The Unmaking of Myanmar

SPOTLIGHT, 25 Sep 2017

Sara Perria | Centre for International Governance Innovation – TRANSCEND Media Service

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have recently crossed into Bangladesh in search of safety. Just weeks before the exodus, journalist Sara Perria went to Myanmar to understand the origins of the conflict, the complex views around the minority group and the role of the international community in their aid. 

Charred remains of Rohingya men, women and children in the Penindasan village.
Muslim Voice | for peace and reconciliation

21 Sep 2017 – In the largest mass movement of refugees in southeast Asia for decades, more than 400,000 Muslims fleeing a sweeping offensive by the Myanmar army against Rohingya insurgents have walked, swum and taken boats to Bangladesh in the space of three weeks. About 30,000 Buddhists and Hindus are also reported to have fled violence in Myanmar’s coastal state of Rakhine.

The scale of the crackdown and exodus, accounts by refugees of extrajudicial killings and — according to the United Nations — satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages have led to accusations against Myanmar of ethnic cleansing of the mostly stateless minority.

The alarming scenes along the border have put the region under the microscope over the past week, with leaders around the world condemning the persecution of the Rohingya and calling for Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, to take action and speak out.

On Tuesday, she did, addressing officials and foreign diplomats gathered in the capital Nay Pyi Taw in a televised address in English. She said action would be taken “against all people regardless of their religion, race and political position, who go against the law of the land and violate human rights.” Responding to international pressure she said diplomats and aid officials would be granted access to Rakhine, and said a verification process for the return of refugees would begin.

But in what foreign observers saw as her government’s state of denial, Suu Kyi did not address accusations of ethnic cleansing and said there had been no armed clashes and no military “clearance operations” since September 5, despite evidence to the contrary.

“We are concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border… We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she said.

Her address may have disappointed many in the West seeking a clearer position from the Nobel laureate but it went down well among many in Myanmar who share little sympathy for the Rohingya in general and blame terrorists for the violence.

Last week, on September 11, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that the Myanmar military operation was “clearly disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law.” He noted the offensive followed coordinated attacks by Rohingya militants on August 25 against 30 police posts and an army camp in northern Rakhine.

“Because Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators, the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed. But the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” he said.

With thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) still on the move inside Rakhine and some 120,000 Rohingya confined to IDP camps since inter-communal violence erupted in 2012, the numbers indicate that well over half of the entire Rohingya population in the state has been displaced by conflict over the past five years. The 2014 census indicated the Rohingya were estimated to number about 1.1 million, or about one third of the total population in Rakhine. Many of their ancestors were brought in from Bengal as rice labourers and administrators by Britain, the former colonial rulers, in the late 1800s when Burma (as it was then called) was incorporated into India.

As the UN and aid agencies scramble to keep up with the mounting influx, the scale of the military campaign, with unconfirmed reports of more than 1,000 deaths, has caught the international community off guard. And yet, as noted earlier this month by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “the current crisis was neither unpredicted nor unpreventable.”

The persecution of the Rohingya — as many, but not all, of the Muslims in Rakhine State call themselves — has been well documented for decades. According to the UNHCR, Bangladesh was already hosting some 164,000 “undocumented Myanmar nationals” from previous influxes, some dating back to the 1970s and 1990s. Saudi Arabia is estimated by the UNHCR to have received up to 200,000 Rohingya after the 1994 exodus to Bangladesh, while 50,000 went to Pakistan. Over 100,000 Rohingya are believed to have moved to Malaysia, mostly illegally, as a ready source of cheap labour, and some 2,000 are estimated to have died at sea — victims of human traffickers — after the violence of 2012.

A Rohingya refugee boy looks on as he stands in a queue to receive relief supplies given by local people in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 16, 2017.
REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

An advisory commission on Rakhine set up last year by the Myanmar government and led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan delved into the numbers. “Some ten percent of the world’s stateless people live in Myanmar, and the Muslims in Rakhine constitute the single biggest stateless community in the world,” its final report read.

