TW: violence, sexual assault, murder
The Escalation of Instability Within Myanmar & its Bordering Countries
Discriminatory policies have plagued Myanmar’s socio-political landscape since its independence in 1948 (then known as Burma) when the citizenship law’s exclusion of the Rohingya people was developed to strip the ethnic group of their access to full citizenship rights under the military junta in the 1980s. This led to hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya, who continue to be a stateless population, fleeing the country’s predominantly Buddhist landscape to find shelter from persecution either in Bangladesh or daring the journey by sea to countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
The nation’s governments have repeatedly denied recognition of the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, rendering them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even when the Rohingya’s historical roots can be traced back centuries in the country. Renewed violence of rape, murder, and arson against the Rohingya minority in 2017 followed when the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police and army posts. Myanmar’s claim on their effort to reintroduce stability within their western region – where most of the Rohingya, an estimated 1 million, resided in Rakhine State – through brutal campaigns destroying hundreds of villages was condemned by the United Nation for its “genocidal intent”.
Given Myanmar’s history of institutionalized discrimination against “the most persecuted minority in the world” through suppression on marriage, employment, religious choice, and other matters, Rakhine State’s underdevelopment with its 78% poverty rate (compared to the national average of 37.5%) does not come as a surprise. After Myanmar’s 2017 military campaigns against the Rohingya forced nearly 700,000 to leave the country and killed at least 6,700 in the first month, the decades of exploitation and persecution against the ethnic group – and now those of other ethnic origins – have only exacerbated in the face of the country’s February 2021 coup d’etat by its military junta (the Tatmadaw) led by Senior General Min Aung Hliang that overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The gradual shift towards democracy within Myanmar has halted under the country’s military dictatorship, which has waged war against its own people. There have been thousands of cases of arbitrary arrests, torture, and scorched-earth campaigns with at least 1,600 people killed and over 8,700 people still remaining in detention. While the coup internally displaced over 638,000 Burmese people and worsened the drug and human trafficking crises within the country, its repercussions transcended borders in impacting countries like India and Indonesia due to an influx of refugees attempting to escape the collapsing economy, widespread hunger, and the hardships of COVID-19.
More than 900,000 of the Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh, many staying within the crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar district. Refugees face a contaminated water supply and a high potential of disease outbreak alongside the threat of exploitation and sexual enslavement. As is the case in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, the Rohingya also have no legal status and are denied employment, education, and health care: in Cox’s Bazar, nearly 400,000 children lack access to education. Moreover, they are often locked up in immigration detention centers or neglected to die on boats, trapped at sea for months; several nations have used the pandemic as an excuse to push back boats carrying refugees and put restrictions on aid. When refugees do reach a neighbouring country, the risk of exploitation is high.
‘The ASEAN Way’ Undermining Intergovernmental Support for Myanmar
Since the country’s reversion to a military dictatorship a little more than a year ago, the people of Myanmar have little faith in the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) to tackle the junta’s ongoing atrocities. The organization’s principle of non-interference in the “internal affairs” of its eleven members means that regional instability from deteriorating democracies, human rights abuses, and ineffective rule of law has only heightened in the face of ASEAN’s lack of concrete actions in response to Myanmar’s dual socio-political crises.
When ASEAN leaders met on 24th April 2021 in a special summit on Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing’s invitation emphasized the lack of any National Unity Government (NUG) – Myanmar’s elected civilian government – involvement during the proceedings. The “Five Points of Consensus” agreement on facilitating a peaceful solution to the nation’s crisis contradicted ASEAN’s repeated failure to condemn the coup and demand that Min Aung Hlaing return power to the NUG.
“The ASEAN way” has historically diminished the bloc’s authentic effort in helping Myanmar. More than 170,000 Rohingya refugees were trafficked to Thailand and Malaysia between 2012-15 while neighbouring countries turned a blind eye, and ASEAN’s impunity towards the violations in Myanmar was re-established during the junta-instigated genocide of the Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2016-17. It is unsurprising, then, that the Tatmadaw counted on the bloc’s “acquiescence in legitimizing the putsch” in 2021 to carry their agendas.
