Myanmar escaping culpability

The 30th of July marked the World Day against Trafficking in Persons. It reminded the world once again, particularly those in Bangladesh and a few other Southeast Asian countries that Rohingya refugees, many of whom are survivors of trafficking and crimes of atrocity have little to celebrate. Some analysts have in this context urged the Southeast Asian governments to listen to survivors and work with refugees to best protect their rights.

In June, the US State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons report and found that eight of Asean's 10 states had failed to meet minimum standards to combat trafficking. The report kept Thailand as a Tier-2 country and downgraded Malaysia to a Tier-2 Watchlist country. The failure to respect the rights of Rohingya trafficking survivors, including Rohingya, was a key reason Thailand and Malaysia did not rank well in the report.

When it relates to Myanmar and the plight of its Rohingya people in particular, the international community has consistently responded inadequately. This has also been true with regard to tackling the actual commission of, mass atrocities.

The evolving dynamics pertaining to Myanmar leaves a lot to be desired. Over the last few weeks, nearly every day has revealed fresh international concern about events taking place in that country. Anxiety is particularly surfacing about fresh incidents and how the relevant authorities in Myanmar have been responding to them.There has however neither been any requisite international intervention in the truest sense of the term, nor necessary effort to ensure solutions regarding these problems. As a result these troubles have continued to diversify and grow.

The Myanmar authorities are demonstrating once again that challenges being presented to them are barriers that can be overcome through hop, step and jump. Such a response on their part has been relentless.

In this context, the media has reported about the Myanmar military again launching another massive offensive. This month-long crackdown apparently involved indiscriminate firing on civilians and burning of villages. This has forced more than 10,000 people to flee from their homes. This offensive was supposedly in retaliation to an ambush carried out earlier by the Arakan Army that killed three border police and a civilian driver. It was clear that there was no hesitation in carrying out this measure as it was seen as being another step against the Rohingya population.

The lack on the part of ASEAN to play a more pro-active role over the Rohingya crisis has been described by many observers as “totally shameful.” Around the time of this incident, the ASEAN met virtually for their annual summit. With Myanmar as a member state, the ASEAN neither put out any formal statement about the crisis at sea near the Indonesian coast nor the ongoing situation in Rakhine state and repatriation of over a million Rohingyas from Bangladesh, a country that is not even a member of the ASEAN. The whole issue was just swept under the carpet.

It is generally agreed by geo-strategists that the ASEAN as a regional organization has been less than interested in addressing the Rohingya crisis. There has been little effort on its part to stress on the different factors related to the humanitarian connotations of the Rohingya refugee crisis. There has been no open disagreement by them petrtaining to the Rohingya crisis in terms of the human rights issue and Myanmar’s decision to introduce the 1982 Citizenship Law that deprived the Rohingyas of citizenship in Myanmar. There have also been deliberate steps to deprive the Rohingya Muslims of documentation.

In addition there has been the arbitrary and largely discriminatory implementation of the law that effectively excludes most of the Rohingyas even from naturalized citizenship. It may be recalled that such measures have led over 3 million Rohingyas to leave Myanmar in the last 30 years. They have done so to avoid systematic persecution and successive violence in 1992, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

This unfortunate dynamics has led them- as refugees- to seek safety, sanctuary and possible employment in countries such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Their fluidity of status has also resulted in some of them getting involved in human trafficking, drug smuggling and many other reprehensible activities.

The Myanmar military has conducted their latest operations despite the standing order of the International Court of Justice on Myanmar to undertake emergency measures to prevent genocides against the Rohingyas. Such action on their part has clearly demonstrated that the Myanmar armed forces not only do not believe in transparency but also in liability.

We have also seen another measure undertaken by the Myanmar authorities on 30 June, 2020. This was an example of sham and military impunity by the Myanmar armed forces authorities.

Myanmar’s court-martial conviction of three military personnel for crimes against ethnic Rohingya reflected its ongoing government efforts to evade meaningful accountability. Human Rights Watch has consequently observed in this context that Myanmar authorities have repeatedly failed to adequately investigate crimes against humanity and prosecute grave abuses against the Rohingyas in their Rakhine State.

On June 30, 2020, the Myanmar military announced that two officers and a soldier had been convicted for “weakness in following the instructions” during the “Gu Dar Pyin incident.” It may be recalled that Rakhine State’s Gu Dar Pyin village was the site of a massacre by the military on August 27-28, 2017, as part of its campaign of mass atrocities that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh in the subsequent months. The Myanmar armed forces however did not provide any other information, such as the names and ranks of those convicted, their role in the massacre, or their sentences.

The Gu Dar Pyin court martial began in November 2019 following a military investigation led by Maj. Gen. Myat Kyaw that discovered “grounds to believe the soldiers did not fully comply with the rules of engagement.” Closed hearings were held in Buthidaung Township till April 30, 2020. This led Shayna Bauchner to observe that “Myanmar’s farcical court martial is the latest attempt to feign progress on accountability in an apparent attempt to influence the United Nations and international tribunals” Analysts have also noted that “foreign governments should demand Myanmar open its doors to truly independent and impartial international investigators.”

The unfortunate aspect of this scenario was the denying of all evidence presented in front of the Myanmar authorities regarding the military’s attack on Gu Dar Pyin. On the contrary it claimed that the Myanmar security forces had been responding to an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an ethnic Rohingya armed group. It would be interesting to note here that despite the latest lack of transparency that country’s authorities have announced that military investigations into the attacks in Chut Pyin and Maung Nu, other villages in Rakhine State, are ongoing. It will not be surprising if the Myanmar military is subsequently found not to have violated human rights in their treatment of the minority civilians.

The Myanmar government, it may be mentioned unbelievably continues to claim, as it did at the UN Human Rights Council session on the Rohingya on June 30, 2020 that it “is willing and able to address the issue of accountability,” and that “the domestic justice system of a country must be respected.” 

Security Council Resolution 2532 of 1 July has also demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda, including Myanmar. In this regard the Tatmadaw has been asked to extend its unilateral ceasefire to all areas of fighting and urge all armed actors to take steps to engage in dialogue, protect civilians and abide by international law.

In an oral statement on 14 July during the 44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council Amnesty International has also reiterated their deep concern and drawn attention to serious human rights violations- including war crimes- committedby the Myanmar armed forces through indiscriminate attacks- killing or injuring of civilians, the burning of homes and villages, arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill treatment.

To such a view one can only observe that if Myanmar is serious about accountability, it should grant access to Rakhine State to international investigators, including the UN Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, the new UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, and the International Criminal Court, which opened an investigation into the crime against humanity of deportation and other related crimes in November 2019.

UK's International Ambassador for Human Rights Rita French has also asked in the first week of July for accountability for atrocities being essential for Myanmar to move towards peace and stability. The UK has also noted that it welcomes the valuable work of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar in collecting evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law.

August will be the third anniversary of the Rohingya genocide and their forcible exile. Bangladesh has given shelter to Rohingyas who fled Myanmar in 2017. Asia never saw that amount of refugees at the same time after the liberation war of Bangladesh. Rohingya repatriation has been discussed various times but suddenly the coronavirus pandemic has invaded the repatriation debate. So the Rohingya repatriation process has come to a halt. The world media, the UN and all the powerful countries are now busy dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs,  right to information and  good governance