State-enforced segregation of the Rohingya communities began in 2012 with deprivation of basic rights — such as freedom of movement, ready access to health care and higher education. This gave rise to armed militancy, as many analysts and others had warned, and, last October, Harakah al Yaqin (‘Faith Movement’ in Arabic) burst onto the scene in coordinated attacks on border posts, killing nine police. The ensuing counter-offensive by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, over the following weeks drove over 87,000 Muslims into Bangladesh, many bearing accounts of mass rape, village burning and summary killings.

The insurgent movement later rebranded itself in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), with some analysts seeing the change of name as an attempt to mask its Islamist origins and stress its ethnic identity. The crudely armed militant group names its leader as Attaullah Abu Ammar Jununi, who is reported to be a Rohingya born in Pakistan and educated in a madrassa in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The group, which communicates via Twitter, as well as Viber and WeChat, says it is fighting for the “liberation of persecuted Rohingya.” While it invokes Allah, its propaganda does not appear overtly Islamist, although veteran journalist Bertil Lintner cites unnamed intelligence analysts as saying the group’s mentor is Abdus Qadous Burmi, who is based in Karachi and has close links with the Islamic terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. ARSA has recently denied such links.

Myanmar has pronounced it a “terrorist” group and rejected its declaration of a unilateral ceasefire to take effect from September 10, with the stated objective of allowing in humanitarian aid.

ICG has reported that ARSA village-level cells are mostly led by young Islamic clerics or scholars from those villages. “Its stated aim is not to impose Sharia (Islamic law), but rather to stop persecution of Rohingya and secure their rights and greater autonomy as Myanmar citizens, notwithstanding that its approach is likely to harden attitudes in the country and seriously set back those goals,” ICG reported. ARSA militants are also reported to have killed Rohingya civilians seen as state collaborators. Lintner estimates its fighters number fewer than 500 but include veterans of other conflicts, such as Afghanistan.

Significantly ARSA launched its August 25 attacks across a wide area of three townships just one day after Annan’s Rakhine commission released its final report, which stressed the need to resolve all issues in the context of a poverty-stricken state where the Buddhist Rakhine majority also lives in desperate conditions and harbours its own historic grievances against the central government and the nationally dominant ethnic Bamar.

“The timing of the attacks after the Annan recommendations was not coincidental,” says Gabrielle Aron, an expert in conflict sensitivity in Rakhine. “[ARSA] wanted to capitalize on the maximum international attention and it was a message of rejection of a non-violent solution,” she says.

Crucially Annan recommended a serious and urgent process to address the issues of citizenship and residency; freedom of movement and the end of segregation; closure of IDP camps and access to education and public services.

“Reintegration, not segregation, is the best path to long-term stability and development in Rakhine State,” the report stated.

Suu Kyi had asked Annan to make “bold” recommendations and she got them. Within hours, her office issued a lengthy statement welcoming the report and broadly embracing its proposals.

“We will give the report our full consideration with a view to carrying out the recommendations to the fullest extent, and within the shortest timeframe possible, in line with the situation on the ground. We hope to set out a full roadmap for implementation in the coming weeks,” she said in a statement. On September 12, the government appointed a ministerial-led committee responsible for implementation.

Suu Kyi’s broad acceptance of the report immediately placed her on collision course with powerful nationalists among the Buddhist clergy as well as the Myanmar military which had tried but failed in parliament, where it holds 25 percent of seats, to abolish the Annan commission. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief, has repeatedly stated that the “Bengalis” — as previous governments have referred to the Rohingya — are not one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar and do not belong there. The military criticized the Annan report as “flawed and full of shortcomings.”

Many Burmese who voted for Suu Kyi and support her government would agree with the hardline stance of the military. After decades of brutal authoritarian rule the Tatmadaw is now bathing in public acclaim as defenders of the nation and Buddhist faith. Outside Myanmar, General Min Aung Hlaing has also been greeted and fêted in a number of European and Asian countries even while his forces were expelling Rohingya from Rakhine State.

“It is Suu Kyi rather than the military who has borne the brunt of international condemnation.”

