THE crisis in Rakhine State in Burma (Myanmar) is reaching a fever pitch. As more Rohingya Muslims continue to flood over the border to Bangladesh and reports of “ethnic cleansing” continue to dominate the headlines, the plight of this vulnerable community seems almost hopeless.
It is reported that over 500,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the military offensive that has raged since Aug 25 after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army camp, killing 12 people.
A campaign of violence and arson aimed at driving out the Muslim population followed the attack, with human rights groups and news organisations accusing the Burmese military of burning down Rohingya villages, murdering innocent people and falsely blaming the atrocities on the rebel group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
The Burmese government continues to lay blame at the feet of the “terrorist” rebels, and religious and racial hatred towards the ostracised group is being stoked by the authorities. As the tension mounts at home, with many local Burmese in this Buddhist majority nation believing that the Rohingya are illegal settlers and responsible for the bloodshed, a pathway to resolving the crisis seems almost unfeasible.
So far, little action has been taken by the international community to stem the flow of people or curtail the Burmese military from the reported offences they are committing.
While a number of world leaders have condemned the treatment of the Rohingya and urged de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out in condemnation of the brutality, few have put forward workable and realistic solutions to this ever-worsening crisis.
In this seemingly hopeless stand-off, what are the potential actions are available to the international community, as well as Burma and her neighbours, to stop the bloodshed and mass migration?
Human Rights Watch were some of the first to call for targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on the Burmese military. In a statement to the UN Security Council, the group called for an immediate “travel ban and asset freeze on those responsible for grave abuses and impose a comprehensive arms embargo against Burma.”
It seems people may have listened, as news emerged today that the European Union and the United States are considering targeted sanctions against Burma’s military leaders.
Interviews with more than a dozen diplomats and government officials based in Washington, Yangon and Europe revealed that punitive measures aimed specifically at top generals were among a range of options being discussed in response to the crisis.
Nothing has yet been decided and Washington and Brussels may decide to hold off for now, the sources said.
According to Reuters, the EU Foreign Ministers Council will discuss Burma on Oct 16, although officials do not expect any move on sanctions that soon.
Washington-based US officials with knowledge of the Trump administration’s Burma deliberations said targeted sanctions against commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and several other generals, as well as leaders of ethnic Rakhine Buddhist militias accused of torching Rohingya villages, were under consideration.
Such sanctions would likely include US asset freezes, bans on travel to the United States, prohibitions against Americans doing business with them and other unspecified penalties.
“Burma’s senior military commanders are more likely to heed the calls of the international community if they are suffering real economic consequences,” said John Sifton, HRW Asia advocacy director. “It hits those responsible for ethnic cleansing where it hurts.”
Create safe zones
Myanmar’s army destroyed another Rohingya Muslim village in Rakhine state on Saturday. pic.twitter.com/Ml9ni5gtI3
— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) October 8, 2017
The idea of setting up “safe zones” run by aid groups for Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine state was proposed by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a bid to stem the flow of refugees crossing the border into her country.
Dhaka sent the proposal to Burma’s government through the International Committee of the Red Cross to secure three areas in Rakhine, home to the Rohingya community, suggesting that people displaced by the violence be relocated there under the supervision of an international organization, such as the United Nations.
While the plan is the latest to come from Dhaka who is struggling under the pressure of accommodating the refugees, it is unlikely to be considered by the Burmese where the Rohingya population are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite them living in Burma for generations.
Coordinated response from Asean
Asean, India and Bangladesh need to discuss the Rohingya crisis together to work for an optimum solution to the problem, said Dr Sampa Kundu, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
According to Kundu, the first step would be to convince the present government in Burma about the benefits of well-coordinated cooperation between Asean members, India and Bangladesh to tackle the issue.
The platforms of the regional and sub-regional institutions including the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) need to be more effectively used to convince the NLD to “discuss the issue openly and take advantages of the experience of countries like India and Thailand who have long experience in dealing with insurgency and terrorism,” Kundu writes.
“Asean needs to push aside the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a member country as the Rohingya crisis is not a one-country problem.”
UN human rights resolution
In another sign of pressure building on Burma, New York-based diplomats said the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the UN General Assembly was pushing for a human rights resolution on the country.
Last year the EU announced that for the first time in 15 years it would not introduce a resolution at the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which focuses on human rights, condemning Burma’s record – rewarding it for progress.
The European bloc could revive the resolution in the current session, taking on board the OIC draft and broadening it out beyond the Rohingya crisis, one diplomat in New York said.
Diplomats said some members of the UN Security Council were exploring whether the 15-member body could agree on a formal statement, or even a resolution, calling for an end to the violence, full access for aid and the safe return of refugees.
However, Burma has said it was negotiating with China and Russia, which have veto powers in the Security Council, to protect it from any possible action. China and Russia have both expressed support for the Burma government.
Additional reporting by Reuters