In the face of ongoing atrocities in Syria, and despite years of the international community vowing ‘never again’, Myanmar presents the world with yet another crisis it appears unable, or unwilling, to halt. Over half a million people, predominantly stateless Rohingya Muslims, have fled Myanmar in the face of a brutal military campaign and the exodus continues. Upon their arrival in Bangladesh, men, women and children tell stories of indiscriminate killings, rape and torture.
‘We’re standing by, merely watching,’ says Laetitia van den Assum, a Dutch former ambassador to Thailand and Myanmar and a member of Kofi Annan’s now defunct Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The commission was tasked with finding solutions to the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya, who are not recognised as citizens. Within hours of the commission presenting its recommendations to the government in August a group of militant Rohingya, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA, launched an attack on military targets. It prompted the launch of a disproportionate counter-offensive by Myanmar’s military.
The campaign of isolation and aggression is reminiscent of the military’s notorious ‘four cuts’ strategy. This was used for decades in the civil war and cuts off food, funds, intelligence and support from armed opposition groups. Calling for an end to the violent campaign, one non-state armed group said it ‘regrets to witness the repeat of the history from the past 20-30 years’.
“ The UN excels at second-tier emergencies. The unusual backing from a very broad coalition of countries which are very upset about Myanmar allows the Secretary-General to be very outspoken about it
Mark Malloch Brown
Former Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations
The UN also does not want to see a return to those years and the crisis triggered a wide range of responses. In September, member states discussed the Rohingya crisis at the UN’s first open Security Council meeting on Myanmar since 2009. A closed-door meeting had been held before that. Secretary General Antonio Guterres sent a letter to the Security Council, something rarely done but allowed under Article 99 of the UN Charter, in which he said that the international community ‘has a responsibility to undertake concerted efforts to prevent further escalation of the crisis’. In October, France convened an ‘Arria-Formula’ meeting, where members were briefed by Annan. Jeffrey Feltman, the UN’s top political affairs official, travelled to Myanmar for 4 days of talks on the crisis.
Myanmar has refused entry for a panel tasked with investigating allegations of abuses after an earlier military counter-offensive launched in October 2016. UN Resident Co-ordinator Renate Lok-Dessallien has been recalled from Myanmar over the crisis. Diplomats and members of the aid community have accused her of prioritising development over human rights as the tragedy has unfolded. She remains without a successor due to the Myanmar government’s refusal to upgrade the UN country head to the rank of assistant secretary-general, saying it will not accept unequal treatment.
‘The UN excels at second-tier emergencies,’ says Mark Malloch Brown, Deputy Secretary General of the UN under Kofi Annan. He compares Myanmar to crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. ‘The unusual backing from a very broad coalition of countries which are very upset about Myanmar allows the Secretary-General to be very outspoken about it.’
Regarded by many western governments as a success story, the UN has a vested interested in Myanmar’s democratic transition. ‘The UN felt this was a notch on their belt, which makes the UN much quicker to react if that progress is jeopardised,’ says Malloch Brown.
The exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar has overshadowed the recommendations made by Annan’s commission concerning citizenship, freedom of movement and the rule of law. The government accepted most of the recommendations but should not count on much support from the majority of Myanmar’s citizens for its implementation. The majority of them regard the Rohinyga as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and support the military’s campaign. Despite huge international pressure, Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing reportedly said that the Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh ‘are just Bengali going home.’ According to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the actions seemed ‘a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return’.
Jens Dieckmann, Co-Vice Chair of the IBA’s War Crimes Committee, says reports by human rights groups show ‘very strong public evidence’ about the abuses committed during the military campaign that has led to the mass exodus. ‘It’s striking and quite clear that there are crimes against humanity being committed. In the future, there will be international criminal responsibility for this under article 7 of the Rome Statute,’ he says.
Dieckmann emphasises the responsibility of the international community to address the crisis, including by closing UNICEF’s funding gap for its emergency aid appeal for displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh. ‘Of course, we have to point our fingers to the Myanmar government, but we must also keep our promises. This is our obligation under international law,’ he says.
Nevertheless, the Responsibility to Protect, the UN doctrine created for the protection of vulnerable populations in crises such as these, is unlikely to be invoked. Malloch Brown, says the doctrine was ‘handicapped’ - though not invalidated – following its use in a Security Council resolution to prevent an imminent attack on Benghazi in Libya. ‘It was seen by the Russians and the Chinese as a really sloppily drawn mandate for an open-ended intervention, which went way beyond the confines of the doctrine, which is limited to preventing crimes against humanity, and was used as an excuse for the much wider purpose of regime change. Since then, the doctrine has had tremendous pushback in the UN,’ he says.
Years of sanctions and travel boycotts achieved little with Myanmar’s army during the decades of military rule, as the generals sold their jade to China, exported oil and gas to whoever would buy it, and suppressed an isolated population. Now that the generals have allowed the country on a path towards ‘disciplined democracy’, some observers hope that the threat of fresh sanctions and an end to military cooperation with western armies will challenge the military’s strategy of reengagement with the west and convince it to address the crisis.
The most pertinent question now is how to navigate the delicate military-civilian balance to ensure an end to the crackdown, humanitarian aid access – both in Bangladesh and for those who stayed behind in Myanmar - and voluntary and safe returns of refugees, says van den Assum. Meanwhile, long lines of Rohingya refugees continue to snake through a wet landscape and across muddy fields on their way to Bangladesh, where another humanitarian crisis awaits them.