He addressed the European Union Military Committee in Brussels with assembled military dignitaries last November and was received in Germany, Austria and Italy, visiting aviation and defence companies despite an existing EU ban on weapons exports to Myanmar. Only in recent days did the US and UK announce they were ending their limited cooperation and training with the Myanmar military.

Under the 2008 constitution written by the military, there is no civilian control over the Tatmadaw, which also heads three key ministries — defence, interior and border affairs — and runs the civil service at local level.

Despite all this it is Suu Kyi rather than the military who has bore the brunt of international condemnation, with many calling for her to be stripped of her Nobel peace prize due to her perceived silence over the military crackdown.

Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s former foreign minister, and Allan Rock, former ambassador to the UN, joined those calls, declaring in a recent opinion piece that “to allow her to retain that unique honour in light of her shameful conduct would demean the distinction and diminish its lustre.” (In the joint piece published by the Globe and Mail, they erroneously stated that Suu Kyi had “given no sign that she will accept” the Annan proposals.)

Concerted pressure from the international community in the form of sanctions and embargoes is likely to be blunted at the level of the UN Security Council by China and possibly Russia. Beijing could try to exploit the crisis in Rakhine to halt what it fears is a political and military reorientation towards the West initiated by the Tatmadaw as part of the country’s transition to a partial democracy. Nonetheless, the humanitarian disaster still unfolding in Rakhine and among the new refugee camps in Bangladesh is high on the agenda of heads of state and government meeting this week at the UN General Assembly.

The crisis has already rekindled a fierce debate within the UN and international aid agencies over whether their past intervention in Rakhine State through development aid and managing IDP camps in effect sustained the status quo of enforced segregation and the resulting spiral of violence.

A crisis already long-term in nature

A few months ago in the state capital Sittwe — long before the world was as tuned into the crisis as it is this week — a crucial topic of conversation among aid workers revolved around latrines.

Conceived as temporary when built five years ago, the septic tanks are now inadequate for thousands of IDPs still crammed inside the sprawl of squalid shelters in camps close to the city.

The camps in this part of central Rakhine State, these days holding around 120,000 IDPs, were originally seen by the international community as an emergency and temporary resort following the 2012 explosion of violence in which nearly 200 people died.

As time passed and a new generation was being born in confinement, the state of the latrines became an unpleasant reminder of the bigger dilemma confronting the international community. In discussions over improving drainage systems, concrete and even a special worm that can absorb waste, the word “permanent” began to pop up. But if toilets are set to become more robust and long-lasting, then was the international community — UN agencies, NGOs and governments — in effect endorsing and perpetuating a state-sponsored policy of institutionalized segregation forced upon the stateless Rohingya?

The Myanmar government’s involvement in the IDP camps is scant; they are effectively run by UN agencies and INGOs, providing drinking and running water, food, medical assistance and safety.

“We have fallen into a vicious circle like idiots,” says a senior UN aid worker in Rakhine who asks not to be named. “There is a lack of ‘ownership’ of the Muslim population and Myanmar thinks they are ‘ours.’”

Just as donors were starting to question this prolongation of the status quo, conditions in the camps remained grim and, in some places, inhuman. Rakhine State is one of the rainiest areas in the world during the monsoon season from May to September.

Some areas in the IDP camps near Pawktaw, an hour’s boat ride from Sittwe, are below sea level. The first showers churned up a squalid patchwork of earth and puddles, leaving plastic bottles floating among flimsy bamboo shacks. In May Cyclone Mora caused damage of over $1.5m, tearing apart 1,440 makeshift shelters housing 8,000 people.

Diarrhoeal diseases, typhoid and tuberculosis are endemic in some of these open air prison camps. IDPs are not allowed out to work or study, and even Rohingya living in their homes in what is known as the “ghetto” in central Sittwe are severely restricted in their movements.

“We are all ill,” says Mohamed, standing by his bamboo house in Pawktaw.

