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Southeast Asia

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



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

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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