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The Rohingya crisis: One year on

  • Published at 06:18 pm September 2nd, 2018
Hung out to dry / MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Ineffective Western powers and a servile Myanmar civilian government do not bode well for the future of the Rohingya

The UN Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar has finally published its report on the forced expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh over the course of a year.

The report is as strong as one could have expected.

It calls for the referral of senior military generals to the International Criminal Court for the crime of genocide but, more interestingly, it also admonishes the civilian leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for being complicit in the violence for using her office to shield the military from international criticism.

So, can we expect a change of course from the international community?

Unfortunately, despite the actions of the military being designated a genocide, Western leaders continue to expect Myanmar to hold its own internal enquiry.

The US and its Western allies had earlier imposed some limited sanctions on certain individuals in the military chain of command, who were previously directly identified as engaged in coordinating the “clearing” efforts.

However, these sanctions did not extend up to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the military and de facto continuity leader of the former military junta in the country.

And the domestic political dynamics of the country mean there is little hope of accountability for the perpetrators in the short term, as being demanded by the West.

Internally, power in Myanmar is contested between the parts of the state which continue to be administered directly by the former military junta -- areas such as defense, security, foreign policy, and many of the central economic concerns -- and the democratically elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Hybrid constitution

Under Myanmar’s recent hybrid constitution, the commander-in-chief the de jure and de facto whip hand over the civilian government. The military can do whatever it wants in the areas under its power, without censure from any other institution of state, but the commander-in-chief retains a full and unconstrained veto over any initiative by the civilian government.

Of course, there is nothing to stop the military from simply re-assuming direct control over all aspects of the state, should they feel their position threatened.

Nevertheless, Western leaders continue to show their reluctance to exert too much pressure on Ms Suu Kyi for fear of undermining the little progress Myanmar has in fact made towards democracy and opening up to the world.

It is feared that if international pressure makes Ms Suu Kyi’s position untenable, this will make it more likely that the military will re-assert direct control over the country and move the country firmly within the sphere of influence of China.

For its part, China is likely to veto any referral to the ICC or Security Council resolution against Myanmar. China has grand designs for Myanmar. It is currently building a high-speed rail link across the entire country, as well as a deep-water port near Sittwe, to facilitate China’s Silk Road initiative.

Sittwe is the capital of the Rohingya home state of Rakhine, and continues to be home to a significant, but increasingly isolated, Rohingya ghetto.

As within their own territory, China has little patience for any kind of “unrest,” and is fully supportive of Myanmar’s crackdown, in the hope that a categorical if brutal removal of the Rohingya from the region would enhance the security of its own economic and infrastructure concerns in the area.

International players

China’s backing has also inhibited the response of other international players. The UK government, for example, has taken up the baton of championing the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya from the US after the end of the Obama administration, but has avoided bringing criminal charges against Myanmar at the International Criminal Court, citing primarily the expectation of a Chinese veto.

As things are stacked now, Aung San Suu Kyi will happily continue to soak international criticism, her government and China will continue to support the military’s actions and position, and the West and the UN will continue to complain but fail to take any meaningful and effective action beyond providing (barely adequate) humanitarian relief to the Rohingya who have made it to Bangladesh.

Yet, it is not clear whether this situation is sustainable. Not least because neither Bangladesh nor international humanitarian leaders seem willing to accept the reality that the Rohingya are quite likely there to stay in Cox’s Bazaar.

And the international community, especially the West, would accept their responsibility for their non-existent response so far, and agree to offer Bangladesh all the financial and logistical support it needs to achieve this, agree to help the Rohingya rebuild the refugee shanty towns around Cox’s Bazaar into liveable communities, as well as offer incentives and economic support to native Bangladeshis to develop shared economic ties with the emergent Rohingya towns.

This is something that Western leadership could achieve, and can afford to do. What is lacking on the part of our leaders is vision and interest. In the age of Trump, we seem to have lost the power of our conviction, and perhaps even the moral backbone, to take charge of the issue and help Bangladesh and the Rohingya build a sustainable and mutually beneficial future together.

One year on, the Rohingya are as insecure in their individual and collective existence as they were in August last year. The only relief is that at least nobody is actively setting their communities on fire, or actively chasing them across a border.

At least for now. 

Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim. This article previously appeared on Al-Arabiya.