September 6, 2022
DHAKA – Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced to five years of imprisonment – although this does not account for the other charges levelled against her, as well as her advanced age. It could very well be that Myanmar’s erstwhile paragon of democracy and human rights will never be free again. It is a thumping victory for its military, which has for long battled to undermine democracy in the state.
It is important to note, however, that the reason why such developments have occurred in the first place is because the military in Myanmar enjoys unparalleled impunity – one which allows it to act in complete defiance of the democratic process. The military has continually taken advantage of this impunity to commit widespread abuse in Myanmar for decades. And there is no greater example of this than the persecution of the Rohingya.
Back in 2017, the military led a brutal and genocidal campaign against the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, resulting in the destruction of thousands of villages and the killing of more than 6,700 people in the first month of the crackdown. This led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh and who have, since then, taken shelter in the country’s refugee camps.
Despite such grave atrocities being committed against the Rohingya, the country’s democratically elected government, led by Suu Kyi, remained silent against the military aggressors. Suu Kyi even went on to dismiss the criticisms against her and denied that any ethnic cleansing is taking place. After Gambia – on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – had filed an international lawsuit against Myanmar, Suu Kyi continued to reject the charges at the International Court of Justice back in December 2019.
It is paradoxical for a Nobel Prize winner and a paragon of democracy and human rights to have defended what is the very antithesis of their cause. However, a closer analysis may reveal Suu Kyi’s original intentions: To not alienate the country’s military and the right-wing Buddhist nationalists, who would have helped her government remain in power. Regrettably, this was miscalculated – it only strengthened the military’s hand and enabled her overthrow years later.
Now, as the world sees democracy in Myanmar being thwarted for an indefinite amount of time, we must question how well the military junta is willing to cooperate for the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. Based on the previous actions of the military junta, especially their involvement with the 1982 Citizenship Law – which saw the Rohingya community being stripped off their citizenship – and past atrocities, one can easily infer that the military junta is unlikely to seek bilateral cooperation to ensure the safe return of the refugees. Thus, there is no question of cooperating with the military government for Rohingya repatriation. The world must look onto coercive measures to hold them accountable.
Under such excruciating circumstances, one would expect the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to, at the very least, put economic pressure on the military junta and help secure safe passage for the refugees. However, the UNSC has been extremely inefficient in dealing with the Rohingya refugee crisis and it can be argued that such a failure is due to the inherent structure of the UNSC itself.
To understand these structural problems, we need to go back in history. After the Second World War, the victorious nations – namely the US, Britain, France, Soviet Union (now Russia), and China – adopted the 1942 Declaration of the United Nations which effectively ensured their position as the permanent five members (P-5) of the later formed United Nations Security Council. Being a member of the P-5 allowed these countries to exercise veto power whenever they felt necessary to subdue any threats to their territory or sovereignty.
While this was aimed to allow these allies to act as the global police and bring despotic nations within the institutional framework of the UN, dynamic changes in the status quo has resulted in the ability to veto being one of the most problematic tools at the disposal of the P-5. What the right to veto essentially allows is for these countries to protect their national interests instead of helping resolve humanitarian crises.
In the specific case of the Rohingya refugee crisis, both China and Russia have taken positions in favour of Myanmar. One of the reasons why China has been a staunch ally of Myanmar is because Myanmar provides China with a key component of its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), in the form of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). As a matter of fact, China has already invested heavily in Burmese infrastructure, such as the USD 1.3 billion Kyaukphyu deep-sea port which will allow China an access to the Indian Ocean without much contestations. If this assertive plan succeeds, it will open up potential land and sea routes to Central Asia and Europe. Similarly, having a close diplomatic alliance with Myanmar allows Russia to expand its influence beyond Vietnam and China, in East Asia. It also allows Russia to garner China’s trust while weakening American influence in the region. Therefore as both China and Russia stand devoted to Myanmar, this prevents other nations in the UNSC from pursuing their support to the Rohingya refugee crisis with urgency.
Ultimately, members of the UNSC tend to take self-centred approaches towards global issues it has to deliberate on. This means solutions to intra-state conflicts, such as the Rohingya refugee crisis, garner very little support because they do not possess any immediate threats to the nations in the UNSC. Such a shallow understanding of international peace means a complete disregard for any region which does not directly benefit the member states, and this is also true for Myanmar as the country and its people seem to be of very little interest to the United States or the United Kingdom.
The situation for the Rohingya remains bleak. It is clear that international mechanisms will not guarantee a return for the Rohingya to their homes, nor grant them the dignity and honour they are due to receive as people. This is due to the fact that the mechanisms fail to accommodate a very critical stakeholder in their deliberation: the Rohingya people themselves. Without adequate representation, there can be no true solution to the Rohingya crisis, regardless of the military’s promises and the world’s continual efforts of condemning abuse.
In our work at the Youth Policy Forum (YPF), a pivotal opportunity arose in organising a stakeholder dialogue that included members of the Rohingya diaspora. The role of the diaspora in advocating for causes is not lost upon us – we retain the memory of the kind of advocacy carried out by Bangladeshis almost a half-century ago, when our own people faced a crisis not dissimilar from that of the Rohingya. Therefore, at a time when the Rohingya are displaced across the world, its diaspora stand out as potential leaders to propel their plight.
Members of the Rohingya diaspora have initiated their own efforts to advocate for their cause, and to create a sense of cohesion for a community shattered by unending persecution. Through our stakeholder dialogues, we learnt about the experiences of Rohingya Vision, the world’s first Rohingya news network. It follows a long line of other Rohingya-centric projects such as that of the Rohingya Language Council that is attempting to standardise and digitise the Rohingya language. These are only some examples of a new direction for the Rohingya to take with regard to their plight: One that fosters solidarity and cohesion in a shattered community, and more importantly, one that lays the foundation for an organised, political cause.
The question is this: How can this foundation be built? This is where the international community must recognise its new role, and the pressure to fulfil it after the failure of its past, traditional mechanisms. The world must collectively work towards building the capacity of this community. By enhancing its cohesion, giving it the resources it needs to advocate for its causes, and recognizing its place in international dialogue, the Rohingya can become a formidable political force of their own. Without the empowerment of the Rohingya, the world will be unable to come to an enduring solution to one of the gravest human rights issues of today. Simply put – the world needs the Rohingya, just as it needs the world.
The process of building a political community – veritably a nation in the case of the Rohingya – is a long one. It is not propelled by international organisations or states; rather, it is propelled by people. Therefore, it is a process which must be shared by stakeholders at every level of analysis: from civil society organisations to large state actors. A place must be made for an organised community of Rohingya activists that can represent their cause cohesively. More importantly, they must do so with enough strength for the world to be compelled: In this era of practical politics, this organised community must be prepared to lever their power where they see fit to pressure state actors in similarly practical terms.
Hrishik Roy and Zaheer Abbas are working in the Rohingya Advocacy unit of the Youth Policy Forum (YPF).