Symposium on Myanmar and International Indifference: Rethinking Accountability – Five Years on: Reflections on the Myanmar Military’s Murderous Campaign to Drive 750,000 Rohingya Into Bangladesh

Symposium on Myanmar and International Indifference: Rethinking Accountability – Five Years on: Reflections on the Myanmar Military’s Murderous Campaign to Drive 750,000 Rohingya Into Bangladesh

[Laetitia van den Assum is a former ambassador of The Netherlands. She is also a former member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, chaired by Kofi Annan.]

August 2017, Prelude to a Catastrophe

Thinking back to Myanmar’s ferocious and indiscriminate military campaign against the Rohingya, my mind turns to 24 August. On that day, the Advisory Commission of Rakhine state, headed by Kofi Annan, presented its final report with recommendations to achieve peace, respect for human rights and development for all ethnic communities in the state. I was a member of the commission.

We made three separate presentations. Two of these, to Myanmar’s President and to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi went as expected. They largely focused on the implementation of our recommendations. But the third presentation was problematic.

We met with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing who insisted on a large number of substantive changes to our report. It was explained to him that as an independent commission we could not consider changes unless these were about factually incorrect points. This response did not go down well.

The idea that a government-appointed commission could be free from political, or outside control was clearly anathema for the Commander. He lectured us about Myanmar’s history, about the illegal status of the Rohingya (he did not mention them by name), and impressed upon us that we should review our report which he considered biased.

Before leaving the Commander-in-Chief, we expressed serious concern about the growing tensions in northern Rakhine, including the strengthening of the already considerable deployment of security forces. The Commander played down the significance of this and said that his troops were only operating on the Mayu mountains for ‘clearance’ purposes, not in the lower lying areas. Less than a day later, we knew that this was not true.

In the early hours of Aug. 25, 2017, poorly equipped Rohingya militants, attacked police and border guard stations, killing 12 officers. At least 80 insurgents were also killed.

In an immediate response to the attacks, the military launched a ferocious and indiscriminate campaign that lasted for months. Thousands of Rohingya were killed and around 750,000 crossed into Bangladesh.

Criminal Accountability

Since 2017, efforts to establish accountability have been receiving considerable attention, and rightly so because societies cannot heal without accountability. Cases are ongoing in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the International Criminal Court (ICC), and in Argentina and Turkey under the principle of universal jurisdiction.  

But international judicial processes take years. It is already more than three years ago since the ICC prosecutor first requested the court to authorise an investigation into the enforced deportation of Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh (July 2019).  As yet, no indictments have been brought.

It is also troubling that important parts of international cases are not made public. That is the case, for example, in the ICJ case of The Gambia v. Myanmar under the Genocide convention. In January 2020, the judges ordered Myanmar to report every six months about the implementation of the preliminary measures that the court had imposed. But Myanmar’s reports to the ICJ are confidential, which makes it impossible to monitor the information presented to the judges. It also makes it particularly difficult for the Rohingya victims to follow the court’s proceedings, let alone play a role.

Although international justice is slow, public hearings as well as dedicated efforts by various institutions have contributed a considerable body of information and evidence that is already in the public domain.  One of the earlier ones was “They gave them long swords” by Fortify Rights (July 2018).  The latest is the report by the International Commission on Justice and Accountability (CIJA) of August 2022.  These complement the comprehensive report of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar (2019).

Such reports obviously include important information for the Rohingya victims who closely follow the efforts to indict suspects of international crimes.

But there is more. They are also concerned about perpetrators who violently confronted them directly but who will not be tried internationally. A particular group among them is the Rakhine militias. Trained and armed by the military, they followed the instructions of the official security services.

The militias knew the local situation like the back of their hand.  They were particularly involved in mopping up operations, rooting out and killing remaining civilians, and setting entire villages ablaze. Many lived in the same area as their victims; and today, many still live in areas Rohingyas want to return to.

Getting justice for the Rohingya does not stop with addressing international crimes that will lead to only a limited number of indictments. It requires a much broader approach, including transitional justice measures that assist the Rakhine state’s diverse ethnic communities to come to terms with their terrible legacy of conflict and repression. This is important for the approximately 600,000 Rohingya who still lives in Rakhine as well as for the around one million who are in Bangladesh and other countries in the region.

