On September 18, the three-member Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar, sanctioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2017, submitted a damning 440-page report to the Geneva-based body outlining the horrific excesses of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) in northern and western Myanmar.
The release was accompanied by an unusually emphatic speech by the Mission’s Indonesian chair, Marzuki Darusman, who briefed the Council on what the FFM called the “most serious human rights violations” and “crimes of the highest order under international law” committed by the Tatmadaw against the stateless, Muslim-majority Rohingya community in northern Rakhine state and ethnic minorities in Shan and Kachin States.
Darusman said that it was “hard to fathom the level of brutality” and “total disregard for civilian life” in the Tatmadaw’s military campaigns. The long list of charges, which reads like the aftermath of a gory medieval invasion, confirms this: murder; enslavement; forcible transfer of a population; rape, sexual slavery and sexual violence; imprisonment, torture, and enforced disappearance; and persecution.
While the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had already asserted in September that the situation in northern Rakhine comes off as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the FFM report — the most detailed and scathing UN account so far of the military’s atrocities — accuses the Tatmadaw of committing pre-planned acts of genocide with specific genocidal intent. This is crucial, as it ups the overall scope of allegations against the military and could provide a boost to an ongoing International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the alleged atrocities.
Myanmar, however, continues to flatly dismiss all allegations of wrongdoing, in addition to the ICC jurisdiction.
But, unsurprisingly, the FFM report has alarmed large sections of the international community, nudging passive observers to take stronger actions against Myanmar while vindicating those calling for greater accountability. Since its release, for instance, Australia has declared its intentions to slap targeted sanctions on Myanmar while Canada passed a parliamentary motion officially recognizing the Tatmadaw’s violent campaign as a “genocide.”
Further, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, flew down to Myanmar to meet senior officials, demanding that the perpetrators be brought to justice and warning that the United Kingdom would use “all the tools” at its disposal to “try and make sure there is accountability.” The United States and European Union had already put targeted sanctions on the country earlier in August and June, respectively.
Yet, all the noise seems to be coming only from distant quarters. Myanmar’s own neighborhood remains silent as the grave.
Silence in the Neighborhood
From the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on its east to India on its west, Naypyitaw’s biggest regional partners appear unfazed by the FFM report or the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber verdict. Save for Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, no state in Myanmar’s immediate neighborhood has issued any statement on the report or expressed any concern.
The hush-hush brigade includes Myanmar’s most significant bilateral partner, China, which has constantly shielded the Southeast Asian country from punitive resolutions at the UN Security Council through its veto. Myanmar is a strategically important country for Beijing, as its unique geographical location gives Chinese markets and military planners direct access to the Bay of Bengal.
This radio silence, more critically, is being complemented by oodles of blatant nonchalance and encouragement of Myanmar’s current dismissive position with respect to the allegations. Rather than pressuring the Tatmadaw and the civilian administration under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to bring the perpetrators to justice, neighboring countries have not just been laying the red carpet for the accused generals, but also going after those trying to initiate discussions on how to make Myanmar accountable for its crimes.
For instance, regional forums in South and Southeast Asia continue to invite Myanmar to their annual sessions with much warmth, and without a whisper on the Rohingya crisis. Earlier this month, Naypyitaw participated in the fourth BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu, Nepal alongside six regional partners — India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal. The Rohingya crisis and the serious allegations against the Tatmadaw found no mention.
Further, a fortnight later, India received the Tatmadaw’s deputy senior general — who also stands accused by the FFM of actively commanding the genocidal military campaigns in northern Rakhine and elsewhere — at the BIMSTEC Army Chiefs’ Conclave and a multinational training exercise in Pune. A nine-member Tatmadaw delegation also visited the Indian Army’s Eastern Command for a casual tour on September 20 as part of its goodwill visit to India, undertaken on invitation by its army chief, General Bipin Rawat.
Furthermore, on September 10, the Thai police forcibly shut down a forum organized by foreign journalists at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok to discuss prospective accountability mechanisms for Myanmar. Apparently, such a discussion would damage Thailand’s national security, affect foreign relations, and a give a third party the opportunity to create unrest. So much for demanding justice for systematically perpetrated war crimes.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
The unenviable silence also extends to the fast shrinking democratic space in Myanmar. Not a single country in Myanmar’s immediate neighborhood has raised even a whisper against the continued persecution of independent journalists and dissenters since the Aung San Suu Kyi administration came to power in 2016. This includes the latest seven-year sentencing of two local Reuters correspondents for conducting independent investigations on the situation in northern Rakhine.
