are amongst key issues that need to be seriously addressed.

Secondly, Thai curriculum needs to be upgraded. The Office of Higher Education Commission has implemented Thailand Qualification Framework or TQF with the hope of improving and standardizing Thai curriculum. However, what the government has had in mind is counter-productive to improvement of the curriculum.

TQF is academics worst nightmare. It requires academics to fill in lengthy lesson plans, detailed description of their syllabus and anticipated unimaginable outcomes. The rubrics are demanding and micro-managing. Instead of improving curriculum, academics report they cut and pasted, worst, lied just to complete the form.

This policy takes away precious class preparation time for nonsensical administrative things.

A more efficient and collegial way of improving the curriculum is needed.

Thirdly, quality teaching must be improved. Large classrooms are not in and of themselves problematic. But ones that are passive, top-down and lecture-based are outdated. Lecturers must work harder than regurgitating the texts to students. Classrooms need to be conducive space for learning where conceptual debates, analytical discussion and constructive dialogues are promoted. In the era where students can google to get basic facts, university students must be pushed harder to think critically. Students must learn to ask difficult questions and come up with creative answers.

A bad ranking is a good wake up call. But what we will do about it is what matters most.

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Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries

MD Staff



Image from the Malaysian Times

Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.

The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.

The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.

“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”

The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed.  Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.

“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”

The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.

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Southeast Asia

Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development

Dr. James M. Dorsey



A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.

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