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Myanmar and the Rohingya: What Engagement? What Pressure?

IN PROTEST. Tears roll down the face of an ethnic Myanmar Rohingya refugee during a demonstration outside the United Nations offices in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 16, 2014. File photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

By Johanna Son
June 14, 2015

International pressure to force Myanmar to stop the persecution of the Rohingya is unlikely to work on a country that has largely been immune to foreign pressure

BANGKOK, Thailand – The chorus of calls continues for international and regional pressure to force Myanmar to stop the persecution of the Rohingya, but this is unlikely to work with a Southeast Asian country that has largely been immune to foreign pressure.

Myanmar, after all, is used to bearing the brunt of international criticism over its military rule and human rights record, including during five decades of isolation that ended in 2011.

In 2010, the junta that had ruled Myanmar from 1962 held elections not because of foreign pressure – despite what western or ASEAN countries think – but after the generals decided it was time to engage the external world and open up in a way that maximizes the dividends of being seen as a country moving toward a civilian democracy.

So while civil society groups and foreign governments urge Myanmar to address the Rohingya issue and show its reformist credentials, this ‘script’ does not carry much weight with Myanmar, say foreign policy analysts familiar with Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

The country of 51 million people, where the military remains a major force despite the civilian government and institutions of a parliamentary democracy, writes the script of its engagement with the outside world, when and how it will make a move in its own interests.

“Myanmar will never give in to international pressure,” says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow with the Bangkok-based Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) who has followed regional and ASEAN affairs for decades. “That’s why (it had a) long isolation, yet survived with abundant food and minerals.”

Bertil Lintner, who has written several books on Myanmar, explained: “The people who rule Myanmar are extremely unlikely to give in to any kind of foreign pressure.”

“More likely, they'll try to turn things around like, for instance, suddenly announce that they are going to rescue boat people - and then being praised by the United Nations for taking such an humanitarian approach to the problem. But the government (and, I would also say, the majority of the population) would not change its basic stand, ie that there are no Rohingyas, only Bengalis who have settled in the country, mostly illegally according to the majority view,” he said in an interview.

Asked how countries can engage constructively with Myanmar on the Rohingya, he said: “No policy would work, I’m afraid.”

While the plight of the Muslim Rohingya is not new, it made the headlines in recent months, when thousands who fled Myanmar were stranded in rickety boats after human smugglers and traffickers abandoned them in the wake of a crackdown by neighbouring Thailand.

The Rohingya – an ethnic minority that the Myanmar government has denied citizenship to and calls Bengalis from neighboring Bangladesh – have been leaving the country by sea and heading for Malaysia through Thailand. Many of those who left earlier in 2015 were stuck on boats for months, lacking food and water and in deteriorating health, as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia pushed their boats back into sea or into each one other’s waters.

Under pressure, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed in May to let the boats land on their shores. A May meeting with 17 governments and four international organizations was held on the ‘boat people’ crisis. The Oslo Conference to End Myanmar’s Systematic Persecution of Rohingyas took place in late May at the Norwegian Nobel Institution.

There are more than 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar, mostly in western Rakhine state, where riots broke out between Buddhist and Muslims in 2012. More than 100,000 Rohingya now live in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – the government says for their own protection – but are ghettoes where Myanmar media report they live without access to health care, education and enough food, and where armed guards and the fear of being attacked outside prevent them from leaving the camps.

At a June discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT), the words ‘genocide’, ‘apartheid’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ were used to in relation to the Rohingyas.

Going too soft

Matthew Smith, executive director of the human rights group Fortify Rights, described an “architecture of abuse” by the Myanmar state – far beyond communal violence – that have restricted the Rohingyas’ freedom of movement, as well as areas like childbirth and marriage.

Activists have criticized international organizations and western governments for being soft on Myanmar for fear of undercutting what for them is a ‘success story’ they were part of since 2011 – the coming to power of a nominally civilian government (Prime Minister Thein Sein is a former general with the junta), the holding of elections, opening of media space, the entry of foreign investments.

“Everybody knows about the abuses,” Smith said at the FCCT discussion, citing the existence of a UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar and foreign officials who have visited Rakhine state. But instead of these leading to solutions to rights violations, “the opposite has happened”.

Why? Smith says that international organizations in Myanmar are hesitant to stir trouble with their hosts. “No one wants to become the next MSF,” he said, referring to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the only international non-government organization given access to Rakhine for 20 years until it was thrown out in February 2014. Also, “there is some of the euphoria (about Myanmar’s opening up) since 2010” that is behind this attitude, he added.

Different international actors look at (raising the Rohingya issue) as a conversation-stopper (with Myanmar)”, he pointed out.

But what may look like a softer approach can also be “more of a reluctance to not lose the rare ground gained and the opportunity for further confidence-and capacity-building (in Myanmar),” said Moe Thuzar.

