Recent years have seen tensions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state once again flare up as non-state Buddhist militias and non-state Muslim militias have attacked one another whilst thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Throughout this process, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) has attempted (but often failed) to strike a balance between enforcing a hard peace and winning one of the many fronts in Myanmar’s multi-front civil war – a crisis that has raged since 1948.
Throughout this process, many Rakhine Muslims (known as Rohingya) have been forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. While it is thought that many Rohingya were actually originally from Bangladesh before fleeing to Myanmar decades ago, the lack of proper documentation among the peasant populations of the region makes it very difficult to establish a known country of origin. At the same time, Bangladesh has stated that it cannot cope with more refugees and as such, even with the Chinese authored peace deal for Rakhine in place, there are still many Rohingya that have not yet had their situation permanently resolved.
It is against this context that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte offered to take in Rohingya refugees and normalise their status in The Philippines. Duterte began his remarks with a criticism of European elites who often speak about humanitarianism but in reality, rarely deliver. The President said:
“These Europeans think they are so bright that they are meddling in our affairs. There are grave problems out there. They couldn’t even help the refugees who are dying.
Those who really have nowhere else to go, I will make them Filipinos. I am ready to accept Rohingya refugees”.
This reveals Duterte’s very clear but often misunderstood humanitarian streak. Duterte is a leader who has often cried at the loss of life of both civilians and soldiers who have died in the fight against both religious extremism and far-left NPA terrorism. As such, Duterte oversaw the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao which looks to solve the centuries old Moro crisis that neither Spanish rulers nor independent Filipino rulers had previously been able to solve. Duterte has granted the Bangsamoro region autonomy on a federal model that Duterte seeks to implement nation wide. Likewise, he has created a parliament in Bangsamoro in order to give Moros a new political system that is in fact superior to the convoluted presidential system which operates in Manila at a national level.
As the first modern Filipino leader with Muslim relatives and the first Filipino President from Mindanao, Duterte’s sensitivities towards the Ummah (global Muslim community) go far beyond that of his predecessors. As such, it remains conceivable that some Rohingya refugees could make a new home in The Philippines, ostensibly in Bangsamoro, where they share a faith with local people.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the arrival of Rohingya in Mindanao could help to demonstrate that within the framework of an autonomous political and economic model, a growing workforce could actually make the Bangsamoro region more collectively productive. This itself would help to bolster the nationwide argument in favour of federal-parliamentary reforms, in addition to job creating FDI (foreign direct investment). Whilst few non-Muslim Filipinos tend to internally migrate to Muslim Mindanao, when the region’s economic productivity inevitably increases due to peace creating political autonomy secured by a democratic and effective parliamentary model, Bangsamoro could become a model of how a foreign workforce, when arriving in sensible numbers, can help to increased sustained regional economic activity on a win-win basis.
While Duterte’s liberal critics support the neo-imperial model that has lead to death, genocide and the displacement of millions of innocent people, Duterte’s support for human life at and home and abroad, offers a contrast which itself reveals his genuine credentials as a deeply ethical and moral leader.