As the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis is increasingly fading from the international media and public discourse, the United Nations Security Council’s decision to commemorate the anniversary of the Myanmar Army’s crackdown on the ethnic group is a welcome development. The UNSC has decided to mark the one-year anniversary of the military operation against the ethnic group on August 25, according to the President of the UNSC Karen Pierce, the British Ambassador to the United Nations. But the question remains whether such symbolic actions will be of any consequence, especially in the context of the previous failures of the international community, absence of any substantive actions in the past year and growing ‘compassion fatigue’.
The crackdown of the last year, which is described by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as ethnic cleansing, has resulted in the displacement of at least 750,000 Rohingyas in the past year. They have fled to Bangladesh, where they joined previously displaced hundreds and thousands of fellow Myanmar citizens. Almost a million refugees are now living in squalid conditions in makeshift camps in the vulnerable hilly district of Cox’s Bazaar of Bangladesh with little hope for a quick solution to a complex crisis.
The catastrophic events since August 2017, particularly the scale of atrocities and the number of refugees, has prompted significant media attention and discussions, but the recent developments need to be located within the history of the crisis. The socio-political history of the Rohingya community, which has been subjected to various studies in the past decades, needs no reiteration, suffice it to say that the claim of the Myanmar government that Rohingyas, most of whom are adherents of Islam, are recent settlers is false. Abdul Karim’s study titled The Rohingyas: A Short Account of Their History and Culturepublished in 2000 by the Arakan Historical Society provides a detailed description in this regard. The history of the independent Myanmar and the path to the genocide of the Rohingya community is documented in an excellent study by Azeem Ibrahim titled The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide(London: C J Hurst, 2016). Kazi Fahmida Farzana’s Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees: Contested Identity and Belonging(New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017), and edited volume The Rohingya in South Asia: People Without a Stateby Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury and Ranabir Samaddar (London: Routledge, 2018) bear the testimonies of the Rohingyas statelessness and its larger implications.
These studies demonstrate that the Rohingya crisis is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon with a long history. It has both domestic and global dimensions. Of these, I would like to highlight four aspects which are pertinent to the current situation and future trajectories of the crisis; they are the recurrent pattern of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, state policy of expulsion, rise of Buddhist extremism and the political-economy of the development pursued by the Myanmar government in Rakhine state.
The current exodus of the Rohingyas to Bangladesh is not the first instance of refugees taking shelter in Bangladesh. Since 1977, there have been five episodes of influxes – three large scale and two small scale. In 1977-78, more than 200,000 people fled to Bangladesh because of military operations in Rakhine in the context of registration of citizens and screening out foreigners for a national census. Except for 20,000, all refugees were repatriated through a bilateral arrangement. The second major influx took place in 1992 when the presence of the Myanmar military in Rakhine state increased and Rohingyas were facing persecution. The number stood at about 250,000. Through international involvement and bilateral talks, about 230,000 returned. There was a smaller influx in 1997 and a not-so-successful repatriation process. The fourth episode took place in 2012, in the context of violence of Buddhists against Rohingyas (or Muslims). Although Bangladeshi authorities refused to accept the refugees and pushed back boatloads of Rohingyas, few thousands of 80,000 displaced Rohingyas found ways to enter the country. The latest episode began with a smaller influx in October 2016, when an estimated 90,000 Rohingyas crossed the border after some insurgent activities and security operations by the Myanmar military. The Bangladesh government attempted to stop the refugees crossing the border. However, with the attacks on police posts in August 2017 by the ragtag insurgent group called Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), the number of arrivals reached an unprecedented level, about 700,000.These episodes clearly indicate that this episode is not a response to the insurgent activities but the result of a long-standing policy of the Myanmar military and the government.
There are other evidences which corroborate the point that the Myanmar state has been engaged in a long-term project of expelling the Rohingyas. Rohingyas received the National Registration Cards (NRC), issued under the residents of Burma registration Rules 1951 until 1970 when the government stopped issuing any cards to the Rohingyas. Additionally, in 1974 during the security operation NRCs of thousands of Rohingyas were confiscated which were never returned. The 1982 Burma Citizenship Act, which created a three-tier citizenship effectively denied Rohingyas the Burmese nationality; besides, its Section 44 didn’t include the Rohingya language as a national language. In July 1995, the regime issued new cards to all Rohingya residents. But these cards were called the Temporary Registration Card (TRC). This action was taken under the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act and the 1951 Residents of Burma Registration Rules. These laws were made defunct by the 1982 Citizenship Law, yet they were reintroduced to use solely for the registration of Rohingyas. In 2012, in the wake of violence against the Rohingyas, Burma’s President Thein Sein had asked the U.N. refugee agency to place ethnic Rohingyas living in the country in refugee camps or send them abroad. He said, “We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingyas who came to Burma illegally are not of our ethnic nationalities and we cannot accept them here.” In the 2014 national census, the term Rohingya was replaced with Bengali, and the voters roll of 2015 elections didn’t include the Rohingyas and other IDPs living in camps. The country officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups and Rohingyas were removed from this list in 1982. Consequently, in the peace efforts with various ethnic rebel groups, launched in 2013 and culminated in October 2015, under the military regime, it excluded the Rohingyas. The conferences organized by the Suu Kyi government in August 2016 and May 2017 regarding the National Ceasefire Agreement didn’t involve Rohingyas.
