Japan’s silence on Rohingya hinders Asia’s peace and stability

Japan’s cold-blooded policy on Rohingya crisis has not yielded any fruit so far

Parvej Siddique Bhuiyan

September 14, 2021

Japan’s silence on Rohingya hinders Asia's peace and stability

A general view of the makeshift tent in Dhaka, Bangladesh on March 31, 2021. Seventy-year-old Aysar Rahman is one of the more than 750,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar in August 2017 when its military launched a crackdown that saw villages being burned down, extrajudicial killings, and rape. (Photo: Md. Kamruzzaman, Anadolu Agency/AFP)


For decades, democracy and human rights have been under siege in Myanmar due to 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 Rohingya Muslims in August 2017, forcing more than 750,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh to escape mass killings, gang rape, torture, arson and forcible displacements. The United Nations labelled the genocidal crackdown as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

The ruthless military’s dreaded policy of “shoot first, speak later” in Myanmar has once again come under the spotlight and global condemnation since February military coup and the brutal clampdown on the anti-coup, pro-democracy movement.

Since the crackdown and forced exodus of Rohingya, 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 Rohingya despite signing an agreement later in 2017.

Key regional powers like China, Russia and India have played out a tricky game and visibly expressed they are not interested to take any actions 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 to support the refugees in the past years.

Japan’s former Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar in 2019 when he reportedly said that his government’s help and support for the Rohingya will remain uninterrupted.

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

Rights groups have criticized Japan’s stance. In 2019, New York-based Human Rights Watch published a report that criticized Japan’s Cold-Blooded Approach to the crisis.

The Japanese government and civil society groups need to urgently realize their nation’s multiple strategic, economic, and humanitarian stakes in Bangladesh remain at great risks without a sustainable solution to the Rohingya problem.

Since Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, Japan has been a trusted development partner. Bangladesh, one of the fastest-growing economies in the Asia-Pacific region, is a significant market for Japan, with a population of 170 million.

Japan is Bangladesh’s ninth-largest export market and ranks fourth in terms of importing as of 2019. Japan is increasing its investments in Special Economic Zones (SEZs), energy, communication sector, and in the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt.

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.

Despite some backlashes, Bangladesh still aspires to maintain amicable relations with Myanmar with the spirit of its guiding foreign policy ‘Friendship to all, malice towards none’ and it also includes an acceptable solution to the Rohingya issue.

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 Matarbari deep sea-port, avoiding geopolitical rivalry. 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.

Asia’s final frontier, Myanmar, on the other hand, 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 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 South East 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’ 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 in order 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 worse crisis.

Now, Japan must bring an end to its cold-blooded policy and take a strong stance for justice and human rights across all international platforms on issues like the Rohingya crisis in line with its own 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.”

Parvej Siddique Bhuiyan is an academic and commentator of Asian Security Studies at the Department of International Relations in Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh

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