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The rise of Rohingya insurgency and its implication on Myanmar and India

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Myanmar, a nation located at the junction of South Asia and Southeast Asia corridor saw a historic change when the democratic led government, National Leader for Democracy (NLD) overtook the power from the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the historic election of 2015 thus ending the 60 years of military junta rule.

Backed by the democratic principles of equality, accountability, transparency and control of power, the NLD emerged as the ultimate guarantor of ensuring the aspiration of 50 million Myanmarese people. However, in the event of post election, NLD has failed to garner any advantageous position in Myanmar due to various constitutional amendments and restrictions. On top of that Rohingya problem emerged as another challenge to the newly installed government.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnically related to the Bengali people living for centuries in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar are considered as one of the most persecuted people on the earth. However, notwithstanding their existence, Myanmar considers them as undocumented immigrants who have been living in Rakhine state of Myanmar for centuries. According to the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 which made a categorical distinction of Burmese Citizenship into three parts- Citizenship, associate citizenship and naturalized citizen effectively bars the Rohingya of acquiring the Burmese citizenship as the government doesn’t validate the history of Rohingya and their being a Burmese ethnic minority. In this regard of being stateless, without citizenship and ethnic group recognition, the Rohingya faced deep seated hatred and subject of being soft target and discrimination. The government employed different tactics including the proxy aggression and hybrid attack on the Rohingya leading to the mass outflow of Rohingya to the near adjoining states, including Bangladesh, Thailand and India. As of 2017 according to UNHCR more than 140,000 Rohingya has been displaced from their homeland.

In the recent years, the Myanmar military has sought a new strategy of driving out the illegal Bengali immigrants from their territory. In this regard, the military is using every available strategy including the killing, shooting and raping of the Rohingya to force them to leave the state. This has led to an escalation in hostilities and spawned a potent terror in Myanmar. The extensive offensive measures against what Myanmar government called illegal immigrants has preferably led to the rise of extremist militant and insurgent groups amongst the Rohingya. One such group- Harakah al- Yaqin now refers in English as the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has taken its birth. The group is well connected with most of the Muslim countries having the Rohingya connection and heritage with its base in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India according to the International Crisis Group report. The group issues fatwa to legitimize their violence and wants the Rohingya to join them in their fight against the Myanmar forces. The first coordinated strike of the group was conducted in 2016 when it attacked Myanmar border posts along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Furthermore, in 2017 in the wee hour of August, the group mounted another coordinated attack on the police check posts and army bases in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.  This led the Government to conduct clear out operation across the Rakhine state bringing reports of killings, clashes and vigilantism against the Rohingya.

As such, the development of these episodes poses a significant challenge to Myanmar and India. As for Myanmar, the Rohingya issue has seriously deteriorated her status in the global community. Fresh from the rule of Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) for more than a decade, the Rohingya issue has brought a new challenge to the new Government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The counter offensive measures conducted by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya significantly deteriorated the status of Myanmar in her external relations as the world community poured their sympathy and concern for the Rohingya and condemned the violent act of the Myanmar government. Furthermore, the counter offensive measures of the Myanmar government have created a space for the rise of the Islamic terror in Myanmar which can gravely complicate the matters of the Rohingya living in the Rakhine state.

In the midst of the rise of Islamic jihadis, their appealing ideology in the Southeast Asia, the ARSA may jockey for power within the framework of the Islamic State (ISIS) thereby increasing the domain of security to a whole new level. As ISIS is gradually losing its battleground in the Middle East from the coalition forces of Russia and the United States, Southeast Asia has emerged as a new venue. Some of the Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia have opened up as an alternative theatre for the ISIS and it affiliated militants. Whether it’s the Jemaah Islamiyah of Indonesia or the Khatibah Nusantara of Indonesia they aligned and support themselves with the theology of ISIS and provides great inspiration for the new born jihadi and extremists to wage violence in their struggle. This situation can develop a headache to Myanmar particularly looking at the present situation of Rohingya issue as the armed Rohingya militants including ARSA might infuse the ISIS theology and collaborate within the domain of Southeast Asia terror groups and make the issue a greater one.