If the policy of gradual expulsion was in place and was being practiced for long why has it reached to extreme heights in 2016-17? In other words, what changed? The most important element is the proliferation of an exclusionary nationalism. The military regimes, since the 1970s, had actively cultivated a deep-seated prejudice against non-Buddhists and non-Bamar populations. The racist, xenophobic and exclusionary nationalism propagated by the regime paved the way for the rise of the MaBaTha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion), an extreme Buddhist nationalist movement, after the liberalization began in the 2011. Represented by Ashin Wirathu and Ashin Wimala, the movement received the support of the military establishment and political parties. The already ingrained Islamophobia in Myanmar due to colonial history accelerated due to the rise of Islamophobia worldwide. The politics of expediency has influenced the political parties to tacitly support this trend.
The business interest of China and India is crucial in understanding the current political economy of development policy of the Myanmar government. Although land grabbing, particularly by the military is not new, the Rakhine state has become a prime land in recent years, thanks to the planned investments of China and India. Since 2011, Myanmar has accelerated its drive for economic development which has reached a new height after the civilian government of Suu Kyi came to power. Investments from China, which was always the principal backer of Myanmar, have skyrocketed. Among the development projects are a $7.2 billion deep-sea port to be built by China in the Rakhine state, a transnational pipeline built by China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) connecting Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, to Kunming, China (which began operations in September 2013), and a pipeline to send Middle East oil from the Kyaukphyu port to China. Besides, India has funded the Kaladan multi-modal project which is designed to provide a sea-river-land link to its remote northeast through the Sittwe port. As such, the Myanmar military and the government felt the need to seize the moment and expediate the ethnic cleansing.
The Failure of the Western Countries
These domestic political and economic developments were matched by the economic interests of Western companies and a flawed foreign policy of the Western governments including the Obama administration. For example, the Obama administration’s decision, followed by the EU in 2013, to lift all sanctions (except the arms embargo) ignored the signs of strains between Rohingyas and Buddhists, particularly the violence in 2012. The ‘no-stick-all-carrot’ policy has helped the Myanmar regime. As available data show, western companies had made significant investments in the past decade and western governments have paid little attention to the ongoing ethnic persecutions when they were insisting on democratization of Myanmar.
Besides, by 2015, it became evident that Rohingyas were facing an imminent danger and a mass atrocity was in the making. An in-depth and detailed report published by the International State Crime Initiative titled, ‘Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar’ insisted that the country has reached the brink of a genocide. Thomas MacManus, of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University, told US Public Televisionin 2018, how they reached to the conclusion. He said, “We know, from comparing genocides of the past, that there are clear stages. … Stage one is stigmatization. Stage two is harassment. After that, we have isolation — people are moved into camps. Stage four is systemic weakening — remove health care, don’t allow any votes. Stage five, which is annihilation.” MacManus said, in 2015, the Rohingya appeared to be facing stage five.
Despite such clear warnings, the international community failed to take note of it, let alone act to prevent the imminent crisis.
Back to The Present
As the refugee crisis began to unfold in August 2015, there were calls from Human Rights groups to the international community, particularly to the UN to act quickly and decisively. But, except for issuing a strong statement in November 2017, a few months after the beginning of the humanitarian crisis, the UNSC is yet to take any concrete steps. The visit of the UNSC members in late April and the joint visit of the UN Secretary General Guterres and the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in July to the camps and face-to-face meeting with the refugees, have yielded very little progress towards any solution to this humanitarian catastrophe. The recalcitrant Myanmar government and its military could remain oblivious to the plight of a million people because of the inaction of the international community.
Beside the UNSC, other UN bodies have also failed to hold the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing accountable. For example, on June 6, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) signed an agreement with the government of Myanmar for the repatriation of some the Rohingya refugees. The terms of the agreement have been kept secret. The leaked document reveals that the citizenship of Rohingya, a fundamental source of the plight of the Rohingyas, have been ignored in the deal.
As we know, since the crisis unfolded, thanks to the unqualified support of global powers like China and Russia, and regional powers like India, the Myanmar government continues to enjoy impunity. Worst is that the Myanmar government is trying to create a smokescreen and deceive the international community in various ways. The latest effort came on July 31, when the President’s office appointed ‘an independent commission’ to investigate allegations of human rights violations in the Rakhine state. It is not so difficult to understand that appointment of a commission, that to a year after the atrocities akin to genocide, and after likely erasure of evidence, is intended only to whitewash the crimes committed and deflect international pressure.