After five years, all the risk factors of a prolonged internment have materialized: not only endemic illnesses but also violence, rape, drug and alcohol abuse and early marriages. International organizations even told this reporter of finding dead bodies, with murders within the community not isolated occurrences.

Signs are surfacing of the long-term impact of segregation that are building obstacles to possible reconciliation between the two communities. Children in some camps are growing up unable to speak Rakhine — the language of the state’s majority — or Burmese, the national language. Most of their parents speak both. Instead the children only speak Rohingya, which is also called Bengali by the IDPs and is related to Chittagonian.

Dependence is creeping in. Those few given the offer by the government of resettling back in their homes, mostly close to the camps, are known to have asked for continuation of humanitarian help as a precondition.

The majority, though, want to get out.

“We are waiting. It depends on the government what happens to us,” said Saedul, a few weeks before the latest explosion of violence. “We want to go back to our villages.”

In the Maungdaw district of northern Rakhine — the centre of conflict — malnutrition levels are among the highest in the world, according to the WHO and UNICEF. The area was cut off from aid for months after last year’s military sweep. International staff were allowed back into the area only accompanied by government officials, a condition they had to accept while effectively left to run camps such as Pawktaw, less than 90 km to the south.

“The situation in Rakhine has striking resemblances with Sri Lanka in 2008,” says Charles Petrie, former UN resident coordinator in Myanmar and author of a landmark report on the failure of the UN in Sri Lanka, where a 26-year war resulted in over 100,000 people dead.

The UN concluded that “a systemic failure” occurred there as it failed to protect the Tamil civilians caught up in the conflict. Lack of political and strategical know-how by senior staff in dealing with armed conflicts and human rights was not counterbalanced at the level of headquarters, leading to excessive compromise with the government and self-censorship to gain humanitarian access.

A Rohingya boy stands in an IDP camp outside Kyaukpyu in Rakhine State, Myanmar on May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Petrie’s report led to the development of the Human Rights Up Front doctrine, implying the prioritization of human rights when considering the consequences of UN operations – whether in development or governance.

The departure from Myanmar in June this year — 18 months ahead of schedule — of the UN resident coordinator, Renata Dessallien, a Canadian, has again brought this issue to the fore. Dessallien had been much criticized within the UN internal pro-rights faction for her focus on development projects and working closely with the military-backed authorities in Rakhine without pressing for basic civil rights for the Rohingya. The announcement of her departure came as an internal UN report leaked to the press defined the UN in Myanmar as “deeply dysfunctional.”

The findings echoed those of an earlier internal UN report, Slippery Slope: helping victims or supporting system of abuse? Authored by Liam Mahony, an expert in civilian protection and human rights, and issued in late 2015 following a mass exodus of Rohingya by sea, the report warns the UN of the consequences of its approach in Myanmar, accusing it of failing “to take into account that investing in a discriminatory structure run by discriminatory state actors is more likely to reinforce discrimination than change it.”

Mahony wrote: “A long-term approach has become the excuse for a wait and see approach.” He also notes that the UN skated over awkward issues, such as talking about the 2012 “inter-communal” clashes between Buddhists and Muslims while omitting mention of the role of organized forces led by “individuals in leadership positions” behind the violence.

Slippery Slope accuses the world body of being compliant, by offering quiet and uncritical support to Myanmar’s discriminatory and often inhumane policies without condition. The UN was losing “the opportunity to influence how the state redefines itself,” it says.

Mahony’s report, commissioned by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was suppressed within the UN and not widely distributed.

Petrie, ordered out of Myanmar by the military regime in 2007 for comments on the monks’ Saffron Revolution, says the UN needs to work on both tracks.

“To push the development agenda is fine, but it can’t be the only one. Myanmar is not a development issue or a human rights issue: it’s both,” he said in an interview. “It’s how you bring all these things together and that’s what’s missing in the UN,” he said. “And that’s what happened in Sri Lanka.”

In both cases, the lack of a senior level of accountability resulted in different sectors of the UN competing with each other. “You need a very, very senior person in the Secretary-General’s office with an overall strategy that calibrates how much development and how much human rights policy has to be pushed. In this way, the secretary general would be just one component,” Petrie added.