As for India, the Rohingya issue has never flared up in its national security issue. However, in the changing circumstances, particularly in the globalised world of interconnectedness, New Delhi should be more cautious in the Rohingya issue. As India plans to deport around 40,000 Rohingya refugees who are staying in India and also refuses to join the declaration against Myanmar of genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya at the recently held conference in Bali, it might bring challenges and a risk factor to India. The first risk emanates from the persistent instability situation in the border region of India and Myanmar. The border region of India and Myanmar is a home for various militant groups who use the cross-border affiliations in waging war against the Indian state. These groups have established clandestine networks in the neighboring states of Myanmar. As India faces an uphill task in combating the terror threat, the ARSA might add a new flavor to the ongoing conflicts. As the ethnic militants of the Northeast India need new bases and cooperation in its fight, they might seek direct and indirect support of the ARSA. More so, a coordination and cooperation from the ARSA also looks possible when the Indian state has failed to provide Rohingya the basic necessity when they are facing genocide and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Furthermore, the cooperation between the ARSA and the insurgent groups of the Northeast India might open up new bases and territory (Rakhine for Northeast Militants and Northeast India for the ARSA) to both the groups in their survival and struggle.

Second, India has huge investments at stake in Myanmar including the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, tri-lateral highway and Oil and Gas project. In most cases, these projects passes via the Rakhine state of Myanmar and the stability of the region is one of the crucial factors for India. The Kaladan Multi-Modal project that India is building to connect Mizoram to Sittwe port in Myanmar passes through the Rakhine state of Myanmar. In the event of deporting huge number of Rohingya and not condemning Myanmar for the atrocities, the Rohingya militants, including the ARSA might act as a hindrance in these projects and on overall India quest of looking and acting east.

From the above picture, it looks clear that the  rise of Rohingya insurgency has a serious implication to Myanmar and India. For Myanmar, the Rohingya issue has put Myanmar in the state of dilemma. The recognition of Rohingya as a Myanmar citizen will seriously deteriorate the status and fame of the NLD since Bamar or Burman (the ethnic group) constitutes the majority in Myanmar and are predominantly Theravada Buddhist. In the plight of recognizing Rohingya, it might deteriorate its support base amongst the majority groups and can even face a crisis mandate in the parliament and within the party. This will automatically please the Tatmadaw who are looking for an opportunity to come to power again by piercing and rupturing  the foundation of  NLD and its democratic conscience. As for India, it is in their interest to make a careful decision of the situation. New Delhi should wisely deal with the Rohingya issue keeping in context the security and the strategic importance of the region as well as the importance of the bilateral relations.  

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Southeast Asia

The Anandamahidol Foundation and the Legacy of Rama the Ninth of Thailand

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Founded in 1955 by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama the Ninth of Thailand, the Ananda Mahidol Foundation has supported and sponsored exceptional young students of Thailand to pursue graduate studies abroad in eight fields of studies. These fields include Medicine, Science, Engineering, Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, Agriculture, Dentistry and Veterinary – all quintessential to the sustainable development of Thailand. For nearly seven decades, the graduates of this Foundation have served various roles and positions in Thai society and altogether advanced the production of knowledge for Thailand.

Dr. Rattana Lao, a trained Educator and a recipient of the Foundation from Social Sciences, interviewed Dr. Jain Charnnarong, an experienced Mechanical Engineering and the president of the Ananda Mahidol Alumni Club, about the Foundation, the late King’s Philosophy and what it means to Thailand’s future.

Inspiration of the Ananda Mahidol Foundation

The origin of the Foundation began as the late King wanted to honor the memory of His elder brother and His Majesty was advised to do something about education. Due to the dire need of the nation, the first scholarships were given to two medical students: Professor Charas Suwanwela and Professor Prawase Wasi. Since, nearly 400 students from eight fields have been awarded the scholarship. Each scholarship recipient excels in their own fields and dedicates their lives to the betterment of the society. Today, it is important for us as a Foundation to reflect on our role in the society and think critically about how we can work together in unity. We need to think what the country needs and focus on it.

Example of developmental issue in Thailand

Environmental issue is the main problem. Two years ago, I was asked by Professor Charan Mahatummaratana, the then Chairman of the Ananda Mahidol Alumni Club, about the PM2.5 issue in Thailand. There are two main reasons for the dust problem: burning of fossil fuel and open burning wildfire. As long as Bangkok still depends on personal transportation via cars, there is not much we can do about fossil fuel. We have to wait for the transformation of the society toward more public transportation and the use of alternative sources of energy.

Wildfire is another problem. It is caused by ignorance and carelessness of the people. Sometimes, farmers wanted to burn post-harvest materials in their lands for a rai or two, but it spread into the forest escalating to 100,000 rai of wildfire. Some wildfires last continually for months and the villagers suffer from air pollution. 

