Myanmar cracks-down on Rohingya minority: implications for sanctions?
There are growing reports that the ongoing security operation of the Myanmar (Burmese) Government in the Rakhine state had led to serious human rights violations. The Government of Myanmar has denied these reports, which have not been verified by independent sources.
This beggars the question whether the uplifting of sanctions, especially by the U.S. (see previous blog), are premature.
Why is the Myanmar Government cracking-down on the Rohingya minority?
In October 2016, the Myanmar (Burma) Government launched a comprehensive security operation (counter insurgency operations) following the death of nine police officers in what the Myanmar Government calls coordinated attacks on border posts in Maungdaw. As a result, violence has erupted again in the Western Myanmar region. The security forces have also sealed-off their area of operations to foreign aid groups and journalists.
According to a NY Times article, the violence commenced a day after several Myanmar police border posts were attacked by unidentified parties.
Myanmar’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Zaw Win, said that nine police officers were “brutally killed,” in what he described “terror attacks,” in which also eight attackers were killed. The police also reported that weapons and ammunition were stolen during the attacks.
Although General Zaw did not link the attackers to any group, he is quoted as saying that the attackers shouted “Rohingya! Rohingya!,” and according to him, they used the Bengali language. This has prompted some governmental officials to blame a militant Rohingya group for the death of the police officers.
Since then, Rohingya activists have accused that the security forces, in their search for the perpetrators of the attack, of using disproportional force in their crack-down. They claim that the Rohingya population is being collectively punished for the attacks – more than 100 people have been killed, hundreds arrested, and 1,200 homes of the Rohingya Muslim minority have been destroyed.
Furthermore, the security forces have also been accused of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and executions (also see related reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International). Myanmar authorities have denied these accusations and have even go on to claim that the “attackers,” caused the damage themselves, which is viewed with skepticism by many observers.
The United Nations has also voiced its concerns to the growing violence. The Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, requested the Government of Myanmar to take immediate action to address the deteriorating human rights situation in the northern Rakhine State.
The former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the current chairperson of the Rakhine Advisory Commission (RAC), has also called that all communities renounce violence and that police and security services comply with the rule of law.
Note that the RAC is set to publish a report in 2017, in which recommendations will be presented to improve the welfare of all inhabitants in the Rakhine state.
To what extent is the current Myanmar Government responsible?
It goes without question that the Myanmar Government is responsible for any human rights violations – especially in regard to reports of security forces attacking innocent civilians.
Despite the country holding it’s first democratic elections since a quarter of a century in November 2015, in which Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a stunning victory, her government has come under international criticism. This is because the alleged atrocities committed in the current security operation in the Rakhine state are not being investigated. In this context, Aung San Suu Kyi has been reported to say that the military in Rakhine is operating according to the “rule of law.”
Although Aung San Suu Kyi is prohibited from assuming the presidency, she calls the shots; she is recognized as de facto leader of Myanmar (she serves as Myanmar’s State Counsellor).
The ongoing security operation exposes both the constitutional and political limits of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. The military still play a significant political role in Myanmar, which can be argued to be autonomous from the civilian government. Despite the military relinquishing power, the new democratically elected government still has to walk a tight-rope and not endanger jeopardizing it’s relations with the military. Further, maybe even more worrying, is that the current security operation is also popular among the Burmese population. Therefore, commencing an investigation or even giving foreign aid workers or media access to the area of operations is problematic for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Although the U.S. and EU still enforce an arms embargo against Myanmar, this may not be enough. Note that the U.S. also enforces narcotics related sanctions against specific targets in Myanmar – see link to U.S. relations/restrictions with Myanmar.
Given that the military still fulfills a disproportionate large role in Burmese economy, society, and politics, financial and economic sanctions might still be required to tame those elements within the military which have little or no regard for the rule of law.