The recent pressure has emanated from the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) initiative to investigate Myanmar officials for committing crimes against humanity as stipulated under Article 7(1)(d). The Article makes ‘Deportation or forcible transfer of population’ a crime against humanity. In April, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the court’s judges to rule on whether the ICC “can exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh.” The argument is that although Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, as the victims have crossed the international border to a signatory state, it falls within the remit of the ICC to hold the perpetrators accountable. Consequently, in May, the ICC asked Bangladesh ‘to submit observations, either publicly or confidentially, to the prosecutor on three specific matters since Bangladesh has been affected by the deportation of Rohingya populations from Myanmar.’ The ICC’s request to Bangladesh was to furnish information and opinion on three specific matters; they were: “(i) The circumstances surrounding the presence of members of the Rohingya people from Myanmar on the territory of Bangladesh; (ii) The possibility of the Court’s exercise of territorial jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of members of the Rohingya people from Myanmar into Bangladesh; and (iii) Any other matter in connection with the prosecutor’s request that, in the opinion of the competent authorities of Bangladesh, would assist the Chamber in its determination of this Request.” Bangladesh opted for confidential response and reportedly concurred on the ICC’s jurisdiction. The Judges of the ICC, in June, gave Myanmar until July 27, 2018 to respond to a prosecution request that they consider hearing a case on the alleged deportation of Rohingya minorities. (Whether Myanmar has responded to the request is not known as of writing the commentary on August 3, 2018).
Myanmar has repeatedly contested the ICC’s jurisdiction, but apparently is trying to provide an impression that it is internally addressing the issue. Such a move is to show that a case in the ICC is inadmissible. Because, Article 17 of the Statute, which deals with the admissibility stipulates that a case will be inadmissible if, ‘The case is being investigated or prosecuted by a State which has jurisdiction over it’ or ‘The case has been investigated by a State which has jurisdiction over it and the State has decided not to prosecute the person concerned’ or ‘The person concerned has already been tried for conduct which is the subject of the complaint’. Thus far, one of the reasons that the ICC Office of the Prosecutor gave to proceed with the process was the provision that ‘State is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution.’
This so-called four-member independent commission has no credibility despite two members from outside the country; besides, if the Myanmar government was sincere in finding the crimes committed by its army it would have cooperated with an existing investigating panel: the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM). Myanmar’s refusal to cooperate with the FFM and not allowing UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, to the country are clear proof of its intention of exonerating the perpetrators rather than holding them accountable.
In a similar kind of tokenism, the Myanmar government fired Major General Maung Maung Soe, the head of western command in Rakhine during the assault on Rohingya villages, after EU and Canada imposed direct sanctions on him and six other officers in late June. Neither General Soe nor any other official has faced any prosecution. There is very little possibility of that to take place.
What Can the International Community Do?
While some people insist that there are very few tools left to the international community to compel Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees with dignity and security, others have asked the international community to be imaginative. For example, some observers and policy analysts have brought up the “The Protected Return to Protected Homeland” (PR2PH) plan, presented at the Berlin Conference on Myanmar Genocide in February this year by the members of the global Rohingya community and their supporters, has gained traction (C R Abrar,The Daily Star, April 10, 2018). The proposed PR2PH plan requires setting a “safe zone” within a wide area of the country and deploying international forces to ensure safety of the inhabitants, including bringing the refugees back to the protected area.
The presence of the international community has been considered in the report of Rob Rae, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Special Envoy to Myanmar. Rae has said that Myanmar can no longer enjoy impunity and recommended that “Canada should lead a discussion on the need to establish an international, impartial and independent mechanism (IIIM or “Triple I-M”) for potential crimes in Myanmar, such as was established by the UN General Assembly for Syria” (Rob Rae, “Tell them we’re human” What Canada and the world can do about the Rohingya crisis”, Global Affairs Canada, April 2018).
Alongside these actions, arguments have been for targeting the flow of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) and Official Development Assistance (ODA). It is well recorded that in 2016, the largest ODA to Myanmar came from Japan (USD 507 million), followed by the United Kingdom (USD 144 mn) and the USA (USD 132 mn). As for FDI, it is now well known that “there are about 300 EU investors with the combined portfolio of more than USD 6 billion in Myanmar, some in collaboration with private partners and others with various government departments” (Tapan Bose, June Agreement On Rohingya Crisis: Misses the central issue of citizenship’, Daily Star, July 9, 2018). These can be used as instruments to put pressure on Myanmar.
While Human Rights activists around the world are clamoring for actions and exploring various options which would not be stopped by the threat of veto by Russia and China at the UNSC, the Trump administration is dragging its feet, thanks to the internal fight between the State Department and Treasury Department. According to Politico, ‘Roughly three months ago, State Department officials recommended that eight to ten Myanmar officials face U.S. financial sanctions, according to three people familiar with the situation. The Treasury Department, however, has refused to sign off on the proposal’ (Nahal Toosi, ‘Trump officials split over punishing Myanmar for atrocities’, Politico, July 31, 2018).
Notwithstanding the symbolic importance of the UNSC to commemorate the anniversary of the crackdown against the Rohingyas, the international community must recognize that it cannot be an alternative to robust actions in solving the crisis and holding perpetrators of genocide accountable. The effort of the ICC has raised hopes of the victims. But lest we forget that an ICC trial, even if it ever takes place, will not contribute to the return of the Rohingyas. For that, the international community needs to devise ways to put pressure on Myanmar. The question is will it do so or fail the Rohingyas again.
Ali Riaz is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University