Establishing Accountability Instead Of Sanctions In Myanmar


In 1962 Myanmar’s military overthrew its elected government. The military junta has been in power ever since, creating a controlling regime which Freedom House has described as one of the most repressive in the world. In recent years the military junta has also committed severe human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Members of this group are denied citizenship and are targeted by discriminatory state policies: a Human Rights Council’s fact-finding report, published in August 2018, suggested that these policies result in “a continuing situation of severe, systemic and institutionalized oppression from birth to death.” According to Freedom House, Rohingya Muslims are also barred from land ownership, secondary education, freedom of movement, and various civil service jobs. Freedom House notes that these policies are based on the grounds that the Rohingya community’s ancestors did not reside in Burma in 1824, a requirement under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Human Rights Council’s report also suggested that the country’s security forces were actively involved in violence against the Rohingya Muslims, with evidence found that they were involved in mass-rape and murder. The report goes on to suggests that “genocidal intent” can be inferred and ought to be further investigated. These human rights issues have received considerable attention from the international community over the past thirty years. However, thus far the international response has failed to either protect the Rohingya Muslims or resolve the country’s underlying political problems.

Attempts to pressure the government to comply with human rights law through sanctions have repeatedly failed. Back in 1998 Amnesty International criticized this strategy, suggesting that, “for all the statements, for all the sanctions, for all the promises of engagement producing results, things in Myanmar have only got worse. And it’s not difficult to see why… Myanmar has continued to receive comfort from China, from its A.S.E.A.N. partners, and from companies and investors willing to keep their mouths shut while doing business there… The time has come for other governments to make this an issue with each other, not just with the generals in Yangon. Genuine concerted action by all parts of the international community could turn this situation around.” In the same statement, Amnesty International urged the international community to ensure that human rights was an agenda topic at all regional and international meetings, to press Myanmar’s government to allow United Nations (U.N.) access, and to carefully evaluate investments in the country to ensure they do not contribute to human rights violations. Since 1998, various sanctions on Myanmar have been established and lifted. As recently as June 2018, Canada and the EU imposed new sanctions on Myanmar. According to Reuters, they were aimed at several senior military officers, including the general in charge of the operation that allegedly drove over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country.

The international community continues to face these challenges in addressing human rights issues in Myanmar, but thankfully more meaningful strategies are being pursued. On September 27th, the UN decided to create a team to collect and document evidence of alleged human rights crimes committed against the Muslim Rohingya minority and others. This evidence could be eventually used to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. According to the Associated Press, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council voted to create this team to be an “independent mechanism” and a counterpart to the previously authorized fact-finding mission. This team would secure evidence that could be eventually used to pursue criminal indictments, which is something that the fact-finding mission could not accomplish on its own. Although this is a significant step towards establishing accountability for alleged human rights violations, it is already being resisted by Myanmar’s authorities. The Associated Press also reported that it has been criticized by one of Myanmar’s ambassadors, Kyaw Moe Tun. The ambassador suggested that the resolution was based on unverifiable information from the Human Rights Council’s recent fact-finding report. Despite this criticism, it is necessary for the international community to attempt to identify and create accountability for these alleged human rights violations. This could be an effective strategy with the potential to improve the political situation in Myanmar over time. By discrediting those responsible for these violations, the international community is also discrediting those countries and organizations that continue to support or defend them.

The international community should support these steps, and recognize the importance of the creation of the UN team to compile and present evidence to support these allegations of human rights violations. However, this is a lengthy process to resolve crises that have persisted over decades. In the meantime, the international community ought to take concrete measures to mitigate damage that these violations are having on the Muslim Rohingya minority. The international community should also invest resources into identifying the root causes of these persistent problems. Several strategies have already been developed and established internationally. In 2017 the Canadian government sent a Special Envoy to Myanmar to produce a report of recommendations for long-term and short-term Canadian action. The Canadian government has since reported that its response will focus on the following four objectives: alleviating humanitarian crises, encouraging positive political developments, ensuring accountability, and enhancing cooperation internationally. This involves concrete measures, such as improving living conditions for Muslim Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh and resettling refugees when possible. These seem to be successful strategies so far, as they have had a tangible effect on the quality of life for Muslim Rohingyas.

Despite this, it seems that the Canadian strategy has not invested resources in identifying the root causes of these human rights issues. Instead, it seems that Canada developed strategies to improve the political situation within Myanmar without a clear understanding of the historical and cultural environment that these issues are rooted in. The Canadian government stated that they, “will support conflict-sensitive and gender-sensitive inter-communal dialogue, income-generating activities, and nutrition activities for Rohingya and other communities in Rakhine that contribute to building peace and improving conditions for eventual returnees. Our programming will support the improvement of inter-communal relations, inclusive local governance, and the role of civil society organizations to conduct inclusive and meaningful interventions and to address conflict in Rakhine State.” Given Myanmar’s history of colonialism and military rule, the international community cannot be certain of what a peaceful and stable Myanmar would look like culturally or politically. Concepts such as gender equality, civil society, local governance, and community are constructed over time and influenced by culture. It may be challenging and further disrupting to impose foreign interpretations of these concepts on an already unstable region. This is the crux of the problem. Strategists should not attempt to re-imagine or reshape Myanmar, but focus on how they can remove the obstacles that prevent peace, security, and cooperation.