Giving aid with one hand, taking away rights with the other

It the donors’ conference co-hosted by the US, UK, EU and UNHCR on October 22, the international community pledged USD 597 million in humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya. The promises of aid were accompanied by the usual virtue signalling—US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said, “As the world’s most generous donor, we are a catalyst for the international humanitarian response and call on others to contribute to this cause”; European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic asked the international community to, “strengthen its shared efforts towards reaching a sustainable solution”; and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke of how the UK has, “taken action against the architects of this systemic violence, including through sanctions and we will continue to hold those responsible to account.” 

One does not have to look too closely to see the cracks in these pretty speeches. Take, for instance, Dominic Raab’s claim about sanctions. According to Burma Campaign UK, these measures are completely “toothless” and that “symbolic measures do not constitute an effective response to genocide”—a recent review from the British Treasury showed that none of the 16 individuals sanctioned have had any of their assets frozen and are unlikely to have any assets in the UK anyway.

However, the UK is not the only state to have a bark that is worse than their bite. Despite the UN and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) recognising Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya as genocide, the international community has, by and large, failed to hold Myanmar to account or even strongly condemn them for actions that even Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has grudgingly conceded could be crimes against humanity.

As Bangladesh’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam bluntly stated on Thursday, the business-as-usual approach and appeasement theory pursued by the international community are emboldening Myanmar to act with impunity. 

This business-as-usual attitude is perhaps best reflected in the international community’s response to the upcoming elections in Myanmar. A joint statement issued in September by the UK, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Tunisia and USA stated that “the elections on November 8 are an important milestone in Myanmar’s transition, which the international community has supported with funding and technical expertise.”

Why is the international community giving funding and technical expertise to elections that have barred Rohingya candidates from running for office and disenfranchised 1.2 million out of the 1.6 million voters in the state of Rakhine? According to Reuters, Myanmar’s election committee announced last week that more than half the polling stations initially planned in Rakhine will no longer operate, as parts of the state are “too unstable for voting”. Locals have condemned this as political manoeuvring since in the 2015 elections, the Arakan National Party defeated the ruling National League for Democracy in Rakhine and gained the third highest number of votes in the country. Rakhine is not the only state to be targeted—a Radio Free Asia report suggests that voting has been stopped or restricted in over 50 townships in different states so far, meaning this year’s parliament could have at least 17 less representatives.

Human rights organisations have also roundly criticised the EU for funding and helping to create an app being used in the Myanmar elections, which has been accused of contributing to the erasure of the Rohingya identity. The app categorises parliamentary candidates based on their race and religion, and listed Rohingya candidate Aye Win as “Bengali”. He was later disqualified from running on the grounds of ethnic identity, despite previously being considered to be an eligible candidate. This erasure of identity has been recognised as part of the genocide against Rohingyas—there is huge pressure on the community to either accept national verification cards categorising them as “Bengali” or live in apartheid conditions, with no access to travel and economic opportunities. Despite this, a statement from the EU after the Sixth European Union-Myanmar Human Rights Dialogue on October 14, referring to the state of human rights in the country, did not mention the word “Rohingya” once. Could this really have been an insensitive mistake, or a deliberate attempt to appease Myanmar?

Of course, one could argue that some form of democratic elections is better than no elections at all. However, we must also consider the cost of Myanmar’s tiresomely slow path to democratisation. The violence within the country has only gotten worse—according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine has already displaced over 90,000 people. Last month, the UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet warned that the Myanmar military was again killing and abducting civilians with impunity in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin, saying this “may constitute further war crimes or even crimes against humanity”. On October 5, two children were killed in Rakhine under dubious circumstances—the locals alleged that the army used them as human shields to clear landmines ahead of the soldiers.

Under such circumstances, if/when the repatriation of refugees to Myanmar occur, is there any guarantee that they won’t be returning as soon as a new spate of violence begins? Bangladesh has made it clear that it cannot host close to 1.1 million refugees indefinitely, and the process of repatriation has to be started. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to his Bangladeshi counterpart on Thursday, saying Myanmar has assured China that repatriation talks will begin again after elections. But with Myanmar still holding around 600,000 Rohingya in camps and villages under conditions that, according to Human Rights Watch, “amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid, persecution, and severe deprivation of liberty,” how do we convince refugees to return?

At the fourth session of the Union Peace Conference in August, it became clear how little interest the rulers of Myanmar have in peace. The exclusion of the Arakan Army led to the absence of many major players, and the Myanmar military’s commander-in-chief openly warned against using terms like “minority rights” since it can “encourage disunity, inferiority, and doubts,” thus reiterating Myanmar’s policy of assimilation. Political analyst David Scott Mathieson argued how this shows that the USD 100 million Joint Peace Fund, established in 2016 by the donor community, has been squandered in the name of peace. As he puts it, ” The woeful role of Western peacebuilders and their dubious background manoeuvrings with shady envoys has potentially doomed Myanmar to future decades of uneven armed conflict, environmental degradation due to corruptly regulated resource plunder, drug production and forced internal migration due to climate change and a flagging economy.”

Aid for refugees is always welcome, especially to support the host countries, but the question now arises—will the international community continue to give minimal aid without pushing for any real change within Myanmar? With Canada and Netherlands joining the Gambia’s lawsuit at the ICJ, an investigation against Myanmar open at the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding crimes against humanity and a universal jurisdiction case at the Argentinian judiciary, there is now no space for complacency.

There has to be a political cost for the actions of the Myanmar military. If donor countries truly want to solve the conflict, they need to stop attempting appeasement and implement a coordinated policy of arms embargo, financial sanctions and asset freezes. The 2019 UN fact-finding mission report said nearly 60 foreign companies have dealings with at least 120 businesses controlled by two military-owned firms in Myanmar, and that 14 companies from China, North Korea, India, Israel, the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine have been supplying fighter jets, armoured fighting vehicles, warships, missiles and missile launchers to Myanmar since 2016.

There has never been a better time to act—these companies must be held accountable for contributing to war crimes, and Myanmar’s allies in the region must also reconsider their policies. While China has attempted to intervene in the crisis, albeit for its own interests—especially the economic corridor that will give China direct access to a deep water port on the Bay of Bengal—India’s silence on the matter is highly questionable and disappointing given its “special relationship” with Bangladesh. Let us also not forget that Russia, while staying aloof from the Rohingya crisis, has used its veto to block UN Security Council resolutions against Myanmar (as has China) and even in the middle of the pandemic, Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing spent a week in Russia to “foster ties” between the two countries’ armed forces.

For many years, Myanmar has been talking peace and waging war while the international community has been talking peace and trading goods, especially since Myanmar started its so-called journey towards democracy. In the meantime, Covid-19 has hit Yangon’s poorest slums so hard that, according to a Reuters report, people have resorted to eating snakes and rats. Armed with donor funds, foreign investments and ample resources, Myanmar’s ruling elite wins, and it is the most marginalised people of Myanmar who always lose. As long as Myanmar has “democracy” and “economic freedom”, will the world continue to look away?


Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.

Her Twitter handle is @shuprovatasneem

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