Reports by Fortify Rights, CIJA, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and others provide information about the role of militias. It is important that this is compiled and made available, together with suggestions on how this terrible legacy might be overcome. Achieving reconciliation will take time. A start should be made.

The Current Situation in the Rakhine State

What has become of the approximately 600,000 Rohingya who did not flee to Bangladesh but stayed in Rakhine State?

Little was done to improve the lives of those who had stayed behind. They remain stuck in the brutal and dehumanising Apartheid state that has confined them to a squalid ghetto-like existence since the breakout of large-scale violence in 2012, where access to healthcare, education, and livelihoods is a daily struggle. Even today this Apartheid state, coupled with severe and arbitrary restrictions of movement, continues to provide a perfect framework for genocidal acts.

In 2020, after two long years of violent conflict between the military and the Arakan Army (AA), the Rakhine state was ravaged and an informal ceasefire was agreed upon. During the cease-fire, the AA and its civilian arm, the United League of Arakan (ULA), managed to expand their administrative and justice mechanisms. With the exception of the Bangladesh border area, the AA now controls much of the rural areas in the north and centre of the state.

This has led to some positive changes for the Rohingya. Several have been selected for low-level administration positions under the AA, although this may be more incidental than part of deliberate policy changes. Also, a large group of Rohingya was recently allowed to attend Sittwe university. At the same time, the trust between different communities remains low. Reducing fear of ‘others’ that has been stoked for as long as many remember takes political will and a comprehensive, long-term approach.

Over the past few months, tensions between Myanmar’s military and the AA have increased considerably and violent clashes are on the rise. With the military increasing its troop strength, the Rakhine state could soon fall victim to serious violence once again.

The AA is now one of Myanmar’s biggest ethnic armed groups. Its growth has been affecting the Rakhine state’s political dynamics. It has crowded its governance stage. In addition to the military regime and the AA, traditional political parties are now also trying to assert themselves. Since the coup, their approach to the military regime has wavered between support and indifference. Many of their members continue to espouse hard-line nationalist and anti-Rohingya views.

The National Unity Government (NUG) does not have a foothold in the Rakhine state. Its appointment of a Rohingya advisor has been a positive step. However, the Rakhine state’s history with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), from which the NUG was initially born, has been fraught with problems.

The current situation is deeply troubling. Access to humanitarian supplies is highly irregular and livelihoods are affected, while the military continues to impose new road and water blockades. There’s a real risk that the Rohingya will soon again feel crushed between the AA and the military.

As Rakhine descends into greater violence, Myanmar’s military regime and Bangladesh are actively discussing the return of Rohingya refugees, a few hundred at a time. While it is understandable that Bangladesh is keen to start a return process, under the current circumstances safe and dignified voluntary returns are not possible, and the conditions the refugees themselves have stated cannot be met. The military regime does not have full control over the Rakhine state and neither does the AA, let alone the existing political parties. For years free access to northern Rakhine state has not been possible.

Importantly, while visiting Bangladesh in mid-August, the UN’s Human Rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, said that the right conditions for returns are not in place.

Moving Forward

Given the current situation in the Rakhine state, putting greater emphasis on building bridges between ethnic communities will be difficult. Although some efforts have been made, a firm foundation for change has not yet been laid.

But even under adverse circumstances, and violent conflict, in particular,  work can continue. But it requires a shared understanding that the underlying causes of the state’s problems must be addressed. Rakhine state’s political dynamics are shifting and, as its people are trying to find a way forward, more inclusive governance structures should be considered.

Going forward what should be taken into account is that ensuring increasing interaction between all ethnic groups is critical. Ethnic segregation must end. Reintegration, and not segregation, is the best path to long-term stability and development.

An important step would be the reintroduction of ethnically mixed schools. In many places, this was the practice until 2012. It would be a major step forward, intended to build trust while ensuring equal access to education.

Another step would be engaging in debate about a new citizenship law that does not entrench membership of a limited number of ethnicities as a condition. The NUG has already set out certain principles.

Rakhine state is home to Myanmar’s largest group of de facto stateless people. But statelessness is not only an issue for the Rohingya. There are thousands of others who are considered stateless, including Gurkhas, Tamils, Hindus, and Chinese. If Myanmar does not bring its legislation in line with international standards, its problem will only continue to grow.

This is also critically important for the return of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They have rightly insisted that they do not want to return unless their citizenship is guaranteed.

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