The humanitarian crisis afflicting Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya has damaged the country’s political stability and shattered its image as a country moving toward democracy. Moreover, it has tarnished the reputation of the government’s de facto leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi; called into question the crisis-management credentials of ASEAN and the United Nations; and made a mockery of international institutions for conflict prevention.
And yet, for all the woe, a resolution remains possible; to achieve it, five steps must be taken without delay.
First and foremost, the killings and atrocities must stop, which will be as difficult as it is necessary. Myanmar’s military has engaged in a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing, with the primary goal of expelling the Rohingya from the country. Although these actions cannot be undone, further bloodshed and targeted evictions can and should cease.
For that to happen, however, Rohingya extremists must be contained. Contrary to the prevailing narrative in the West, the Myanmar military was provoked, after insurgents staged a series of attacks on police and army posts in August. Exploiting a history of armed clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has assumed leadership of an increasingly violent campaign.
The problem, of course, has been the disproportionate use of force by the military, which retaliated against ARSA strikes by launching a scorched-earth campaign that has killed as many as 3,000. Soldiers have burned entire Rohingya villages, engaged in sexual violence, destroyed mosques, and provoked mass displacement. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, says it is “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the crisis “catastrophic.”
Suu Kyi, meanwhile, has failed to exercise any moral authority, sounding instead like an apologist when she insists that “a huge iceberg of misinformation” is “promoting the interest of the terrorists.” She is, no doubt, sandwiched between an autonomous military that retains complete control over the country’s security services, and a Buddhist-majority population with deeply rooted anti-Muslim prejudices. But, that predicament does not excuse her failure to condemn what is happening under her watch.
To be sure, Suu Kyi’s government resents the idealistic but partisan statements often issued by Western leaders and UN representatives. Rohingya extremists have long established links with foreign jihadists, including those of the Islamic State group. Complicating the military’s position, ARSA is, according to the International Crisis Group, commanded by Saudi-based insurgents with extensive experience in guerrilla warfare. Few Westerners grasp the challenges faced by decision makers in developing countries confronting extremism from insurgents and terrorists.
It is precisely these concerns that have made it difficult for Myanmar to break the cycle of violence. Bangladesh and India have refused to resettle Rohingya refugees permanently, largely because they fear that jihadists could be among them. Indian intelligence agencies have linked ARSA to the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Similarly, China’s government has supported Myanmar’s efforts to protect its national security. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China is investing $7.3 billion in a port project in Rakhine, which may lead China to block any attempt in the UN Security Council to censure Myanmar for its actions.
This tangled web of interests, coupled with the government’s failure, means that responsibility for protecting all of Myanmar’s people now falls to ASEAN or the UN.
Once hostilities cease, the second step toward ensuring long-term peace will be the repatriation of refugees, which could prove to be a logistical nightmare. According to UN figures, at the end of September some 700,000 Rohingya refugees had crossed into Bangladesh, with more than half arriving since late August. And Myanmar’s military has mined the border with Bangladesh to stop them from returning.
Assuming that the issues of violence and refugees can be addressed, Myanmar must grant international humanitarian access to the affected regions. ASEAN, which demonstrated its capabilities in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, is well positioned to take the lead in shaping a regional response. ASEAN could also coordinate with the UN in managing emergency personnel.
The fourth step is to hold enablers of the atrocities accountable. Myanmar’s government must undertake -- or permit ASEAN or the UN to do so on its behalf -- an independent and impartial investigation into the killings, identify the perpetrators, and subject them to transparent and credible prosecution. If this cannot be done domestically, the matter must be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Finally, the government that Suu Kyi leads must repeal or amend all discriminatory laws and end official anti-Rohingya discrimination. With 1.1 million members, the Rohingya are one of the world’s largest stateless ethnic groups. Most came to Myanmar as part of the expansion of the British Empire, after the Burmese king was defeated in 1826, but are still considered to be illegal Bengali immigrants. The 1982 citizenship law did not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and they have severely limited access to health care, education, and employment, in addition to facing restrictions on their freedom of movement.
Myanmar’s democratic transition remains fragile, with civil-military relations, poverty, economic growth, and governance competing for attention. But the cessation of hostilities and resolution of the Rohingya crisis must take precedence. The report issued in August by the Rakhine Advisory Commission, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, offers one possible path forward.
These five steps will not heal all wounds or end every grievance. But they can help ease the suffering by discouraging further atrocities, deterring violent extremism, and improving border security. At the moment, this may be the best possible outcome.
By Ramesh Thakur
Ramesh Thakur, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University. -- Ed.