Finding the right response

The Myanmar people’s perception of international intervention reflects this confusion, which is feeding resentment.

A spartan former colonial house in central Sittwe hosts the headquarters of the Arakan National Party (ANP), the party of nationalist Rakhine Buddhists which emerged as the largest party in the state assembly in the 2015 elections, but without a majority. Sitting in a dark room at a dusty table, just weeks before the recent escalation of the conflict, ANP Vice President Khine Rya Soe set out his stall.

“Islamization is expanding and Buddhists have to rise up to defend themselves,” he says, reflecting the popular narrative among Rakhine that their land — celebrated for its ancient kingdom of Mrauk U which was sacked by the Burmese in 1784 — stands as a bulwark against Muslim hordes beyond the border.

Khine Rya Soe goes on to slam the role of the international community in Rakhine.

“The UN and INGOs should not be here, unless they finance development. They should build infrastructure, not give food and medicines,” he says. “But for them the priority is the Bengalis.”

The ANP has a tense relationship with Suu Kyi’s NLD and the central government which appointed an NLD member as Rakhine State chief minister against ANP calls to be given the top position.

As a result, Rakhine’s power structure forms a tense triangle between the two parties and the military, which controls one quarter of the legislative assembly and much of the state bureaucracy. The Tatmadaw has also had to deal with a sporadic but sometimes effective insurgency by Buddhist militants of the Arakan Army, formed in 2009 and based in Kachin State to the north.

On top of this, anti-Muslim rhetoric spread by influential ultra-nationalist monks, such as Mandalay-based Wirathu, has penetrated deeply into the delicate Rakhine fabric.

“The UN and NGOs are on the side of the Bengalis, while the government wants to exploit our resources,” says Shwe Zai De, a well-known monk in Sittwe’s main monastery.

Buddhists and Muslims now live separately because nobody trusts each other anymore, he says. “The Bengali have to figure out why they are living alone.” For him, the reported rapes and killings in Maungdaw by the security forces last year are just accusations and “nothing happened.”

“If we accept the Bengalis back, nobody will be guaranteed,” he says. “We’ve been sold out and we are now squeezed between Burmization and Islamization,” he says.

Some foreign observers saw a close relationship at work between the nationalist Ma Ba Tha association of monks in fomenting the 2012 violence and the military which then moved quickly to move Rohingya out of their villages and into camps.

The Tatmadaw has skillfully exploited this rhetoric to the point of turning in its favour all the ancient grievances of the Rakhine Buddhists such as poverty, foreign threats and central government oppression.

When the UN started operations in Rakhine decades ago, it would not engage directly with the military as part of its mandate dictated by donors. As a result the international community became identified as solely supporting the Muslim minority, exacerbating entrenched grievances and hostility among Buddhists. This pattern was repeated after the 2012 violence and in 2014 international offices were attacked by mobs in Sittwe and Médecins Sans Frontières was forced to leave for several months.

The threat of violence and the risk that the international community would be expelled from Myanmar resulted in a push by the UN and INGOs to present themselves as more balanced players in the conflict by seeking a broader engagement with the Buddhist majority.

But instead of bringing communities closer, this attempt resulted in an increased separation of development aid aimed at the Buddhist Rakhines and humanitarian help for the Muslims.

This implicit separation of intents left scope for the government to leave the international community in charge of the Muslim “problem” and focusing on development projects likely to benefit primarily the Rakhine population as long as the Muslims remained stateless, denied freedom of movement and access to jobs and health care.

“The international community became identified as solely supporting the Muslim minority.”

The international community struggled to find the right formula. “The danger is that if you accept the current circumstances, you end up supporting a political agenda for segregation,” says a senior UN official operating in Rakhine who does not want to be named. “As humanitarians we are not asking for miracles, we ask the government to take more responsibility and find sustainable durable solutions: this is what we haven’t seen.”

Instead local politicians insist the answer is one of development, not civil rights.

