Beware a new age of isolation for Myanmar

Sanctions are not likely to lead to solutions for Rohingya

Trevor Wilson

PHOTO: EPA/HEIN HTET

Government and governance, International relations | Asia, Southeast Asia

30 November 2018

The wave of sanctions imposed by the international community because of the treatment of Rohingya people are unlikely to encourage the Myanmar authorities to find a solution, Trevor Wilson writes.

Myanmar’s Rohingya problem threatens to drive Myanmar into a new period of international isolation, seriously disrupting Myanmar’s political transition to democracy, shattering National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation, and turning domestic Myanmar sentiment fiercely against the Rohingya.

All this is happening as hopes fade of repatriating the more than 700,000 Rohingya from ‘temporary’ camps in Bangladesh to their former ‘home’ in northern Rakhine State, and fears grow that Myanmar might resort to forced repatriation.

Myanmar’s new isolation from the international community is coming about through the re-imposition of Western sanctions against targeted members of the Myanmar military. These military personnel are responsible for human rights abuses committed by the Myanmar Army against landless and stateless Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar in August 2017.

Sanctions outside the United Nations have been announced in recent weeks by a series of Western states: the United States, Canada, the European Union (EU) and, most recently, Australia.

This wave of sanctions came after the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the United Nations Human Rights Council released its report into human rights abuses against the Rohingya at the end of August 2018. The report was based on more than 800 interviews with Rohingya victims of human rights abuses at the hands of the Myanmar military.

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The FFM report found evidence of the Myanmar Army leaders engaging in what it said amounted to the “gravest crimes under international law”, and called for them to face charges before the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

It rejected the argument that military necessity could justify indiscriminate killings, gang raping of women, and burning of entire villages. The report claimed that there was evidence of a pattern of military behaviour against the Rohingya that showed pre-planning and “genocidal intent”.

While the FFM report was not based on direct access to relevant areas in Myanmar and does not constitute a formal UN response, it left little doubt about the extent and gravity of the human rights violations that occurred. The report also found that the Myanmar civilian authorities had contributed to the commission of atrocities through their actions and omissions.

The re-emergence of sanctions

It is only a few short years since earlier unilateral sanctions against Myanmar were lifted in 2011-12, after being applied in a less-than-uniform way following the Myanmar military’s suppression of a popular uprising against the regime of former General Ne Win in 1988.

While the new sanctions are reasonably well concerted, they anticipate (and are instead of) consideration by the UN Security Council, where any proposed measures against Myanmar may face a veto by Myanmar’s friends among the Permanent Five members, Russia and/or China.

Sanctions on their own are unlikely to change the Myanmar authorities’ reluctance to give priority to finding a political solution to the Rohingya problem.

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Indeed, the Suu Kyi-led Myanmar Government finds itself faced with increasing domestic resentment against the Rohingya, as ultra-nationalist Buddhists fan domestic hostility against Islam in general and against the Rohingya in particular. Action inside Myanmar to implement anti-vilification measures could help moderate this anti-Rohingya campaign, but does not seem likely to happen.

Ineffective responses by various UN programs inside Myanmar in recent years seem to have undermined the credibility of the United Nations in the eyes of the Myanmar Government. This credibility gap means it is doubtful that the UN can help much in dealing with some ongoing breaches of human rights.

Exaggerated expectations of Myanmar on the part of various activist groups do not necessarily help the country address sensitive problems in its political transition. They certainly do not help at a time when meaningful engagement with Myanmar is becoming more complicated. Unrealistic international expectations of Suu Kyi as de facto leader of Myanmar’s government have not helped either.

Encouraging a transparent political transition in Myanmar

It would be regrettable if Myanmar’s ongoing political transition were to face resistance from Myanmar’s military leadership, which plays an important role in consolidating the country’s political transition. Practical options for essential ongoing engagement with the Myanmar military may become more important for the international community, but these options may not be initiated by Myanmar’s military on its own. Modest defence-to-defence collaboration with Myanmar might still be needed, with an emphasis on the humanitarian aspects of socio-economic development.

More effective international support for Myanmar’s political transition would also be helpful. This includes political support as well as essential capacity building, for example, for Myanmar’s infant parliamentary system by international agencies such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Capacity building in the country should be focused on strengthening any institutions that can genuinely underpin Myanmar’s transition to democracy, such as complete media freedom.

Expediting progress in consolidating a nationwide peace agreement on the basis of a gradual progress of implementing cease-fires with ethnic communities will also be an important element in a broader political transition. This is supposedly already a priority of Aung San Suu Kyi.

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Extending genuine, non-discriminatory ethnic access to national economic, health and education programs is extremely important, not just for the Rohingya, but also for most of Myanmar’s ethnic communities. They need to recognise that participating in such nationwide political tasks can bring concrete benefits for all ethnic groups.

Some international donors of official development assistance, such as the EU, are already implementing generous support programs in Myanmar. These programs need to be expanded, and expedited. The world’s international financial institutions also need to redouble their efforts to underpin Myanmar’s political transition through effective infrastructure and institutional support.

Myanmar’s own choices and decisions about Myanmar’s future are obviously critical, and need to be respected. It is not realistic for the international community to try to impose its wishes on Myanmar. Encouraging openness and transparency in Myanmar will be as important as anything for a satisfactory political transition in Myanmar.

However, recent experience suggests that once Myanmar sees itself as isolated and victimised, it can be much harder to influence it to change its approach.

We don’t have time to waste if we want to make real progress on the Rohingyas. For any number of reasons, not the least of which is humanitarian, restoring some kind of ‘normalcy’ to their situation, and their daily lifestyle, is becoming increasingly urgent.

Leaving governments to impose solutions indirectly through sanctions will not work, and could quickly and easily lead to a repeat of the situation that brought us to this point: where nationalistic goals of a majority group are used to achieve ideological objectives and substitute a false sense of security.

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