What the world has allowed to happen – and continue to happen – in Myanmar is an absolute abomination. In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, hostilities between Buddhist and Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority population, boiled over in 2017.
After the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – a group of Rohingya Muslim militants – led a series of attacks against Myanmar’s military and police stations, Myanmar’s security forces retaliated with a ruthless campaign of murder, arson, human burnings and beatings, gang rape and other mass brutalities. These actions by Myanmar amount to ethnic cleansing by genocide, plain and simple.
The vicious conflict has forced over 740,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar into Bangladesh, causing a massive humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of people, at least half of them children, now live in ill-equipped and tattered refugee camps along the border.
The atrocities inflected upon these Rohingya refugees was finally heard in January 2020 by the International Court of Justice in The Hague (ICJ). The ICJ ruled that Myanmar must implement emergency measures to protect these refugees against violence, prevent any future egregious acts as outlined by the Genocide Convention, and preserve any evidence of potential genocide.
Ironically, Myanmar’s leader at the time, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – who is also the daughter of General Aung San, the country’s independence hero who was assassinated when his daughter was two years old – personally presented her country’s case in The Hague, arguing that while “it cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force” had been used against the Rohingya, calling the behavior genocide is an “incomplete and misleading factual picture.”
This from a woman who, in 2010, was freed from fifteen years of house arrest after a military junta imprisoned her two separate times since 1989. In 1991, she won a Nobel Peace Prize for “her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
Upon her release, she was welcomed by thousands of supporters as a pro-democracy leader who promised to release all political prisoners and end the ethnic tensions that haunted the country.
Instead, she made a sharp turn toward the very military that once imprisoned her and strongly denied any government misconduct in regard to the Rohingya Muslims. Her political party, the National League for Democracy, won an election in November 2020 that keeps them in power for another five years.
< Update: On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, declared a state of emergency and took control of the country, in what amounts to a military coup. The military claims there was voter fraud in the November election. The country’s election commission insists there is no evidence to support this claim.
The military detained Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the National League for Democracy, who had been reelected in November in only the second democratically held election since the country moved to a democracy from almost fifty years of military rule.
The military announced that power would be transferred to the commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, then handed to Myint Swe, the military-backed vice president. As of March 29, 2021, Min Aung Hlaing was still in power, murdering dissenting voices in the street “in the head and back.” Over 400 people have been murdered and over 2,000 arrested, including the overthrown leader Aung San Suu Kyi. >
For over three decades, the United States has been a champion of democracy in Myanmar, which included the demand that thousands of political prisoners be set free. Together with allies, five years after her release in 2010, American leadership even helped Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) win a landslide victory in the first democratically held election.
But, things on the human rights front have gone dramatically downhill since then and will not likely change without outside intervention. Today, there are around 600 political prisoners – including poets, students and Buddhist monks – being held in Myanmar for peacefully protesting for pro-democracy ideals.
Also imprisoned are some of the people who ran in opposition to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the latest election – an election that disenfranchised 1.5 million registered voters, not counting the million Rohingya Muslins who never had any hope of voting in the first place.
It is disgraceful that the world has let things get this far. In June 2019, the United Nations released a damning report – written by an independent investigator but commissioned by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres – detailing the UN’s immense failures in Myanmar:
Since 2012, and especially since August of 2017, the world has witnessed a wrenching spectacle of human rights violations on a massive scale. The statelessness and extreme deprivation of some 1.4 million Rohingya people, not to mention the grave abuses wrought on them and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar, are totally unacceptable and nothing less than an offence to humanity. Clearly, the main responsibility for this belongs to the Government of that country; sadly, in this it seems to count with the solid support of most of its population. Further, the human rights abuses are undermining an otherwise positive albeit imperfect political process of gradual democratization and (paradoxically) reconciliation.
The United Nations System, despite the advocacy efforts from the Secretary-General’s personal involvement as well as that of the most senior officials down to members of the country team, has been relatively impotent to effectively work with the authorities of Myanmar to reverse the negative trends in the area of human rights and consolidate the positive trends in other areas. Given the increasingly ominous events taking place in the first arena, especially in Rakhine State (but also in Kachin and Northern Shan), progress in Myanmar in other areas seems to have essentially bogged down at the time of writing.
The root causes of those event persist and probably have even been aggravated up to the time of writing this review. By any metrics utilized, the treatment accorded to Muslim minorities in Myanmar is incompatible with the political and peace processes launched under the Constitution adopted in 2010.
There simply is no way to reconcile the extreme limitations imposed on the Rohingya community with international humanitarian and human rights norms and legislation. Those grave limitations include statelessness, arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on freedom of movement, discriminatory treatment in access to services and the means to a dignified livelihood, and now the vexing situation of repatriation and relocation of up to one million desperate people. These problems will not go away and pose huge challenges to Myanmar, its immediate neighbors and the United Nations. Indeed, not only Myanmar and Bangladesh are faced with the excruciating question of how to deal with so many refugees concentrated in the Cox’s Bazar’s district, it is a question faced by the international community in general. Read the entire report here.
The report goes on to say:
“The reform proposals of Secretary-General António Guterres first announced in 2017 in the areas of management, peace and security, and the development system, generally move in the right direction in addressing some of the key circumstances that made a more coherent response in Myanmar so difficult in the past few years.”
However, the author acknowledges, “The recommendations contained in the report presented in 2017 by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State offer a minimum but insufficient platform on which to start building, and one can only hope that the on-going discussions taking place in Myanmar around the United Nations’ Joint Response Plan for 2019 will at least alleviate the dramatic situation of the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities.”
Read the Report's Recommendations (click here)
Thankfully, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has authorized an investigation into these crimes, which is a solid first step. Although the United States has imposed sanctions on sixty-five individuals and twenty-six entities that support this nightmare, much more must be done. America must get off the sidelines or these crimes against humanity will only get worse. At a minimum, we must target banks that support the junta and make sure that an international tribunal is convened to hold the junta accountable for these atrocities.
We can’t let things like this happen to human beings. Period.
* This name thing is confusing. In 1989, the military government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. Although most of the international community recognized the name change, the United States, United Kingdom, and several other countries continued to use the name Burma. America’s official answer for not accepting the name change is that the change was made without the consent of the people.