Australia as a peacebuilder in Myanmar

Can the country use its seat on the Human Rights Council to push for peace?

Isaac Kfir

PHOTO: AP

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, Southeast Asia

23 November 2017

Australia has a proud history of peacebuilding and peacemaking in Southeast Asia, and the Rohingya of Myanmar are in desperate need of help. Isaac Kfir argues that Australia needs to put its seat at the top table of global human rights to good use in the region.

On 1 January 2018, Australia will assume its seat on the UN Human Rights Council. The post will emphasise Australia’s commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights.

Even though the Rohingya crisis no longer occupies the front pages, it is imperative that the matter is not ignored. Over 600,000 Rohingya languish in makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar’s army has just acquitted itself of any wrongdoing.

Australia has experience in peacebuilding, especially when it comes to Southeast Asia. In the 1980s, Cambodia had been ravaged by war, genocide and invasion. Its politics were factionalised, with each faction having a powerful sponsor: China backed the Khmer Rouge and a broad coalition of Sihanoukists, while the US-backed the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, and the Soviet Union backed Hun Sen.

Gareth Evans, Australia’s foreign minister at the time, took the position that Australia as a middle power, and a good international citizen, had an important role to play in bringing peace to Cambodia. As a result, Australia led the military forces in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. Subsequently, elections were held, and the country was pacified.

On 1 November, Aung San Suu Kyi visited the Maungdaw region of Rakhine state, home to Myanmar’s Rohingya, saying to the people there that “they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other.”

‘The Lady’, as Suu Kyi is known, didn’t say how the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who are languishing in temporary refugee camps in Bangladesh could return, or whether the government would cease discriminating against them. In a televised address the next day, she said that she would invite aid agencies, businesses and NGOs to help provide humanitarian support.

It seems clear that Myanmar’s government is only interested in humanitarian aid and not in addressing the root cause of the crisis, which is the military’s systematic discrimination against the Rohingya.

More on this: Should Australia intervene in Myanmar?

There are three main internal challenges to peacemaking and peacebuilding in Myanmar.

First, the country is home to more than 130 different ethnic groups, many of whom live along Myanmar’s international trade routes where much of the country’s natural resources (copper, silver, lumber and precious minerals) are located.

Buddhists make up the majority of Myanmar’s population, and it is they who run the Tatmadaw (the armed forces). In addition to fighting the Muslim Rohingya, the Tatmadaw also fights against the Chin and Kachin, many of whom are Christians, in the north and northwest. Since 2009, over 100,000 ethnic Kachins and Kokangs have escaped to China’s Yunnan Province. To the south and southwest, the army operates against the Karen.

Second, the military is the principal actor in Myanmar. Under the 2008 Constitution, its commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, holds three ministries – defence, border affairs and home affairs, as well as the Bureau of Special Operations, to whom the Western Command is answerable. Hlaing exercises complete authority over the enforcement of legislation and appoints one-quarter of all legislators. Under the Constitution, the Tatmadaw is an independent, autonomous entity free of civilian control or oversight. It can wrestle control back from the legislature if there’s a threat of a ‘coup’.

Third, as State Counsellor, Suu Kyi is committed to doing nothing that would shatter the fragile relationship between the civilian polity and the military. She recognises that to challenge the military would mean an end to civilian rule.

In 2012, her National League for Democracy (NLD) unsuccessfully attempted to reform the constitution to weaken the Tatmadaw’s hold on the political process. The military undermined the NLD’s agenda, concerned that democratisation could lead to demands for justice, accountability and further political reform. That the military was able to act with impunity against the Rohingya has shown the firm hold that it has over Suu Kyi and the NLD.

It’s in Australia’s interest to lead in efforts to stabilise the Myanmar situation, both because of the country’s commitment to human rights, and because Australia cannot allow a regional actor to regularly carry out ethnic cleansing against minority communities.

More on this: Violence obscures policy proposals for Rohingya

Worryingly, the plight of the Rohingya is already appearing in jihadi propaganda, and the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azar, has called on the faithful to help them. In September, al-Qaeda issued a statement declaring that Myanmar will be punished for its ‘crimes against the Rohingyas’. In 2016, Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the head of Islamic State in Bangladesh in an interview to the Islamic State magazine Dabiq, vowed that his organisation will carry out operations in Myanmar.

Further trouble in Myanmar could have an impact on regional stability. If the military and the government continue to make it hard for Rohingya people to return (Suu Kyi has indicated that those returning would have to go through a verification process, i.e. the government would decide if those returning have proven that they are Myanmar residents, a rather difficult issue for people who have no papers or documents), or carry out further operations against the Rohingya who remain, this is likely to further destabilise Bangladesh. As it is, Myanmar’s Islamic neighbour can ill afford to cater for the 600,000 refugees who are already there.

There could also be serious implications for Pakistan, which houses 50,000 refugees, as well as Indonesia and Malaysia who have around 400,000 Rohingya refugees between them.

Australia could call for support from Germany, which has been playing a key role in Myanmar’s development. China should also be part of negotiations, as it is home to thousands of refugees who fled the Tatmadaw’s campaign against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

Myanmar’s government is likely to welcome Chinese involvement in peacemaking because Beijing has consistently ensured that the UN would not take tough measures against Myanmar.

More on this: Diplomatic protection for the stateless Rohingya

Notably, Beijing, which has provided aid for the Rohingya in Bangladesh, has opted to refer to them as ‘displaced persons’ and not ‘Rohingya’ – a term rejected by the Tatmadaw.

Myanmar has an important role to play in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which is why China’s CITIC Group is seeking to invest around $6 billion in building a port in Kyaukpyu, Rakhine State. It was unsurprising that on Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a press conference with Suu Kyi, announced that China intends to build an economic corridor from the Yunnan Province to Mandalay and to Yangon in the east and Kyaukpyu in the west. Once complete the corridor will provide China with easy access to the Indian Ocean. As part of the economic corridor, China and Myanmar will start operating a $1.5 billion pipeline in next year, as Myanmar intends to exploit the oil in the Bay of Bengal.

Peacemaking and peacebuilding in Myanmar will need to focus on ensuring economic rights. The Tatmadaw wants to control the economy, as this safeguards its dominance. However, this is also what places the military in direct conflict with many ethnic groups, who resent the disproportionate power given to the military by the 2008 Constitution.

At the same time, many in Myanmar recognise that the country can’t prosper without drastic change to its economy, and that depends on peace; foreign companies are unlikely to invest if there’s turbulence.

This is where Australia can step in, drawing on its experience in Cambodia to help the factions negotiate and ensuring that its seat at the top table of human rights is put to essential good use.

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