As Kyaw Aye Thein, Rakhine’s NLD finance minister, said in an interview: “More widespread wealth is the key to peace. Most people are very poor here: if they had job opportunities they won’t have time to think about the problems.”

Organizations involved in Rakhine said a lack of commitment to real change by both the local and central government amounted to efforts to “buy time.”

“Local politicians never go to the camps,” commented one INGO worker.

“Myanmar politicians are very smart at continuously diverting the attention to other smaller problems, similarly to what used to happen with Israel in Palestine,” says another senior UN aid worker in Sittwe.

Criticism from abroad of Suu Kyi has kept mounting, despite her acceptance of Annan’s preliminary findings in March, with progress slow to materialize. Under pressure from all sides, her public strategy was to stay defensive and in denial.

The president’s spokesperson famously used the expression “fake rapes” to deny allegations of crimes against humanity committed by the military last year, while on September 5 Suu Kyi blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” as it emerged that many pictures of alleged atrocities spreading on social media were fake. However, two days later she said the government had “to take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens.” Once again she did not mention the Rohingya who had fled.

Sittwe’s NLD secretary, Kaung San Hla, admits that Suu Kyi “has to take responsibility for peace and stability in Rakhine and the respect of the rule of law.” Significantly though, like the other local politicians who spoke to OpenCanada, he appears in denial over the real conditions faced by Muslims who used to be their neighbours in Sittwe and are now languishing in camps.

“Things are slowly improving,” said Kaung San Hla, speaking before the current crisis. “Everybody wants to live peacefully and the military is protecting our country. The international community should stop talking about the conflict. They agitate people.”

The China factor

Events in Rakhine have produced another unexpected outcome: China appears to be emerging as the winner during the Suu Kyi era.

The military’s decision in 2011 to chart a path towards limited democracy for Myanmar, with the expectation of an end to Western sanctions, has been interpreted by some analysts as driven in large part by a desire to counterbalance the growing influence of China, its powerful neighbour to the north and east. At that point the game started to turn in favour of the United States: the Obama administration reciprocated, and Suu Kyi — then still opposition leader — sealed her close relationship with Hillary Clinton with a string of Myanmar’s precious pearls. Most remaining US sanctions were lifted after the military accepted the NLD’s landslide victory in the 2015 elections.

Donald Trump’s surprise victory last year left many wondering how this would impact Myanmar. His statements on Muslims, threats to cut funding to the United Nations and his intention to limit China’s influence could all have been interpreted as positive for the Tatmadaw. Suu Kyi’s close ties with members of the Republican Party, such as John McCain and Mitch McConnell, who had praised Suu Kyi in 2016 for taking the route of Margaret Thatcher and “accepting responsibilities,” also helped provide a sense of continuity.

But all has shifted again. China voted against a proposal in the UN Human Rights Council in March to condemn the violence in Rakhine, while the US voiced its support. A few weeks earlier, China had “disassociated” itself from the council’s decision to send a fact-finding mission, and Suu Kyi’s government refused to allow the mission into the country, in the face of US objections.

The White House issued a strongly worded statement on September 11 condemning ARSA for its attacks of August 25 and the “ensuing violence.” Burmese security forces were not protecting civilians, it said. “We are alarmed by the allegations of human rights abuses, including extra judicial killings, burning of villages, massacres and rape by security forces and by civilians acting with these forces’ consent.”

The Trump administration called on the Myanmar military to respect the rule of law, stop the violence and end the displacement of civilians from all communities. Acknowledging the division of powers within Myanmar, the US also called on the military to work with the elected government in implementing Annan’s recommendations for Rakhine State, and welcomed the government’s commitment to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches all victims as quickly as possible. However, there has been no mention of renewed sanctions so far.

Despite progress on the sanctions front, US investors have not rushed to seize the opportunities presented by the arrival of a new and substantial emerging market. Instead China has continued to invest heavily in infrastructure in Myanmar, expanding its outreach in the region through its massive pan-Eurasian Belt and Road initiative.

