Japan's silence on Rohingya Issue is puzzling

It is Japan’s vital responsibility to join and influence other key players in the region to play a visible and effective role to address major regional issues like the Rohingya crisis for peace and stability

Parvej Siddique Bhuiyan Sep 30, 2021
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Rohingya refugee children queue for aid in Cox''s Bazar, Bangladesh

For decades, democracy and human rights have been under siege in Myanmar following military coups, iron-fisted military rule and persecution of minorities, especially Rohingya Muslims. The military’s wholesale impunity for the outrageous crimes against minorities and other Burmese civilians in the past has set the stage for war crimes committed against Rohingyas. The United Nations labeled the genocidal crackdown as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

Since the crackdown and forced exodus of the Rohingya Muslims, Myanmar has faced widespread international pressure -- condemnations from the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for human rights violations, rulings from the International Court of Justice and targeted sanctions against the military junta from Western governments. Yet, Myanmar remains extremely reluctant to create a conducive environment for a voluntary, safe and dignified return of the displaced Rohingyas despite signing an agreement in 2017.

Key regional powers like China, Russia and India are not interested in taking any legal action against Myanmar, thanks to their narrowly defined geopolitical calculations.

Japan - Asia’s liberal democratic leader and longtime strategic, economic and humanitarian partner of Bangladesh - has been largely silent on the Rohingya issue. Japan has provided financial assistance to Bangladesh while the latter cares for over a million Rohingya refugees. In 2019, Japan’s then Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar and reportedly said that his government’s help and support for the Rohingya Muslims will continue

Yet, Japan even abstained from voting on every UNGA and UNHRC resolution that sought to put pressure on Myanmar to find a solution to the Rohingya crisis.

Japan’s indifferent approach

Human rights groups have criticized Japan’s stance. In 2019, Human Rights Watch published a report that criticized Japan’s cold-blooded approach to the crisis.  

Japan needs to urgently realize Bangladesh’s hardships in the absence of a sustainable solution to the Rohingya problem. Since Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971, Japan has been a trusted development partner. Bangladesh, with a population of 170 million and one of the fastest-growing economies in the Asia-Pacific region, is a significant market for Japanese investments and goods. Japan is increasing its investments in Special Economic Zones (SEZs), energy, communication sector, and in the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B).

On the other hand, Bangladesh has backed Tokyo's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as well as its position on nuclear weapons.

Bangladesh, as a fledgling democracy and peace-loving country, has always sought a peaceful and diplomatic solution to all regional and international disputes. Thus, despite some blowback, Bangladesh still aspires to maintain amicable relations with Myanmar in the spirit of its guiding foreign policy ‘Friendship to all, malice towards none’.

Here, Japan can be a “Gap Bridger” by addressing the ongoing Rohingya crisis to build mutual trust and foster co-operation in the field of Preferential Trade Agreement, blue economy, energy production, maritime trade and regional connectivity.

While Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Cambodia allowed China to use their ports of Kyaukphyu, Hambantota, Gwadar, and Ream Naval respectively, Bangladesh has shown a great deal of trust in Japan to build the under-construction Matarbari under-construction deep seaport in Cox's Bazar district. The port has the potential to become a major commercial and connectivity hub, as well as a key trade gateway to Asia and beyond. Such strategic investment will surely bolster Japan’s positive economic and political clout in the region.

Myanmar situation and its security implications

On the other hand, Myanmar, called Asia’s final frontier by investors as it has become the last large economy in the continent to become globally connected, is also important to the world's leading powers, both strategically and economically. However, the country's persistent ethnic insurgency, international sanctions, restricted economic sector for Foreign Direct Investments (FDI), and most importantly, its increasingly pro-Chinese stance have posed a significant risk to international investors.

Bangladesh, as a liberal Muslim country, is concerned about Al Qaeda's statement to support Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims in September 2017 and the Islamic State's threat to relocate its base of operations to Southeast Asia. The Rohingya people, who are scattered over 16 countries, may become human resources for extremist networks. This ominous security implication poses a threat to peace and stability as well as to the huge Japanese investments in Southeast Asia, South Asia and beyond.

Japan must keep in mind that since the Rohingya crisis erupted in the Indo-Pacific region's heartland, it has all the possibilities to directly threaten the QUAD countries’ (the US, Australia, Japan and India) strategic and economic vision that values the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and freedom.

Thus, it is Japan’s vital responsibility to join and influence other key players in the region to play a visible and effective role to address major regional issues like the Rohingya crisis for peace and stability.

So far Japan’s silence on the Rohingya crisis has yielded no fruits and it won’t do any good for Asia. Rather this deafening silence will further complicate an already worsening crisis.

Now, Japan must take a strong stance for justice and human rights across all international platforms on issues like the Rohingya crisis in line with its peace-centric constitution. It needs to keep in mind the great words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

(The writer is a development worker and commentator on security studies in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at psbhuiyan92@gmail.com)