Ananda Mahidol Foundation’s involvement in addressing development issue

It began at Bann Kor, in Li, Lumphun – in the north of Thailand, where our Foundation’s work as a sandbox. A few of us went to the village to research in order to understand the plight of Kor. There were engineers, scientists and botanists. The botanists helped enlightened the team about the intricate relationship between different species in the forest, especially between plants and mycorrhiza. The main question is how we can live in harmony with the forest, how can human mitigate the intrusion to the forest and limit environmental degradation.

Bann Kor Sandbox and the late King’s Philosophy

The root cause of forest invasion is poverty. Villagers need to eat. They need to survive. During the summertime, most villagers are unemployed and they depended on the forest for their living. They might want to burn a rai or two but the fire escalated to 100,000 rai due to carelessness. This is the cause of the wildfire.

Going into Bann Kor reminded all of us about the late King’s Philosophy on sustainable development. There needs to be better water management, soil and access to the market.

Our study on Bann Kor shows that there is sufficient water in the forest: both on the surface and underground but there lacks water management system. The state needs to invest for the villagers to have sustainable water infrastructure. His Majesty the late King of Thailand talked a lot about sustainable water management. Throughout His Majesty’s life, he did many projects related to water – more than 1,000 projects altogether. Water is the first step of life, for plants and for human. Without water, there is no food security nor life.

Soil is also important. It is about agriculture. Then comes access to the market. If any village can maintain the balance between water, soil and access to market, while preserving the nature, there is hope for sustainable development.

Youth is important

Knowledge production and learning matter significantly to the development equation. We must educate the new cadre of youth in the village to know how to live with the forest in harmony. In the beginning of the project, we asked the youth what kind of plants grow in their forest, they couldn’t answer it. It is a fallacy that people who live with the forest do not understand the forest.

They could not see the relationship between different living things in the forest. They lack basic knowledge and understanding about the forest. We have to change that. We have to reeducate them. We have to show them the intersectionality between wildfire, environmental degradation and poverty. It’s essential to integrate these knowledge into the school system so students are made aware of the impact of their action. If we can do that, we can hope to begin a journey to address the issue of climate change.

It all begins with young people.

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Indonesian G20 presidency promises to put a ‘battle for the soul of Islam’ on the front burner

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Indonesian religious affairs minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas set the bar high for President Joko Widodo as well as Nahdlatul Ulama, the religious backbone of Mr. Widodo’s government when he laid out the agenda for his country’s presidency of the Group of 20. The G20 groups the world’s largest economies.

Speaking to the G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna as Italy prepared to handover its presidency to Indonesia, Mr. Qoumas also threw down a gauntlet for Indonesia’s Middle Eastern competitors in a battle to define the degree to which Islam incorporates principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The battle, which is likely to likewise determine which Muslim-majority country or countries will be recognized as leaders of the Islamic world, takes on added significance with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and concerns about Taliban policy towards militants on Afghan soil.

Meanwhile, uncertainty about US reliability as a security guarantor in the Gulf is prompting regional foes to contain their differences to ensure that they don’t spin out of control, increasing their emphasis on the projection of soft power.

Turkey’s 2022 budget appears to signal the shift and the importance President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attributes to this particular challenge.

The budget of the powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet is expected to increase by 20 per cent for fiscal 2022, giving it greater financial flexibility than the ministries of interior, foreign affairs, trade, industry and technology, environment and urbanization, energy and natural resources and culture and tourism.

These ministries are key for enabling Turkey to resolve its economic problems, compensate for the fallout of the pandemic and enhance its appeal as a potential leader of the Muslim world.

The Diyanet, in another sign of Mr. Erdogan’s emphasis on religious rather than national identity, recently urged Turks to use the religiously framed greeting Peace Be Upon (Selamün aleyküm) You rather than phrases like Good Morning (Gunaydin), prevalent in Turkey since its founding as a republic almost a century ago.

Diyanet president Ali Erbas argued in a recently published Turkish-language book, Human Religion and Religion in the Information Age, that the greeting ‘Good Morning’ traced its origins to the pre-Islamic era.

These latest moves suggest that Mr. Erdogan is taking his country, also a member of the G20, down a path diametrically opposed to what Mr. Qoumas was arguing in Bologna.

The minister contended in contrast to Mr. Erdogan’s policies that religion “has the potential to help block the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being. Yet to realize this potential, we must wisely manage the inevitable struggle between competing values, as globalization brings highly diverse peoples, cultures, and traditions into ever closer contact.”

