Over the past year, more than 700,000 people, more than 70% of the minority Rohingya population in Myanmar, have fled their homes and the country of their birth in the face of a sustained and coordinated military cleansing campaign directed by the state and aided by Burmese Buddhist-nationalist hardliners.
The crisis is highly visible, with the Rohingya people largely living in hastily assembled refugee camps in southern Bangladesh. A UN report has accused the Myanmar military of genocide. Still, the international community is flummoxed – not wanting to threaten the little progress that has been made in opening Myanmar to the world and risk pushing the country back toward China. In the years when the military regime was isolated, China had emerged as the sole benefactor of the country.
An agreement signed in December by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar was supposed to pave the way for the return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. Had the agreement been a document of serious intentions, the consequences for the Rohingya would likely have been catastrophic as they would have been caught in the maw of the cleansing operation.
The military was still in the middle of its clearing campaign, many of the Rohingya villages had been burnt to the ground along with other property, with the land redistributed to Buddhist locals. So any returning Rohingya would have been housed in newly-constructed refugee camps – just like the more than 100,000 Rohingya held in camps for the internally displaced, with concentration-camp conditions, from previous attacks over the last decade.
The document was little more than a political gesture by both governments. Myanmar’s government aimed to placate international community’s pressure over the ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing, while the government of Bangladesh hoped to mollify anti-refugee voices in an election year. In truth, neither government, nor any international body or Western government, have a notion of what will happen to the new refugee city in Cox’s Bazaar, a coastal community in southeast Bangladesh. There are no goals or practical plans to stabilize the situation over the near or long term.
As for Myanmar leaders who orchestrated the ethnic cleansing, the situation is similarly unclear. The United States and Western allies have imposed limited sanctions on certain individuals in the military chain of command who can be directly identified as engaged in coordinating the “clearing” efforts. However, these sanctions do not extend up to the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Myanmar, General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the military and de facto continuity leader of the country’s former military junta.
And the country’s political dynamics may mean there is little hope of accountability for the perpetrators in the short term. Internally, power in the country is contested among the parts of the state which continue to be administered directly by the former military junta – areas such as defense, security, foreign policy, and many central economic concerns – and the democratically elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Under Myanmar’s recent hybrid constitution, the commander-in-chief controls the civilian government. The military can do whatever it wants in the areas under its power without censure from other state institutions, and the commander-in-chief retains a full and unconstrained veto over any initiative by the civilian government. Of course, there is nothing to stop military leaders from simply reassuming direct control over all aspects of the state should they feel their position threatened. For these reasons, Suu Kyi, global pro-democracy and human rights icon, as well as virtually all parties represented at the federal level have been compliant with the “clearing operations” in Rakhine state.
In fact, Suu Kyi herself has gone over and above the call of duty in defending military actions against the Rohingya and absorbing the international criticism directed at Myanmar for the actions of the military – so much so, that it is difficult to see how she might not personally favor the ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Eye on China
Western leaders have been reluctant to exert too much pressure on Suu Kyi for fear of undermining the little progress Myanmar has made towards democracy. The fear: If international pressure makes Suu Kyi’s position untenable, it is more likely that the military will re-assert direct control over the country and move the country firmly within China’s orbit. Nevertheless, the fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017 has issued a report and urges an investigation.
For its part, China has grand designs for Myanmar. It is building a high-speed rail link across the entire country as well as a deep-water port near Sittwe to facilitate China’s Silk Road initiative. Sittwe is the capital of the Rohingya home state of Rakhine and continues to be home to a significant, but increasingly isolated Rohingya ghetto. As within their own territory, China has engaged in massive repression of Muslim Uighur population, and fully supports Myanmar’s crackdown, in the hope that a categorical if brutal removal of the Rohingya from the region would enhance the security of its own economic and infrastructure concerns in the area. China’s backing has also inhibited the response of other international players.
The UK government, for example, has taken up the baton of championing the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya from the United States in 2017, with the end of the Obama administration, but has avoided bringing charges against Myanmar at the International Criminal Court, citing primarily the expectation of a Chinese veto.
For the time being, Suu Kyi will continue to soak international criticism as her government and China support the military’s actions. The West will continue to complain, but fail to take effective action beyond providing barely adequate humanitarian relief to the Rohingya who have made it to Bangladesh.
The situation may not be sustainable, not least because neither Bangladesh nor the international humanitarian leaders seem willing to accept the reality that the Rohingya will likely to stay in Cox’s Bazaar. In the ideal scenario, Bangladesh would accept the facts on the ground and move towards normalizing the status of the Bengali-speaking Rohingya within that country, first by granting asylum and corresponding protections to the refugees, and then by establishing a path towards citizenship and integration of the group within the wider population of the country. The challenge, of course, is that Bangladesh is among the most densely populated countries in the world and even poorer than Myanmar when measured by gross domestic product per capita.
And the international community, especially the West, would accept responsibility for their treacherous non-existent response so far and agree to offer Bangladesh all the financial and logistical support it needs to achieve stability, helping the Rohingya rebuild refugee shanty towns around Cox’s Bazaar into livable communities as well as offering incentives and economic support to native Bangladeshis to develop shared economic ties with the emergent towns. This is something that Western leadership could achieve and can afford to do. What is lacking is vision and interest. In the age of Trump, the West has lost the power of its conviction, and perhaps even the moral backbone, to take charge of the issue and help Bangladesh and the Rohingya build a sustainable and mutually beneficial future together.
The Rohingya are as insecure in their individual and collective existence as they were a year ago in August. The only relief is that nobody is actively setting their communities on fire or chasing them across a border, at least for now.
Azeem Ibrahim, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide (Hurst & Oxford University Press.
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.