Men work at the process of extracting crude oil on the seashore in Kyaukpyu township, Rakhine state, Myanmar — where China has heavily invested. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

In Rakhine, China is involved in one of the most controversial projects in the country — the Kyaukphyu special economic zone, where a dual gas and oil pipeline on the coast connects the state to China’s  province of Yunnan, strategically important in reducing China’s reliance on routing tankers from the Gulf through the Strait of Malacca.

In 2012 a Muslim community of mostly Kaman people — an ethnic group officially recognized by Myanmar — was forced out of Kyaukphyu township and into IDP camps with the same restriction of movement as the Rohingya.

China — or at least Yunnan-based factions within the ruling party system — has at the same time played a destabilizing role along the fringes of Shan state, backing armed groups with ethnic or historical ties to China in their struggle against the Myanmar military and central government. While China publicly supported the stop-go peace process in Myanmar, its role effectively contributed to the prevailing stalemate, with large border areas in the east continuing as self-governing, drug-running buffer states under strong Chinese influence.

Until the latest eruption of violence in Rakhine, the long brewing crisis had not stopped either of the two superpowers from pursuing their policy of engagement with Myanmar’s hybrid of military and government-rule. Both navies — the US in March for the first time since World War II, and China two months later — sent vessels that docked in Yangon’s Thilawa port.

China is clearly no longer alone in what is becoming a crowded field in terms of Myanmar’s expansion of political and economic ties, but if anything the Rakhine conflict is pushing Myanmar back in the direction of its powerful neighbour, which has its own experiences of exerting brutal control over Muslim minorities. The US also appears concerned over what it suspects is Myanmar’s continued relationship with North Korea, another example of the military’s persistent and murky role at the core of the country.

High hopes for the United Nations?

On the ground though, few among Rakhine’s Muslims displaced by conflict expect any direct support from either superpower. Instead there is a feeling that the ‘international community’ — however nebulous and largely interpreted as the UN — should help them. Statements of support from Muslim leaders, such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have raised hopes.

Rohingya lawyer Kyaw Hla Aung, who spent years in prison and is now confined in a camp outside Sittwe, commented: “We were expecting things to improve after the West lifted sanctions, but they should reintroduce them because things got only worse. Only the UN can help.”

But with the UN struggling to find a new direction both in Myanmar and on a global level, few have high expectations of a decisive response.

At his swearing-in ceremony in December 2016, Antonio Guterres, then the UN’s Secretary-General-designate, said development would form the centre of the UN’s work, but within a “comprehensive reform of the UN development system — both at headquarters and country levels.” He also underlined the need to “bring humanitarian and development spheres closer together from the very beginning of the crisis.”

This week, Guterres renewed his call on Myanmar to tackle the crisis.

“A vicious cycle of persecution, discrimination, radicalization and violent repression has led more than 400,000 desperate people to flee, putting regional stability at risk,” he said on September 19, at the opening of the General Assembly’s high-level debate.

He called on Myanmar to end its military operations, allow unhindered humanitarian access and recognize the right of refugees to return in safety and dignity. The Myanmar authorities must also address the grievances of the Rohingya, whose status has been left unresolved for far too long, he added.

Petrie commented that the UN was losing its ability to raise funds and hence its raison d’etre. “The United Nations should be less about delivering and far more about setting standards and adhering to principles. Guterres understands this. It’s whether he is able to get the system to follow,” he says.

Abdul Rasheed, a Rohingya activist in Yangon where the minority sustains a thriving business community, reflects the views of many by addressing the root of the problem. “We don’t want humanitarian help,” he says. “That’s like paracetamol. We want our rights restored.”

He believes the military will not implement Annan’s recommendations and says the Tatamadaw’s aim is to “eliminate” the Rohingya.

“We are against any terrorism,” he added. “But the military has to control itself.”


Sara Perria is a freelance journalist specializing in Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

OpenCanada is a digital publication sitting at the intersection of public policy, scholarship and journalism. We produce multimedia content to explain, analyze and tell stories about the increasingly complex and rapidly shifting world of foreign policy and international affairs.

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