Mr. Qoumas made his remarks as an Islamist journalist called on Mr. Erdogan to avoid the weaponization of religion.

Writing in Karar, a Turkish publication believed to be close to Mr. Erdogan’s erstwhile prime and foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who left the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to found a party of his own, journalist Ahmet Tasgetiren, warned that the president appeared to be politicizing the Diyanet.

Drawing a comparison to Mr. Erdogan’ politicization of Turkey’s judiciary, Mr. Tasgetiren noted that it “weakens people’s confidence in it.” Pleading with Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Tasgetiren cautioned that “the politicization of the religion and the Diyanet ruins people’s relationship with religion… I think you would never want this for the religion. For the religion’s sake, please.”

Mr. Qoumas, the scion of an influential Nahdlatul Ulama family and the former head of the group’s powerful youth wing, GP Ansor, went on to say in his speech that “one major task that lies before us is to identify, and conscientiously observe, those universal values that a majority of the world’s inhabitants already acknowledge, such as the virtues of honesty, truth-seeking, compassion and justice. Another parallel task is to develop a global consensus regarding shared values that the world’s diverse cultures will need to embrace if we are to co-exist peacefully.”

Implicitly, the minister noted that in contrast to its competitors – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran – in the battle to reshape mainstream Islam, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, has put its money where its mouth is.

Mr. Qoumas noted that a gathering in 2019 of more than 20,000 Muslim religious scholars associated with Nahdlatul Ulama ruled that the legal category of infidel was “neither relevant to nor applicable within, the context of a modern nation-state.” In doing so, Nahdlatul Ulama became the world’s first major contemporary Sunni Muslim religious entity to seek to update and modernize Islamic jurisprudence.

Mr. Qoumas stopped short of laying out an agenda for dealing with other concepts in Islamic law that Nahdlatul Ulama clerics have identified as either problematic or obsolete such as blasphemy.  Nahdlatul Ulama has argued that concepts like the dhimmi or people of the book who are recognized in classical Islamic jurisprudence but not granted equal status before the law, and apostasy, had been invalidated by the ruling on infidels.

To be sure, countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where Islamic law is at the least recognized constitutionally as a main source of legislation if it does not constitute the main fountain of legislation, have significantly liberalized social rights.

Saudi Arabia has significantly enhanced women’s rights in recent years by lifting a ban on women’s driving, liberalizing gender segregation, reducing men’s control over women’s lives, and expanding professional opportunities.

Similarly, the UAE announced last November a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalizing “honour killings,” a widely criticized religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring a family.

Liberalization of social mores in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were anchored in civilian law, rules, and regulations but neither country, in contrast to the process initiated by Nahdlatul Ulama, adopted Islamic jurisprudence accordingly.

That way, the two Gulf states, in contrast to Indonesia, seek to keep tight state control of their interpretation of Islam with no input by civil society.

The dichotomy raises fundamental questions, including whether what Nahdlatul Ulama calls the “recontextualization” of Islam can be achieved by autocratic or authoritarian regimes that are seeking to ensure their survival and project themselves internationally in a positive light or whether religious reform needs to be popularly anchored and driven by civil society.

Despite being in government, Mr. Qoumas implicitly provided his answer to the question by quoting a poem by Kyai Haji Mustofa Bisri, a prominent Nahdlatul Ulama spiritual leader. The poem, titled ‘Religion’ focuses on the behaviour of the individual rather than the role of the state.

“Religion is a golden carriage prepared by God to convey you along the path to His Divine Presence.

Don’t become mesmerized by its beauty, much less enchanted to the point that you come to blows with your own brothers and sisters over who occupies the front seat.

Depart!” the poem reads.

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Southeast Asia

Visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia

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Following the visit of Kamala Harris, the vice president of the USA to Vietnam and Singapore, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the two countries as well as Cambodia to engage the regional players. Vietnam has become the cynosure of major powers such as the US, Japan, and China. The visit of Japanese Defence minister and the US defence secretary happening within a period of three months. US defence secretary visited Vietnam in July 2021 while the Japanese defence minister visited Vietnam in September 2021.

