To argue that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu should not have gone to Myanmar at a time when bloodshed is occurring on our doorstep in neighboring Syria and innocent civilians are being slaughtered indiscriminately by regime forces on a daily basis does not make any sense from a holistic approach in foreign policy. The criticism in that regard does not constitute a criticism per se but rather a deliberate attempt from an ideological point of view to discredit the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in general and the minister himself in particular. Even though I have my own fair share of criticism for this government on foreign policy issues, the Myanmar initiative must be praised and supported rather than lambasted.
The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar — targeting the mostly Muslim minority — has given Turkey an opening in its foreign policy that has been heavily dominated by the 17-month-long Syrian crisis. Turkey, a regional powerhouse with global clout in the G-20, must be able to engage in all parts of the world to be able to keep growing economically while accumulating the necessary political capital to advance its national interests. Though Ankara needs to prioritize its ambitions with respect to different regions of the world commensurate with its limited capacity, policy developers in the Turkish capital cannot remain indifferent to humanitarian crises in regions that seem as distant as in Myanmar.
Just as the engagement in Somalia last year with a visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was the first Western leader to land in Mogadishu in 20 years, provided a success story for Turkish foreign policy and paved the way for opening new markets in sub-Saharan Africa, paying attention to the plight of Muslims in Myanmar will have similar results in the future. The fact that Davutoğlu and Emine Erdoğan, the prime minister’s wife, visited the Rohingya Muslims in early August, staying at the Banduba refugee camp in the Myanmar coastal state of Rakhine, was the first instance of foreign aid being distributed to refugees in need in the region by a foreign nation.
Myanmar has a special significance for Turkey due to historical reasons that are not common knowledge, yet Turkey has not paid any attention to this East Asian nation for years. It was only in March of this year that Ankara opened an embassy in Myanmar’s capital city Naypyidaw. In a conversation with a select group of reporters recently, Davutoğlu gave the full account of Turkey’s Myanmar policy. He said he had given two specific instructions to Murat Yavuz Ateş when he appointed him to the post. Apart from improving bilateral relations in many areas as any diplomat should do in conducting his duty, the Turkish ambassador was asked to look into the fate of Turkish prisoners of war (POW) during World War I. The British took approximately 12,000 Turkish soldiers who were fighting on the Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and Syria fronts all the way to Myanmar so that they could not return to their homeland quickly or join in the fighting against the British.
It was a long and arduous voyage. They were all collected in Basra first and later transported to Karachi by ship. From there, the POWs headed to Calcutta by train, and from Calcutta they arrived in Rangoon. From Rangoon, they were brought to prisoner camps in Burma. Almost half of the Turkish POWs perished in these camps due to a lack of medical attention, malnutrition and other reasons. On March 26, 1916, Samuel G. Reat, the US consul in Rangoon, visited one of these camps at Thayetmyo, Burma, where a little over 3,500 Turkish POWs were kept. He reported back that there was an unusually high death rate at this camp. The Turkish ambassador in Naypyidaw is now busy discovering their burial grounds and trying to get the permission of Burmese officials to restore these graves and build a memorial for them. This would finally give closure to that sad chapter in our history while remembering the forgotten saga of our fallen heroes some 10,000 kilometers away.
Another special order given by Davutoğlu was that the ambassador must work hard to take care of the needs of Rohingya Muslims in Arakan province who have been victimized by Buddhist mobs supported by the state because of ethno-religious differences. According to the UN, Rohingyans are among the most persecuted people in the world. Arakan Muslims were among the few in India at the time who collected and sent donations to Turkey to help Turks during their War of Independence. It is now time to return that kindness. Turks already reciprocated to some extent to give relief to these people. Turkish government agencies as well as nongovernmental organizations have collected roughly TL 60 million (approximately $34 million) in cash aid for Rohingya Muslims in less than a month. The Kimse Yok Mu Association, a leading Turkish charity, which works in 71 countries, collected TL 7 million alone.
The Myanmar government’s decision to grant permission for a Turkish delegation to visit the region and distribute aid to Arakan Muslims reflects Myanmar President Thein Sein’s willingness to work with Turkey. With the exception of the United Nations, this was the first instance of foreign aid being distributed to refugees in need in the region by another nation. That opening in diplomacy should be capitalized on while paying due attention to the general problems the people of Myanmar face today. In other words, Turkish engagement should not be limited to Muslims in Burma.
Davutoğlu’s visit to both minority Muslim camps as well as the ones belonging to Myanmar’s majority Buddhists who were displaced because of conflict was a strong signal to the Myanmar government that Turkey is keen to foster ties with all the people of Myanmar. While distributing aid to a Buddhist camp, Davutoğlu’s message that Turkey would like to see Muslims and Buddhists living together in peace resonated well among Myanmar government elites. Turkish engagement in a way may even help the Burmese government stabilize this restive region with further development and investment projects. With a booming economy, Turkey can extend further foreign direct investment in Burma, a move that would certainly be welcomed by Burmese elites to counterbalance growing Chinese influence over the Burmese national economy.
What is more, developing friendly ties with Turkey may contribute to President Sein’s attempts for further reforms in the economy and democratization steps following decades of repressive military rule. Sein told Davutoğlu during his visit that Myanmar would also open an embassy in Turkey as soon as possible, adding that relations between the two countries would be developed by this move. Cozying up with Turkey may help the Burmese government remove some of the pressure brought to bear by the UN and 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest intergovernmental organization after the UN. Turkey has major clout in the OIC, which is headed by Turkish diplomat Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, who had spearheaded efforts in establishing a committee to monitor developments in the Arakan region.
The real solution to the problem of the Rohingya Muslims in particular or Buddhists in general in Myanmar is not extending charity or providing relief efforts. These may be necessary for the transitional period during which those in need must be taken care of. But the real effort must be spent on increasing trade and investment in Myanmar with special emphasis on less developed regions such as Arakan province. Generating jobs and increasing welfare in Myanmar will also reduce the number of refugees ending up in Turkish territory as a destination or as a transit country in search of a better life. Turkey must be able to engage with the Burmese government in collective diplomatic talks by bringing neighboring countries as well as regional powers into the mix. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with which Turkey signed a deal on accession to this organization’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) on July 2010, may be a perfect platform in which to raise these issues.