ICG Urges World to Stay Engaged with Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 7 December 2017

YANGON — The International Crisis Group suggested on Thursday that policymakers in the West should resist the urge to disengage with Myanmar, while warning of potential negative consequences of any punitive action taken against the country.

Myanmar has faced international criticism for its army’s recent campaign against Rohingya Muslims in the western part of the country, where more than 600,000 Muslims have fled across the border to Bangladesh. The army has been condemned for committing human rights violations including torching homes, arbitrary killing and rape.

In the wake of the exodus, the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions against Myanmar’s military leadership. Last month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson labeled the army’s sweep through Rakhine State as ethnic cleansing, after a visit to the country.

The warning by the Brussels-based NGO, which monitors democratic transitions worldwide, urged international policymakers not to lose sight of the distinction between the government and the people, “who should not pay the price for the actions of a military that is constitutionally outside of democratic control.”

“People-to-people exchanges with the West through academic, cultural and commercial interactions and tourism are crucial for a country that was isolated for so many decades,” the report says, while warning that the Myanmar people’s aspirations for “a better economic future must not be forgotten” as the country is home to millions of the poorest people in Southeast Asia.

Among the four action points suggested by the group were maintaining development assistance and non-military engagement, and leaving in place recently reinstated trade preferences by the EU and US, which it said were “critical in supporting manufacturing jobs in the country and shouldn’t be revoked.”

As the US was considering imposing economic measures against those responsible for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya, the report also calls on the international community to work carefully to minimize the collateral impact of any targeted sanctions.

“Recent experience in Myanmar shows, however, that ostensibly targeted sanctions can have broader systemic impacts on the economy that should be avoided,” it says.

The ICG said that based on its contemporaneous research, until 2012 Myanmar was under some of the most stringent bilateral sanctions of any country and these did almost nothing to influence the then military regime “but caused significant damage to the general economy and the fortunes of ordinary people.”

The report also urges the international community to do all it can to mitigate the humanitarian disaster in Rakhine State and influence the situation in other ways, including providing substantial humanitarian support to Rohingya refugees, to reduce the risks of a further humanitarian catastrophe. Plus, it said, the international community should push Myanmar for a political decision to implement key recommendations of the Annan commission, including its suggestions on discrimination, segregation and citizenship.

“Meaningful progress on these issue is vital to creating an environment conducive to voluntary repatriation, and giving international credibility to Myanmar’s efforts,” the ICG said.

Given China’s support for Myanmar on the Rohingya issue due to its significant economic interests in Rakhine State, the NGO also cautioned Naypyitaw against taking the country’s northern neighbor’s blanket support for granted. China doesn’t want this to come at the cost of its important relations with Bangladesh and the wider Muslim world, it said, which was part of the reason why it allowed the recent UN Security Council presidential statement to be issued.

Security Risk

Despite their organized raids in August, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has not launched any new attacks since.

Based on interviews with ARSA members in camps in Bangladesh in September and November, the ICG says it appears most of the group’s organizers and fighters are now in the camps, having fled along with the rest of the population.

The report says the group may thus shift to cross-border attacks as acquiring operating space in Bangladesh is a more realistic option given Bangladesh’s anger and frustration towards Myanmar.

“If ARSA launches cross-border attacks, it could aim at opportunistic security targets in northern Rakhine or turn to attack any non-Muslim villagers resettled on Rohingya lands,” the report said.

“New ARSA attacks would reinforce anti-Rohingya sentiment within Myanmar and prompt heightened security measures that would further diminish prospects for an eventual refugee return.”