The international community’s failure to address Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis has resulted in massive displacement from Rakhine state. The crisis poses a clear threat to Myanmar’s democratic transition. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support strong Security Council action and push for multilateral and bilateral engagement with Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders.
Since Crisis Group’s warning in its February Watch List, Rakhine state’s “alarming trajectory” has deteriorated further. The views of most people in Myanmar and those of much of the international community on the crisis are diametrically opposed. Domestically, the situation is seen to stem from terrorist attacks and a legitimate security response to them; internationally, the focus is on the disproportionate military response to those attacks involving serious abuses characterised as possible crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s political direction in relation to the crisis has now been set and is very unlikely to be altered. Views domestically and internationally are hardening in different directions, with huge implications for domestic politics and Myanmar’s standing in the world.
At the open session of the UN Security Council on 28 September, there was consensus among many members on four points: (1) ending the military operation and vigilante attacks on Rohingya; (2) giving unfettered humanitarian access to northern Rakhine state to UN agencies and their INGO partners; (3) ensuring a safe, voluntary and sustainable return of refugees from Bangladesh to their original places of origin in Myanmar; and (4) addressing the underlying problems through implementation as soon as possible of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission, in particular the need to expedite the citizenship verification process and to ensure that those granted citizenship are able to enjoy associated rights.
Failure to address the immediate humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state – through concerted efforts to end attacks and protect civilians as well as urgent humanitarian assistance to Rohingya communities still in Myanmar who are already on the move – have aggravated the crisis and triggered the departure of tens of thousands more Rohingya to Bangladesh, who have been arriving in recent days. Only the UN has the capacity to quickly deliver assistance at the required scale, and in a way that will reassure the international community that needs of all communities are being met. The main reason for this second wave of departures must also be clear: it is not a lack of food or humanitarian assistance per se, but rather restrictions and insecurity that deprive people of their normal means of survival, whether farming, fishing, foraging or trading.
Likewise, failure to make significant progress on voluntary refugee returns under UN High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) auspices, and begin to address the root causes of the crisis through implementation of the Annan commission recommendations, will leave a huge population in Bangladesh of some 700,000 people who have fled over the last year. This group of traumatised people with no hope for the future could easily be taken advantage of by militants and transnational jihadist groups for their own ends, which could create deep instability in Myanmar and the wider region. Some may attempt to cross the Andaman Sea by boat to Malaysia once the monsoon recedes in the next month or so, facilitated by people-smuggling networks, risking a repeat of the maritime migration crisis of 2015.
Myanmar’s actions are already aggravating the terrorist threat. On 3 September, a senior leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen called for attacks on Myanmar and its leaders in response to the treatment of the Rohingya. On 13 September, al-Qaeda appealed to its members to support the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militancy and warned that Myanmar would face “punishment” for its “crimes”. Although ARSA issued a statement the following day stating that it had no links with “any transnational terrorist group” and “did not welcome the involvement of such groups in the conflict”, the risk of other groups manipulating the situation is significant, as is the possibility of terrorist attacks elsewhere in Myanmar from outside the country, whether directed or inspired by transnational jihadist groups. Tellingly in this regard, an Egyptian militant group named Hasm claimed responsibility for a blast at the Myanmar embassy in Cairo on 30 September.
Furthermore, the crisis represents a grave threat to Myanmar’s transition. It has unleashed a wave of strong nationalist sentiment and greatly amplified and reinforced bigoted views. There is extremely strong support in the country for Suu Kyi’s position and the military’s approach. The risk is that once such narrow nationalist sentiments take hold, unopposed by the democratically-elected government, they will constrain future government responses to the crisis and set the country once again on a path to international pariah status. This will make it much more difficult for Myanmar to forge an inclusive national identity, essential for such an ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse country. And it would hinder progress on the peace process, whose success requires national consensus on granting greater political authority and economic resources to minority communities and areas. Anti-Western sentiment, currently running high, also could be entrenched.
Suu Kyi does not have the authority under the constitution to order the military to take a different approach, but through the president has the power to convene military leaders. However, her most powerful tool is her undisputed position as the person in the country enjoying the greatest political and moral authority. This gives her the power to sway public opinion, and considerable ability to influence the security forces; her speech to the nation on 12 October contained some positive signals in this regard. Efforts to shift the domestic narrative may come at a cost to both her political support and relations with the military. However, the risk of the military attempting to take complete power, or launch a coup, is very low; the military spent more than twenty years preparing the current constitutional arrangement and putting it in place, and from their perspective the transition has been much more successful than they might have expected. They would see a return to military rule as a failure of their generational project, to be avoided at all costs.
Recommendations for the EU and its member states
Immediate priorities remain those articulated by a number of members in the 28 September Security Council briefing: ending state and vigilante violence and village destruction; unfettered humanitarian access for the UN and INGOs; ensuring voluntary return of refugees to places of origin in line with international law; and timely implementation of the Annan commission’s recommendations. To work toward these priorities, and in light of the 16 October EU’s Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, the EU and its member states should:
- Continue to support strong Security Council scrutiny and action.
- Continue to support strong, principled multilateral and bilateral engagement with Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders in order to chart a way out of the crisis.
- Support efforts to ensure accountability for rights violations in northern Rakhine state.
- Encourage Suu Kyi to speak to the nation and make full use of her position to shift the national narrative in a more constructive direction.
A return to previous forms of bilateral and EU sanctions on Myanmar in the form of travel bans and asset freezes may not be helpful in achieving concrete progress, and risks constraining future policy options as well as sending unintended signals to investors that could impact on the economy, to the detriment of ordinary Myanmar people.