Given the hyper activism which was shown by the two members of the Quad, the Chinese foreign minister sensing these strategic dynamics choose to visit Vietnam to comfort the ideological partner that China would be acting constructively. The Chinese foreign minister during the visit to the country clearly stated that Vietnam should stop entertaining extra regional powers in South China Sea and resist from complicating the situation while magnifying the maritime territorial disputes. This clearly shows that China was rattled by the very fact that US has been undertaking extra efforts in engaging Vietnam through vaccine and health diplomacy as well as creating favourable conditions for Vietnam to enhance trade relations with the US. As part of a reassurance strategy, China has committed to donating 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and is willing to support Vietnam in their fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last two years the Vietnam foreign ministry has been criticising Chinese manoeuvres in South China Sea and threatening legitimate activities of Vietnam in its Exclusive Economic Zone. The illegal activities undertaken by Chinese survey ships and fishermen militia in Vanguard bank, Reed Bank and Whitsun Reef were a manifestation of Chinese hyper activism. This has been criticised by the US state department as well as members of international community.

In the second leg of the visit, the Chinese foreign minister visited Singapore and had fruitful interactions with his counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. Given the fact that Singapore is slowly emerging as a critical lynchpin in the larger Quad objectives in the region. Therefore, for China, engaging the city state is critical for securing its strategic periphery and engaging Singapore for its trade and economic interests. The proposal of development cooperation proposal by the Chinese foreign minister is to get assurance from the Southeast Asian neighbours regarding good neighbourliness and commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the China in the maritime domain.

The Chinese foreign minister had visited almost nine countries in the last one year when Vietnam was the Chair of ASEAN. This was primarily to counter the efforts which have been made by the high-level delegations of the United States government which included the visit by the United States vice president Kamala Harris, US defence secretary, the US deputy Secretary of State and the visit of armed forces officials to the Southeast Asian countries. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy clearly shows the anxieties from the point of view of China after US has intensified surveillance and intelligence activities as the latest Malabar defence exercises(25th edition) which concluded recently near Guam. Chinese assertive activities have been operationalised by the Chinese naval ships, Chinese Coast Guard, Chinese hydrographic survey ships, and the Chinese maritime boat militia which has been threatening navies and fishermen of littoral countries in South China Sea. The military exercises undertaken by China closer to the contested waters in South China Sea, particularly in the Paracel islands, which belongs to Vietnam, and strengthening the illegal structures built on those islands is primarily aimed to counter the group sails undertaken by the US and its alliance partners as well as any concerted activity undertaken by the Quad countries.

The visit to Cambodia was expected given the fact that the politics in Cambodia is heating up because of the Hun Sen political ambitions of placing his son at the helm of power and helping Chinese to set up a full-fledged Chinese naval base at Ream naval base.  The US projects in that region has been stopped and relocated to other areas which was not liked by the US agencies.

The vaccine diplomacy which has been adopted by the Chinese foreign minister to address the deficit of vaccines in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam is symbolic.

In this context it is also important to investigate the Japanese overtures in this regard. The Japanese have signed a defence partnership agreement with the Vietnamese which assures the exports of Japanese defence equipment to the socialist country. Under the partnership it is expected that not only arms and equipment, but also technological support and training of the technicians will be undertaken by the Japanese forces. This is the first of its kind defence partnership agreement between Japan and Vietnam showcasing the growing trust between the two countries. There have been certain writings which allude to the fact that a trilateral between India, Vietnam and Japan might be in the offing. Scholars such as Gitanjali Sinha Roy feel that Japan with its technological supremacy, and India with its large armed forces along with Vietnam’s strategic location will act as a common platform to address regional security concerns in the Indo -Pacific region. India being a regional player in the Indian Ocean region and Japan being a formidable power in the Pacific would add heft to the larger maritime security objectives.

The involvement of the European powers in the security of indo Pacific region with reference to the UK, France and Germany showcases that many players would be involved in ensuring maritime security in the region for trade and commercial aspects.

This visit of Chinese foreign minister should be seen from the point of view of reassuring Chinese commitment to the regional peace while at the same time giving a veiled warning to the neighbours that China is still a very potent power in South China Sea, and it would not allow any intervention by the extra territorial powers which tries to intervene in the South China Sea dispute. This visit clearly highlights that China has been startled by the active diplomacy undertaken by countries such as Japan and US and why keeping countries such as Singapore and Vietnam in good humour is critical for Chinese interests.

Vietnam’s ingenuity in handling diplomatic relations with the US, China and Japan and maximizing national strategic interests is appreciated. Through skilful handling of relations with these three countries, Vietnam has become a partner contributing to the peace and security of the region and affirming its central role in Southeast Asia.

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