Violent suppression of the Muslim minority threatens Myanmar’s fragile transition, writes Katherine Southwick.

Last month, the United Nations (UN) released a damning “Flash Report” based on interviews with more than 220 members of the Rohingya minority group who had fled from northern Rakhine State in Myanmar to Bangladesh since October 2016.  The report vividly details numerous incidents of killings, including of babies and toddlers; gang rape; beatings, including of pregnant women; burning of the elderly and children alive in their homes; arbitrary detention; destruction of crops and livestock; and looting and occupation of property.

Myanmar security and police forces allegedly carried out these atrocities.  Rakhine villagers, some of whom had recently integrated into the security forces under loosened admission requirements, also participated.  According to the report, “The army and its supporting Rakhine villagers forced victims, including small children, to watch their family members suffer.”  The research team also photographed “bullet and knife wounds, burns, and injuries resulting from beatings with rifle butts and bamboo sticks.”

These abuses have taken place in the context of a counterinsurgency operation, which followed a 9 October 2016 attack on three border guard posts in northern Rakhine State.  At least nine security officers were killed.  A group called Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY) claimed responsibility.  According to International Crisis Group, HaY is “led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia.”  The Myanmar government sealed off the area as a security operation zone (or lockdown area), with people’s movements restricted and humanitarian and press access denied.  Operations reportedly continued into January 2017, though their intensity has lessened.

Since early October, almost 90,000 people have been displaced, of which more than 66,000 have crossed into Bangladesh.  The security forces’ “calculated policy of terror” has added to the approximately 120,000 who were internally displaced in violence that broke out in 2012.  It also builds on a pattern of persecution that has endured since the late 1970s, when the Myanmar government initiated policies that eventually stripped the community, believed to number around one million, of nationality and other rights.  Before this latest round of violence, almost 230,000 Rohingya refugees had already been subsisting in squalid camps in Bangladesh for more than three decades.

The Flash Report is the latest rallying point for advocacy that periodically surfaces with respect to mistreatment of the Rohingya and instability in Rakhine State.  It joins a long list of excellent reports by the UN, researchers, and human rights organisations which over decades have raised concerns about crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and more recently, genocide being perpetrated against the Rohingya.  This month, Pope Francis prayed for the Rohingya during a general audience.

Documenting human rights abuses is crucial to efforts to establish facts and develop informed policies.  Yet this latest report illustrates one of the shortcomings of international attention to the Rohingya crisis.  Notably, the report contains no recommendations for what to do about what we have long known are serious violations.  While plenty of past reports have put forth sensible recommendations, too often, domestic and international responses to the Rohingya crisis suffer from the phenomenon of goal displacement.  Rather than stopping the violence or increasing humanitarian and development assistance, a common response to a newsworthy report is to issue another statement, request another report or investigation, and maybe host a multilateral meeting.  Additionally, the government’s autocratic reaction has been to dismiss media reports as “fabrications” while continuing to disallow journalists access to the worst-hit areas.

The alternative response is to set up a commission, such as the Rakhine Inquiry Commission of 2012-2013, the Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State created in May 2016, the Rakhine Investigation Commission set up in August 2016 and headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and others.  Like reports and documentation, these entities can serve an essential function, such as in establishing institutional roles and strategies responsive to the region’s medium to long term challenges.  However, they can also serve as a stalling tactic, looking like “action” while ultimately doing little to address the urgency of stopping indiscriminate violence and preventing loss of life.  They risk resembling what legal sociologist Lauren Edelman calls “symbolic structures,” giving the illusion of compliance while limiting the actual realization of human rights.

If reports and commissions continue to constitute the response to this crisis, the Rohingya will essentially be documented to death before meaningful steps are taken to afford them security, access to health services and livelihoods, and a sustainable place in Myanmar’s future.

The way forward
Some might ask what the government and international community should do about the violence in Rakhine State.  Plenty have called for increased humanitarian assistance and media access to affected areas.  Past commissions and experts have emphasised the need to commit to a vision of a democratic Myanmar that is inclusive and tolerant of various ethnicities and religions.  As founding father Aung San declared in 1946, “every nation in the world being a conglomeration of races and religions should develop such a nationalism as is compatible with the welfare of one and all, irrespective of race or religion or class or sex.”

Such a vision would require revising or reinterpreting the 1982 nationality law to allow Rohingya persons citizenship status, changing laws that discriminate on the basis of ethnicity or religion, countering extreme forms of Buddhist nationalism, acknowledging the country’s historical diversity, and supporting positive interfaith interaction and peaceful dispute resolution.  Given widespread abuses perpetrated by domestic security forces, the UN should explore deploying international peacekeepers to assure vulnerable populations of their safety during a phase of deescalating tensions.

Last, poverty and central government neglect have in part fed resentment and despair in Rakhine State, making it ripe for interethnic tensions.  Perhaps working through the Central Committee, the government and international donors, including ASEAN, must act quickly to incentivise peace and prosperity for all in Rakhine State.  They could condition significant economic assistance on the achievement of benchmarks critical to upholding security and equal rights and access to food, health services, education, and livelihoods.  Progress in resolving the Rohingya crisis must feature prominently as the European Union reviews extending its arms embargo in April.  Private entities such as universities could offer student visas and scholarships to young, displaced Rohingya, potentially saving their lives and better positioning them to help their communities.

However, the crucial question is not what is to be done, but whether or under what conditions the government and international community will summon the will to work concretely toward implementing overdue change.  Without doubt, Myanmar faces many challenges, and the displaced Rohingya represent a fraction of the record high 65 million people displaced by violence and persecution throughout the world.

A strategic observation might focus minds on solutions: The October attacks and hardline military response mark a turning point in the challenges facing Rakhine State.  The presence of a militant group, however miniscule at this point, adds a new dimension.  It might complicate the Rohingya minority’s ability to garner international sympathy, despite, as ICG points out, most Rohingya leaders having “eschewed violence as counterproductive.  The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years.”

As a HaY militant leader reportedly said, “Our Rohingya brothers around the world are trying to negotiate with world leaders to put pressure on the Myanmar government, but it is not working.  So that makes us bound to do armed revolution against the government for our rights.”  Militant activity has certainly emboldened the government’s violent response.  Calls for bringing alleged perpetrators of human rights violations to justice will be even less convincing to the authorities in the midst of a “counterterrorism” effort.

The government’s hard-line approach is ultimately counterproductive to international security.  Militant tendencies born of grievance and despair may attract other terrorist networks, as has occurred with groups in Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere.  A university student in the United States carried out a knife attack last November based partly on outrage over treatment of the Rohingya. Violent repression within the Myanmar context of growing Buddhist nationalism and religious intolerance exacerbates domestic instability, and in turn strengthens the military’s role in government.  As a result, the country’s fragile democratic institutions will weaken, undermining political and economic progress.

Simply put, killing off the Rohingya and allowing their humanitarian crisis to fester is a losing proposition for the region as a whole.

The next report in the chronology of this tragedy will probably be the Rakhine Investigation Commission’s, due out in August.  Kofi Annan as head of the Commission will likely use his diplomatic experience to advance vital policies.  But we should not need another report to inform us that serious and concerted action to save lives and deescalate tensions is required now.

Katherine Southwick is a Visiting Scholar at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.