The Irrawaddy

UNSC Comes to Myanmar

Rohingya refugees line the streets as a United Nations Security Council convoy passes by, outside Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, April 29, 2018. / Reuters

Today, a team of 15 permanent representatives from the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council will examine the situation in Rakhine State. This is the best time for the UNSC to try to comprehend the situation on the ground and the members should make an effort to hear the grievances of the local ethnic Arakanese population. The team’s reception on the ground will be mixed, if not openly hostile.

The UNSC team will meet State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the chairperson of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD) and civil society groups before visiting troubled northern Rakhine State.

They will then be taken to Rakhine State where they will travel to various locations by helicopter. There is no doubt they will see extensive damage and villages burned down during security clearance options. Myanmar cannot hide what happened in Rakhine State.

Meanwhile, fighting has intensified in Kachin State where government forces and Kachin rebels have engaged and the air force has sent helicopters and fighter jets to attack rebels. But the situation in northern Rakhine State remains relatively calm at the moment. It is interesting to note the increased fighting in Kachin just ahead of the UNSC visit. But the decades-long civil war is now largely ignored the by UN.

The UN had pushed to visit for months, but early this year, Myanmar officials said that tension was still high in the area and it was not to the right time to visit, Kuwait’s UN Ambassador Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi told the press.

Myanmar also invited the Singaporean and Indian ambassadors to attend the UN meetings. This visit is important as to demonstrate that Myanmar is willing to take back refugees and displaced persons who fled their homes in August after attacks on border guard posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) prompted violent security clearance operations.

The UN wants to see a voluntary, safe and dignified return of those displaced and Myanmar has agreed. But how many will return and whether Myanmar is ready to accept the refugees is still unclear. The issue of resettlement will be an ongoing one. The UN team just visited camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, where Rohingya refugees have demanded guarantees for a safe return.

And in November, the Security Council called on Myanmar to ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine State. Furthermore, the Security Council also asked the government to urgently grant domestic and international media organizations full and unhindered access to Rakhine State and throughout the country and to ensure the safety and security of media personnel.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement on arranging the voluntary return of those displaced, largely Rohingya Muslims, but other subgroups as well.

If the refugees remain stranded in Bangladesh, pressure will mount on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration as well as military leaders who are facing increasing pressure and targeted sanctions from the United States and the European Union.

The EU extended its arms embargo against Myanmar following human rights violations in the country and has been preparing sanctions against individual army officials.

The embargo includes arms, other equipment that could be used for repression, the provision of military training and products used to monitor communications, the Council of the European Union said. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has been invited to Brussels twice before but EU officials will have to decide whether to extend an invitation to Brussels in the future. Ironically, many inside the country argue that isolating Myanmar will no longer work.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing will have a tough time with some UNSC members despite appearances that he was trying to put his house in order.

Since Armed Forces Day in March, he has mentioned the Geneva Conventions and instructed soldiers to abide by military codes of conduct and international laws and conventions.

Recently, seven soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor for taking part in the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din in northwestern Rakhine state last September. Top army leaders were concerned about western pressure and sanctions.

In March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed “shock” at comments by Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in which he said the Rohingya minority shared nothing in common with the rest of the population and that their demand for citizenship had stoked recent violence.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech to military personnel and their families in northern Kachin State that the Rohingya “do not have any characteristics or culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar.”

The military chief also said the tensions in Rakhine were “fueled because the Bengalis demanded citizenship,” using a term that Rohingya activists reject as implying they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

China Backs Myanmar at the UN

At the UN, Myanmar was accused of “ethnic cleansing” and in a September meeting, three permanent members of the UNSC – the US, the UK and France – demanded Myanmar end the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya. However, China and Russia prevented the UN body from making any decision. This was not the first time the two UNSC members have backed Myanmar; China and Russia have continually come to its defense at the UN.

Last week, Song Tao, the minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, met with Myanmar’s new President U Win Myint, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

He reportedly told Myanmar leaders that China sees the situation in Rakhine State as an internal affair and suggested the country does not allow interference from the UN or Western nations.

China backed the bilateral agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to end the crisis and to allow repatriation.

In November, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Bangladesh and Myanmar where he proposed a “three-phase solution” – a ceasefire and restoration of stability in troubled Rakhine State, the signing of a repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and Chinese assistance to alleviate poverty in Rakhine State.

Indeed, China has played the role of ‘Big Brother’ to Myanmar for decades and continues to intervene.

As China increases its engagement and encourages Myanmar to work on the Rakhine issue, the West and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have also increased their pressure on Myanmar in regards to the situation in Rakhine. Rising anti-Western sentiment among Myanmar people, businessmen and ethnic groups is becoming more apparent.

Myanmar also received backing from India when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country weeks after the violence erupted in northern Rakhine State and fully supported the government and military.

China has a long-term plan to invest in Myanmar and is beginning to establish a foothold in Rakhine State with its promise to develop a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal at a cost of about $7.3 billion. The country clearly has strategic interests in the Indian Ocean – a point of competition between India and China.

Clearly, Myanmar is strategically important for China and the once-isolated country is now becoming a point of tension between China and powerful nations in the West. When former President U Thein Sein canceled the controversial China-funded Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, the EU and US welcomed the decision.

China will not allow Myanmar to drift into the Western camp. In this geopolitical game, Myanmar will have to do some fine-tuning and balance its position. It will not be easy.

But the government will have to look at the stability of the Rakhine State where native Arakanese are concerned with international involvement and the UN. If the repatriation is to be supervised by the UN and an international presence, it will further complicate the situation. In Myanmar, the UN itself is facing an issue with credibility in regards to Rakhine State, and it needs to reassure Myanmar citizens that it wants to see the once-isolated country move forward – and that it is open-minded and not one-sided.

In November, a UNSC statement said, “The Security Council reaffirms its strong commitment to the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, and unity of Myanmar, and stresses its support to the Government of Myanmar in the pursuit and consolidation of its ongoing democratic transition process, emphasizing the importance of reforms to promote accountable government institutions, especially in the security and justice sectors and to build the confidence of the people of Myanmar.”

There is apprehension among the people of what will come after the UNSC visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Further punishment will not help Myanmar’s fragile democratic transition and is likely to send the country back to its pariah status.