By William McPherson
In August/September 2017, around 500,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh, trying to escape a violent crackdown by the Myanmar military. The latest round of violence towards the Rohingya people began at the end of August — after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group attacked and killed 12 Myanmar security personnel. There have been reports from fleeing refugees of elite Myanmar soldiers killing or violently forcing Rohingya Muslims from their homes, stealing and burning properties as they move from village to village.
The Myanmar civilian government, led by State Counsellor (Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military leadership have rejected the accusation of targeting civilians, saying the army is just conducting anti-terrorism raids against militant groups. As human rights groups, the media, and international observers are unable to gain access into Rakhine state, where most of the violence has taken place, verifying the claims and reports been made either by the fleeing Rohingya Muslims or the military has been impossible. The only evidence are photos and videos from refugees in camps in Bangladesh and satellite images of burning villages.
The Military operation in August/September 2017 has shown how weak Ms Suu Kyi is when dealing with internal security issues, as the civilian government does not have control over the military and police. The real power is still in the hands of the generals, not the civilian government. As such, the military are the perpetrating actors in committing these human right abuses — and more emphasis on their actions is required, rather than criticism toward Ms Suu Kyi. Even if personally Ms Suu Kyi, a former human rights and democracy campaigner, might want to advocate for the protection of the Rohingya Muslims, she seems to lack political, military and public support.
Although Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 elections, the constitution bestows real power to the military, who are allocated 25 percent of seats in parliament, and also are not under the authority of the civilian government. The NLD have to be causes when dealing with such a delicate issue as minority groups, as apart from the military dislike, there is also hatred for Muslims by a majority Buddhist population. In recent decades there has been an increase in Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the Ma Ba Tha, who have fuelled tensions between the two communities since its founding in 2013. With no authority over the military and a hatred by some of the Buddhist population, Ms Suu Kyi has been balancing between trying to enact reforms on the one hand and appease the military and nationalist groups on the other.
To make the crisis even more direr for the Rohingya Muslims, the latter do not hold citizenship rights neither in Myanmar (where they are called Bengali Muslims) nor in Bangladesh. In essence, the one million Rohingya Muslims are stateless. In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalists — who view them as Bengali migrants — have persecuted this group for decades. Without recognition or rights, they have become a forgotten ethnic group, with limited recourse to basic healthcare, education, and employment.
Since the latest military crackdown, human rights groups and the United Nations (UN) have condemned the violence and called for the halting of security operations against the Rohingya Muslims. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, has said that the security operation against the Rohingya Muslims ‘seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has also spoken of a need to halt the violent military operations.
At a recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting, member states further condemned the military for the violent crackdown, with French President Emmanuel Macron calling the actions of the military as ‘genocide’. U.S Vice President Mike Pence also condemned the military violence and called for the UN and UNSC ‘to take strong and swift action to bring this crisis to an end — and give hope and help to the Rohingya people in their hour of need.’ There has been condemnation by some world leaders towards the Myanmar government and military, but no joint agreement on how the international community could place further pressure on these institutions.
If Ms Suu Kyi is correct in her claim that the military have stopped ‘clearance operations,’ the current situation in the region will hopefully stabilise, allowing refugees to return. The issue now is how the international community and the Myanmar government can work together to prevent future violence and improve the lives of Rohingya Muslims.
In the near-term, the international community needs to place pressure, through the threat of economic sanctions or other embargos on both the civilian government and military, aimed at the immediate halt to the violent crackdown. There also needs to be an increased role for UN and other humanitarian agencies to assist the Myanmar government in its responsibility to protect. This could be undertaken by acting as a mediator between the government and the Rohingya Muslims. An ideal situation would be an agreement between the Myanmar government/military and the international community to send a UN observer mission to Rakhine state to oversee the repatriation of returning refugees and the delivery of aid. The UN mission should also have the mandate to observe the military operations and report back to the UNSC on any human rights abuses.
The second way forward in dealing with the crisis is for the international community to work with the Myanmar government to carry out the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The Myanmar government-established commission, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, outlines a list of recommendations to improve living conditions for Rohingya Muslims, including ending restrictions on citizenship, marriage, and freedom of movement; and improving health care and education. To undertake these recommendations by the commission, the Myanmar government has established a Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State. In a statement released by the Myanmar President’s office, the committee has been given a list of duties: including, improving living condition, equal access to education and healthcare, and efforts to bring peace and security to the region. Many of the duties outlined by the government, do not specifically adhere to protecting or improving the lives of the persecuted Rohingya Muslims, just to the population in Rakhine state in general. As the Kofi Annan led commission’s recommendations were only released in August 2017, there has been no major reforms, except for the establishment of an implementation committee. So far the Myanmar government have indicated that the reforms will be conducted in-house, with a planned formation of an advisory commission, with international experts. These are all good steps, but the international community should be more involved in the implementing the recommended reforms.
These recommendations are the ideal process for preventing future violence and improving the lives of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, although the military and its major international supporter, China, would likely block a UN observer mission. For instance, due to China’s national interest, they might block any UN-led mission in the case of objection by Myanmar military. Even the civilian government would be powerless to agree to an UN-led mission without the support of the military leadership.
In the short term, the only option available to the international community to protect Rohingya Muslims displaced in Myanmar and returning refugees is to monitor the situation from afar and continue to place pressure on the Myanmar government and military. We will need to see if the civilian government has enough power and political will to effectively carry out the recommendations of the advisory commission.
As for the long term, if the situation for the Rohingya Muslims does not improve and they still face human right abuses and discrimination, the international community may require more forceful measures to put pressure on the Myanmar military. Even though sanctions on the military would lack China’s support, placing more unilateral embargoes by the U.S, European countries, and other states could be a measure to be considered.
William McPherson is a MA: International Relations and Security graduate from University of Westminster, London. He is interested in many topics within the field of international relations and security, but his main focus is on humanitarian intervention, and the Responsibility to Protect. He has previously worked in the defence and security sector, including an internship at Risk Intelligence Solutions (RIS), based in Perth, Australia.