Despite being Myanmar's closest neighbour, Thailand has had a “disappointingly weak” stance on the coup due to its similarities with the political stances of the Tatmadaw. With an accelerating refugee crisis that would be felt across Southeast Asia for a long time, Min Aung Hlaing’s October 2021 block in attending key ASEAN summits has not been enough of a response when Myanmar is yet to be formally suspended from the bloc and other senior officials are still able to attend near-daily ministerial meetings.
One-fifth of Myanmar’s population (14 million people) requires life-saving humanitarian assistance, yet ASEAN has only delivered aid in terms of COVID-19. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore’s push for ASEAN to do more for Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis and to delegitimize the junta is thwarted by the regional bloc’s own backward policies, especially when Cambodia, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste remain the only Southeast Asian countries to accept the United Nations’ 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Beyond Southeast Asia: International Responses to Myanmar
After a 2018 UN report accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out mass killings and rapes with “genocidal intent” (which Myanmar and San Suu Kyi have long denied), the International Court of Justice case by The Gambia – a small Muslim-majority nation in West Africa – came to fruition in January 2020. The case called for emergency measures to be taken against the Tatmadaw to protect the Rohingya from persecution and death.
Yet, the ongoing crises in the country are undeniably rooted in international failures to hold the military junta and its leaders accountable for their atrocities: from the Rohingya genocide to the current dictatorship ruling Myanmar. The persisting climate of impunity permeating ASEAN’s policies has allowed the Tatmadaw to continue with ineffective opposition from the international stage. Thus, the 2019 lawsuit filed by The Gambia against Myanmar has seen Burmese authorities failing to comply with a set of four provisional measures offered by the ICJ.
Following a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Myanmar military’s “systematic and widespread human rights violations and abuses, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”, Southeast Asian parliamentarians have urged ASEAN, who are already facing weakening credibility, to act quickly and immediately to alleviate the hardships of Myanmar’s people: for example, pushing Cambodia, the blocs’ current chair, to take concrete actions like banning other junta representatives from ASEAN official meetings until all political prisoners are freed, violence against Burmese civilians comes to an end, and democracy is restored.
The European Union imposed a fourth round of sanctions on the junta in February 2022, as well as promised €65 million in aid to Myanmar, whilst the U.S., Canada, Norway, and South Korea have intensified their humanitarian efforts. The Tatmadaw’s need for legitimacy and “business as usual” status quo means a global arms embargo would effectively derail the junta’s military efforts. Although Brussels sanctioned the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, a great source of revenue for the junta, Russia and China’s reluctance to increase sanctions as Myanmar’s top arms supplier and their veto powers render this course of action nearly impossible.
Calls for ‘R2P’
Responsibility to Protect (R2P), an approach adopted by the UN in 2005, sought to end “the politics of indifference and inaction” that has long defined the international community’s inadequate reaction to atrocities like genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. One of R2P’s three pillars states the international community’s moral responsibility to protect people from mass atrocities when the state is either unwilling to do so, or they are the perpetrator themselves. Although criticized as a Western tool used by UN policymakers to justify using force or undermining the sovereignty of another state, grassroots movements and individuals in Myanmar acknowledge the importance of a global response to their crises.
Being neither an independent coalition nor agency, the “principle of R2P will only ever be as effective as practitioners make it”. ASEAN states and countries beyond the regional bloc must, therefore, increase their sanctions, arms embargoes, accountability for crimes, and humanitarian efforts by preventing refoulement and border rejections, and providing refugees with temporary legal status for employment, education, and health care. It is also paramount that all parties condemn the junta as illegitimate power holders, recognizing instead the National Unity Government of Myanmar as the lawful representatives of their country.
Editors: Chris F.C., Evie F., Blenda Y., Rachel C., Amshu V., Uzayer M., Rano B.
This article was originally written in March 2022
Image Credit: Maung Sun - Wikimedia Commons