Still, Lintner writes in June issue of The Irrawaddy magazine that western countries like the United States have been going soft on Myanmar’s rights and elections issues due to its larger goal of countering China’s influence on Myanmar. “Criticisms of ongoing human-rights abuses have become muted, if expressed at all. No one wants to hear any bad news. That’s not good for the ‘engagement policy,” he wrote.

Western countries give themselves imagined credit for influencing Myanmar’s generals to undertake political change, he says. “What success story? It’s the Burmese generals who have been successful in getting the international community off their backs. Since this government took over in March 2011, the civil war has intensified to levels not seen since the 1980s,” Lintner explained. There are 120,000 IDPs in Kachin state (similar numbers to those in Rakhine) and 30,000 Kokang refugees are in neighbouring China, he added.

In The Irrawaddy, Lintner writes: “The bitter reality is that it is the Myanmar generals who have successfully – and cleverly – managed to engage the West, not the other way around. The decision to approach the West was not taken because the generals were induced by some foreigners to a democratic awakening.” (He cites classified Myanmar documents showing that it was the country’s heavy dependence on China over the decades that made the generals decide to open up to counter this.)

As it has in the past, would Myanmar then follow its own tune – and not any external force – on the Rohingya?

An ASEAN way somewhere?

“Persuasion beyond closed doors of bilateral ASEAN diplomacy would be more effective,” says Moe Thuzar, lead researcher on socio-cultural issues at the Singapore-based ASEAN Studies Centre and coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Group at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. There is room for discussion, she believes, “as Myanmar has never really been as isolated as some of the Western/international media portray”.

She points out, ‘ASEAN members and other countries in Asia had kept up the policy of engagement as the best approach (absent any that works) to persuading the generals in Myanmar to see the longer-term benefits of opening up,” she said. “The same principle would apply in this case, I believe.”

Asked if there is any ASEAN approach on the Rohingya issue, given that ASEAN emerged as the more trusted external player after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, she said: “I do think there is some hope, however dim at this point.”

Lintner disagrees: “ASEAN is built on two fundamental principles: consensus and non-interference, which means that it can’t really do anything about anything.”

Kavi adds that ASEAN will “discuss the issue incrementally”, depending on how the current chair, Malaysia, handles it. “If (Prime Minister (Najib Razak) wants to leave a legacy, he would put it on the ASEAN agenda using the term ‘irregular migrants’. But his leadership is weak now due to domestic attacks from (former Prime Minister) Mahathir (Mohamad). So his (ASEAN) chair’s ambition has been halved for now.”

Domestic concerns – the November election - rank quite high for Myanmar at this point when it comes to the Rohingya.

“Myanmar is aware of the exigencies of external pressure, as it does want to prove and improve its international and regional standing,” Moe Thuzar explains. “However, this current ‘crisis’ that the media has also comprehensively covered, conflicts with the conflation of religion and politics. This is concerning, especially in election year.”

In sum, there is very little incentive for Myanmar to act on a problem that is not even seen as a problem domestically. If the Rohingya are not accepted as part of Myanmar’s some 135 ethnic groups, then there is not much more left to discuss, especially in a setting of heightened anti-Muslim sentiment.

Moe Thuzar says it is time for ASEAN to look at its human rights narrative, and this may allow realistic space for discussing national contexts like Myanmar’s. “Weak and toothless as it may seem, a proper, contextual and objective analysis of the situation of people trafficking in ASEAN needs to be commissioned as a regional thematic study under the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human rights,” she said.

Myanmar’s officials are far from reticent on the state’s position. In June, Khin Aung Myint, speaker of the upper house, told parliamentarians how he replied to an Australian politician who asked Myanmar to take back the 20,000 ‘boat people’. “I responded by asking if their faces were similar to ours, or do they speak any language used by Myanmar national races? If the international community forces Myanmar to accept them, Myanmar people would not accept it,” The Myanmar Times newspaper quoted him as saying.

He continued, “These 20,000 to 30,000 people will turn to 200,000 to 300,000 people right now and then turn to 2 to 3 million later...”

Said an expert who follows ASEAN: “Myanmar will take up the issue at its own pace. This is an election year, so no one dares touch the Rohingya. The problem is not with the government – the problem is that the Burmese don't accept the Rohingya as part of their community.”

“Still, there is some hope now because there has been more awareness, more surveillance, more international cooperation. So the next is to find good solutions and implement them,” the expert added. “At the moment, none of this has occurred.”

Johanna Son, based in Bangkok for 15 years, is a journalist and editor who follows regional, ASEAN affairs and development issues. She is also director of IPS Asia-Pacific, which does news and media development work, including on the ‘Reporting ASEAN: 2015 and Beyond program’.

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