A Failure To Protect: Ethnic Cleansing In Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi, the first and current State Counselor of Myanmar, helped to propel the country towards democracy after spending several years as a political prisoner. Despite the leadership of a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the Burmese government has committed massive human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority group.  According to Doctors Without Borders, State Security Forces have killed around 7,000 Rohingya, including 730 children, since August 2017. Survivors have reported gang rapes, disappearances and village burnings. The organization also claims that more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh. The Burmese government denies these allegations and says that it was fighting militant groups. What’s more, it estimates the number of dead at only 400 people. However, The United Nations Fact-Finding Mission concluded that State Security Forces had committed crimes against humanity, as well as war crimes and genocide. Myanmar has previously engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and continues to deny them legal equality.

The Fact-Finding Mission will report to the UN Human Rights Commission on September 18th. However, the organization has already recommended that charges be brought against Burmese military officials. It has also called for further investigation into genocide. Yet the international response to the mass murders of the Rohingya has been tepid at best, with countries taking limited punitive measures against Myanmar. Suu Kyi, who holds no direct control over the State Security Forces, has also remained silent over the massacre of the Rohingya people. Both the international community and Myanmar’s political officials must take stronger measures to protect the Rohingya and rectify historical oppression.


A Failure To Protect

Myanmar has been historically raft by ethnic conflict which has been exacerbated by the harsh rule of the State Security Forces. Although the country has made major strides towards democracy under Suu Kyi, the State Security maintains a stronghold over the government. That is because Myanmar’s constitution grants it the power over key institutions. Security Forces have implemented genocidal policies under the guise of national security and have shielded themselves from criticism by jailing opposition. Just this month, two reporters for Reuters were convicted under the Official Secrets Act for reporting on the atrocities committed against the Rohingya. Not only do the Security Forces have the governmental authority to perpetuate mass violence but they also have the political capital to block official criticism. American Enterprise Institute fellow, Clay Fuller, explains that Myanmar’s internal policies make it difficult for Suu Kyi to condemn the State Security Forces or to facilitate international intervention. Mr. Clay Fuller states that should she “take a stand against the government, she could go back into house arrest, and Myanmar could go back down the route of extreme military control.” As such, Suu Kyi has expended little outward effort in pressuring the military to halt its campaign. Nevertheless, her silence on the military’s ethnic cleansing has rendered her complicit in the brutalization of thousands. Her party has refused to cooperate with the United Nations. It has also refused journalists and aid groups access to the country. Those actions both enable the Security Forces behaviour and actively undermine external accountability efforts. Lack of constituent support for the Rohingya, rooted in long-standing ethnic tensions, has further discouraged political leaders from taking protective action.

With domestic change unlikely to happen on its own, the legal burden falls on the international community to intervene. A 1948 Convention obliges states to take actions to prevent genocide. Yet countries remain reluctant to name or prevent the act when it is committed. With Myanmar in particular, geopolitical motives have complicated countries’ willingness to condemn or punish the Burmese government. Both China and Russia, two major global powers with vetoes on the Security Council, have been strengthening their ties with Myanmar in recent years. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia and China are the two largest exporters of weapons to Myanmar. Beyond directly enabling a violent military led regime, the two countries are also expected to prevent the UN Security Council from passing resolutions on the issue. As a result, Russia and China are most likely to veto the necessary resolution to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, thus limiting the avenues for actual prosecution. However, Russia and China are not the only countries complicit in genocide. Japan and Singapore have continued to invest in Myanmar, buffering the country against sanctions imposed by the European Union, Canada, and the United States.


Where To Go From Here

In the short term, the international community should take punitive action against not only Myanmar but also against countries that cooperate with the brutal regime. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation, Nikki Haley, has made general statements condemning “some members of the council [who have] kept us from taking action for cynical and self-interested reasons.” Should China and Russia continue to undermine actions of the United Nations, officials should consider direct criticism that mentions complicit countries by name. This would increase the social and diplomatic pressures on countries to aid the UN. Beyond that, sanctions enacted by Myanmar’s primary economic partners could be efficient at enforcing domestic change. Myanmar is already struggling to maintain foreign capital flow, in part due to the conflict in the Rakhine state, and declining investment could provide the political impetus necessary to get the government to cooperate with the UN. The United Nations Security Council  should continue its investigation into the Rohingya massacre and should, if applicable, refer the case to the International Criminal Court. The international community should also consider creating a tribunal, similar to that erected in response to the Rwandan genocide, to prosecute crimes against humanity committed by Burmese military officials. Prosecution of crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya is crucial not only in providing justice to victims but also in showing other countries that ethnic cleansing will not be tolerated.

Beyond that, the international community should also provide support in the ongoing repatriation efforts between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the country with the majority of Rohingya refugees. The UN could assist in facilitating talks between the two, while peacekeepers could provide logistical support to facilitate the return of the Rohingua people. However, before this can take place Myanmar must create protections for the Rohingya to ensure that mass violence will not occur again. This means extending citizenship to the Rohingya and, possibly, giving the group special political powers and representation. Power-sharing governmental systems in other countries have been able to rectify internal conflict, and may be of use in regions heavily populated by the Rohingya.

In the long term, Myanmar should consider revising its constitution to make the government more democratic. The military should be put under the leadership of a democratically elected official and should be subject to checks and balances with other branches. The military should not have control over civil institutions and also should not be afforded the one forth of the parliamentary seats that it is currently given to it. Finally, Suu Kyi should consider resigning as a way to officially acknowledge the crimes committed against the Rohingya and her role in enabling the violence. This would be an important step towards institutional recognition of the historical oppression of ethnic minorities.

The Rohingya massacre is the latest manifestation of long standing  political and social problems plaguing Myanmar. Thus, any effective solution will be multifaceted and will include institutional reform. The international community’s response in particular will be crucial in solidifying norms regarding an obligation to protect against atrocious crimes.