Myanmar cracks-down on Rohingya minority: implications for sanctions?

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. 

An armed Myanmar border police patrol along a fence by the river dividing Myanmar and Bangladesh border located in Maungdaw, Rakhine State on October 15, 2016. AFP

An armed Myanmar border police patrol along a fence by the river dividing Myanmar and Bangladesh border located in Maungdaw, Rakhine State on October 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of AFP.

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.

Rohingya village north of Maungdaw. Rohingyas living outside the camps are barred to travel to other villages without permission.  Photo is made by Tomás Munita – Photographer 2015. 

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. 

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw in September 2016. Annan is a member of an independent commission set up Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to help find solutions to the communal conflict in Rakhine. Source: Aung Shine Oo

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.

Who are the Rohingya Minority

A protestor displays a placard during a protest against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur on 15 July 2016. Photo GETTY IMAGES.

Source: Minority Groups International and Council on Foreign Relations

  • The Rohingya minority is considered to be one of the most discriminated peoples in the world. Since the 1970’s the discriminatory policies of the Myanmar government in Rakhine state, which have caused hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand). Their plight has been compounded by the responses of many of Myanmar’s neighbors, which are reluctant to take in refugees for fear of a migrant influx they feel incapable of handling.
  • Rohingya minority are Muslims; Muslims in Burma, most of whom are Sunni, constitute at least 4% of the country’s entire population; most live in the north of Rakhine State (also known as Arakan). The Rohingya differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and of course religiously.
  • The majority of Muslims in Rakhine State refer to themselves as ‘Rohingya’: their language (Rohingya) is derived from the Bengali language and is similar to the Chittagonian dialect spoken in nearby Chittagong, in Bangladesh. There is some dispute as to whether the Rohingya are indigenous to the region or are more ‘recent’, being in the main the descendants of those who arrived in Rakhine State during the British colonial administration.
  • A second group of Muslims in the Rakhine State does not consider themselves as Rohingya, as they speak Rakhine which is closely related to the Burmese language, claim their ancestors have lived in the state for many centuries, and tend to share similar customs to the Rakhine Buddhists. They identify themselves ‘Arakanese Muslims’, ‘Burmese Muslims’ or simply ‘Muslims’.
  • There are other distinct groups of Muslim minorities scattered throughout Myanmar. Most of these disparate groups are the descendants of ‘migrants’ from various parts of what is now India and Bangladesh, though they may have been established for generations in the country. Many of these latter groups of Muslims speak Burmese and/or their language of origin. 
  • Rohingya and most Muslims whose ancestors originate from India and Bangladesh would have been considered as citizens of Burma under the 1948 Constitution and civilian administration until the military coup d’état of 1962. 
  • Their status was subsequently downgraded under the 1974 Constitution, which does not recognize them as indigenous, and the Citizenship Act of 1982, which states that citizens must belong to one of 135 ‘national races’ as recognized under the constitution, or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823. Given the lack of documentation to satisfy the latter requirement, the result has been a hugely discriminatory denial of citizenship for most Rohingya and many other Muslims, effectively rendering them stateless. As a result, they have faced numerous discriminatory obstacles in access to education, health, travel, many areas of employment and even in terms of receiving permits allowing them to get married. 
  • Violence, rebellions, and crack-downs by authorities which have marked much of Myanmar’s history. In particular, the repressive and systematic measures against Muslims – also against the Rohingya. Since 1982, it has been alleged that Burmese authorities have consistently subjected the Rohingya’s to serious human rights violations, including their loss of citizenship. 
  • The UN refugee agency says that since 2012 over 120,000 have fled Rakhine – along the frontier with Bangladesh. An estimated 300,000 Rohingya are living in Bangladesh’s southern coastal district bordering Myanmar, the vast majority of whom have fled Myanmar. A complicating factor is that Bangladesh  only recognizes a small portion as refugees and regularly turns back those attempting to cross the border. 

Myanmar commander in chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing (left), parliamentary upper house Speaker Mahn Win Khaing Than (second from left)and Vice President Henry Van Thio chat next to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw Sept 2016 | REUTERS

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. 

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