Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Opinion: Has the international community abandoned the Rohingya in Myanmar?

The United Nations Security Council meets on Dec. 11, 2019. (Mainichi/Toshiyuki Sumi)

NEW YORK -- The International Community has condemned the turbulent situation in Myanmar. Countries have called for a continuation of the democratic process, pursued by the government elected in a general election last November. These are, of course, necessary actions. But when it comes to achieving better rights for the Rohingya minority, they do not go far enough.

    On top of making calls for democratic reform, the release of detainees and restraint from violence, the international community should step up its focus toward the minority group. Countries could support dialogue and long-term constructive measures to help the underlying problem of Myanmar: its ethnic diversity.

    Demands from the international community to stop the deterioration of the situation in Myanmar and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's State Counsellor, is correct. The international community, however, criticized Aung San Suu Kyi for her lack of support for the Rohingya. The return of Aung San Suu Kyi will not necessarily lead to the full protection of the minority's rights.

    "Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD (National League for Democracy) were mostly interested in protecting the rights of the permanent majority," said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They alienated not just the Rohingya but a number of other ethnic groups."

    The international community has not taken a unified stance on how to respond to the situation in Myanmar since the military took over.

    Western countries and some others condemn the military and are keen to impose sanctions. However, China and Russia maintain a tougher approach of non-interference due to their traditional ties with the military regime and state sovereignty as their core value.

    ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional alliance, conducted a special summit in Jakarta on April 24 to discuss the situation. Yet, given that non-interference is the group's basic principle, it is harder for it to take a strong position.

    The situation of the minority group continues to be difficult. The Special Envoy of the United Nations on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said in her update to Security Council members on March 31 that "ethnic minorities and the Rohingya people will suffer most" and appealed to the Council to take a collective approach.

    The Security Council, the UN legislative body, issued four statements. The Council expressed concern that the current situation "has the potential to exacerbate existing challenges in Rakhine State and other regions," and that it poses challenges for the safe return of Rohingya refugees.

    But, Wai Wai Nu, a Burmese activist who advocates for equality and founded two non-government organizations to help women in Myanmar, has said the international community does not recognize how dire the situation is in Myanmar for the Rohingya and other marginalized groups.

    "Yes, there are statements and condemnation," Wai Wai said. "But they're not enough."

    Myanmar is a country of diversity. The country has 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, making it one of the world's most ethnically diverse countries.

    Rohingya people do not belong to any officially recognized group. Beginning in 1962, when Myanmar became a military state, Rohingya became victims of persecution in a Buddhist-led country and started fleeing to Bangladesh.

    As a result of the crackdown of 2017, thousands of Rohingya people were killed and over 700,000 fled their homes for Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi, however, did not stop the killing by the military and disappointed many when she chose to defend the military in front of the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

    According to the UN, as of early February, around a million people needed some form of humanitarian aid; 600,000 are stateless Rohingya in Rakhine; including 126,000 in camps and displacement sites.

    "The international community (should) understand that protecting a government (the NLD) that will continue to compromise with the military will not be a silver bullet," said Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya social justice activist, who was born in the Northern Rakhine state.

    Going back on a democratic path is the bare minimum. But how can the international community stop the oppression? There is the option of coercive measures. However, opinions on their effectiveness differ.

    Some countries, such as the U.K., U.S., EU, Canada and Australia individually introduced sanctions against the military in Myanmar and their conglomerates. According to diplomats, however, the Security Council will not introduce a resolution on sanctions in the near future because of a high probability of vetoes from Russia and China.

    An international arms embargo has an impact on modernization, new weaponry and sends a strong message. Some experts, however, say it is not effective in a technical way because it will not affect existing weapons the army already possesses. Also, the militia groups within Myanmar that smuggle weapons illegally through the borders of China and India, would get stronger.

    ASEAN demanded "the immediate cessation of violence" in Myanmar at the special summit in Jakarta. But it remains unclear whether the military will follow ASEAN's demands. And, while the international community cannot stop the crackdown in Myanmar, the military is trying to make the takeover a done deal.

    "The Myanmar military feels that it is in an existential battle for survival and is very unlikely to be swayed by diplomatic interventions or Western sanctions," said Richard Horsey, senior adviser on Myanmar of the International Crisis Group.

    "Ultimately, there's a limited amount you can do related to Myanmar," said Kurlantzick.

    Given its diversity, the idea of Myanmar becoming a federal state has been floating around already since 1947. It was not marginalized because after the British ended their rule in 1948, the military feared cessations. But federalism could put the diverse state together.

    "Ethnic minority groups have greater rights in a federal system, but Suu Kyi didn't really make much progress toward that, and the Rohingya are really not even considered in that framework," said Kurlantzick. "But if you are asking if there is going to be a quick solution to any of the issues, I don't think so."

    Rohingya people were the initial reason why Myanmar is on the Security Council agenda. The international community can further engage in dialogue on various fronts -- bilaterally and regionally. Yet, when we compare the Council's draft statement on Myanmar of March 9, which, after corrections, resulted in an official statement on March 10 -- the passage on Rohingya was reduced by around 50%.

    The confrontation within the international community still makes Rohingya people a forgotten minority.

    "When we push for democracy. It is not just for the world to listen to the opinions of the civilian leaders, the current civilian elected leaders, but to also listen to the ethnic communities, including the Rohingya," said Wai Wai.

    (By Lenka White, United Nations correspondent)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media