Despite the evidently worsening situation, the establishments in New Delhi, Bangkok, Beijing, Colombo, Kathmandu, Thimphu, and the ASEAN countries remain insistent on their belief that bilateral economic agreements, foreign investments, and provision of humanitarian aid will automatically allay the Rohingya crisis or clear the path for a more democratic Myanmar.
More importantly, they surely do not wish to irk the Lady or the generals, whom they consider critical for interest-based bilateral engagements, by cornering them in a tight spot over the Rohingya issue or the damning allegations. Don’t ask, don’t tell is the preferred approach. For aspiring big regional powers like India, moreover, zero sum geopolitical equations — for instance, keeping China’s clout in Myanmar to the minimum — continue to drive the “business-as-usual” approach with Naypyitaw.
The core premise behind such a hard-set foreign policy is to keep “national interest” as far away from moral concerns as possible, as if one doesn’t impact the other. This is a normative practice that the traditional diplomatic establishments in South and Southeast Asia appear to be quite fond of. In their vested and often self-serving foreign policy equations, there is no place for accountability, justice, and human rights. Even if these concerns do appear, they are relegated to the bottom as minor functions of a larger mainframe of transactional, realist foreign policy.
Ironically, the FFM report itself alludes to this diplomatic passivity, but with reference to the UN. Without mincing words, it calls out the UN’s “quiet diplomacy” in Myanmar, which for the longest time, focused solely on developmental goals and humanitarian access without any calls for accountability over systematic persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities.
The report also makes a reference to a practice of self-censorship that the high offices of the UN in Myanmar had been practicing to sideline “problematic” issues like the Rohingya. Back in 2016, a telling Vice News report had shed some light on this.
Whatever the reasons, the regional passivity over the Rohingya issue is startling, since it is clearly a matter of regional concern and not just an “internal affair” of Myanmar, as ASEAN keeps claiming.
For starters, a prolonged situation of instability and insecurity in Rakhine could spark a repeat of the situation in 2015 when hundreds of impoverished Rohingya fled their dismal camps on jam-packed boats, with many ending up missing or dead at sea or buried in mass graves in distant lands. What is more, a situation of continuous transborder mass displacement, like we’ve seen over the past year, is a perfect recipe for the growth of new transnational trafficking and militant networks.
Yet, all that the ASEAN has accomplished so far on the Rohingya crisis are two “retreats,” a few nominal and repetitive statements of encouragement, and hollow expressions of hope that the situation would somehow magically improve with time and patience. Seems like the organization is a storehouse of patience.
But there is hope. One informal but influential regional collective — the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) — has called the FFM report “heart wrenching” and called on the international community, including Southeast Asian countries, to take “concrete action.”
The responsive and morally firm agenda of the APHR, which comprises current and former ASEAN lawmakers, keeps the door open for corresponding strong-willed action from ASEAN in the near future. Further, the distinctly critical positions adopted by Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur on the Rohingya issue could prove effective in rallying the whole of ASEAN to act decisively. This is because of the significant politico-economic leverage that both Indonesia and Malaysia command within the organization, and the fact that the former is poised to become a non-permanent member in the UN Security Council next year January.
However, given ASEAN’s feverish insistence on its policy of noninterference (in the “internal matters” of a member state) and the strategic imperativeness of keeping Naypyitaw in good books, any collective attempt to put pressure on Myanmar to prosecute the guilty remains a long shot for now.
Myanmar’s regional partners need to raise their voice now, before Myanmar becomes another Rwanda, marked ingloriously by a collective failure to act before it was too late. Otherwise, none of them can legitimately claim a stake in the aspirational geopolitics of the post-colonial order, where ascendancy at the international stage is no longer a function of mere trade deals and military exercises.
Update from the author: The only country neighboring Myanmar that has been consistently vocal on the Rohingya crisis is Bangladesh. But that is largely because of the fact that most of the 800,000 Rohingya who fled northern Rakhine since August 2017 ultimately landed up in southeastern Bangladesh, thus making Dhaka a direct stakeholder in the crisis. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s key impetus since the crisis began, besides ensuring that the fleeing refugees find shelter in her country, has been to pressure Myanmar to take back the Rohingya at the earliest. She repeated this in clear terms on the sidelines of the ongoing UN General Assembly session in New York, while also accusing Naypyitaw of stalling the repatriation process. Yet, Dhaka hasn’t issued any categorical statement so far on the Fact-Finding Mission’s report, although it has actively supported the ongoing attempt by the ICC to exercise extended jurisdiction over Myanmar and bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice. It has also facilitated direct contact between concerned international stakeholders and the refugees, thus playing a key role in bringing the spotlight over the horrific ordeal that the Rohingya have faced.
Angshuman Choudhury is a Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, where he coordinates the institute’s Southeast Asia Research Program.