Though the humanitarian crisis in Syria still dominates international attention there are many other crises around the world. Among the worst, is that in Mynamar, about which I have written at length.
Despite now having a democratically elected civilian government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after decades of military rule, and despite the country’s ongoing efforts to re-join the international community as a fully-fledged member, many aspects of the government remain in the hands of the independent military, including domestic security.
Following a series of attacks on border outposts last October, the Rohingya minority has been fingered as responsible, and has suffered brutal collective reprisals by the military and other branches of Myanmar’s security apparatus, both at the federal and at the local state level. These have included wanton rape of women and children, as well as extrajudicial killings of men, women, children and even infants, which have led to a new wave of refugees fleeing the country.
It has been enough to make some UN experts and observers infer that the end-goal of the the ongoing brutality might be to finally ‘expel’ all the Rohingya from Myanmar. After all, the decades of persecution at the hands of the succession of military governments had already pushed over half of the Rohingya people out of the country, while successive waves of communal violence since 2012 have left more than 120,000 stuck in internally displaced people’s camps, a substantial percentage of the country’s remaining 7-800,000 Rohingya.
Nevertheless, the Brumese Army’s internal investigation into its own conduct in the local Rakhine state since last autumn has found ‘no wrongdoing except in two minor incidents’. Nor is there much hope that the civilian government might put any pressure on the military over these findings, if history is anything to go by. So far, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have shown a studied reluctance to step on the military’s toes, and she has specifically rejected the concerns raised by the UN regarding ethnic cleansing.
Indeed, Daw Suu Kyi has already opposed the UN’s rights council decision to investigate the allegations of abuses independently. But in the wake of the shambolic findings produced by the Army’s internal investigation, it seems clear that we can no longer leave this issue to Myanmar’s authorities.
The fundamental issue here, as is often the case in politics, is one of accountability. It is no surprise that the Army is not going to hold itself accountable for the reported abuses.
It would therefore have been the right and proper place for the Burmese government of the country to hold them accountable for them.
Yet this government is showing itself unwilling. Indeed, given the peculiar constitutional arrangements the country has in place for its managed transition to democracy, the civilian government may be unable to impose any censure on the armed forces. If that is the case, much of the ‘progress’ towards democratisation would be revealed as illusory, since ultimate sovereign power still resides with the Army’s strength of arms rather than the state’s civilian institutions.
But the human rights abuses against the Rohingya will not stop until the individuals and institutions which are perpetrating them are held to account. And the only party showing itself willing to do so, with proper judiciousness and due diligence, is the United Nations Human Rights Council.
It is therefore imperative that the international community empowers the Council to pursue its own independent investigation, and back international criminal proceedings against any individuals violating international humanitarian law in international courts if the Burmese courts refuse to prosecute appropriately.
If we do not, the Burmese Army may yet complete its programme of ‘ethnic cleansing’. And the rest of us in the international community will be left picking up the human and financial costs of dealing with yet another wave of refugees, and yet another hotspot of instability in the world.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.