UN Forced to Face Its Track Record of Failure in Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 2 July 2019

A report by Gert Rosenthal, Guatemala’s former foreign minister, released last month accuses the UN of failing troubled Myanmar. The review of UN agencies’ performance and operations in the years before hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled the Myanmar military’s violent crackdown in 2017 concluded that the organization’s many bodies failed to act together, resulting in “systemic and structural failures.” But this is not the first time it has happened.

In June 2017, internal UN documents prepared for the new UN secretary-general described the agency’s Myanmar office as “glaringly dysfunctional” with “strong tensions” between different parts of the UN system. Later that year we saw Renata Lok-Dessallien, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator, leave her post prematurely. She had been criticized for not doing enough regarding human rights abuses in Myanmar.

“Without question serious errors were committed and opportunities were lost in the U.N. system following a fragmented strategy rather than a common plan of action,” Rosenthal said, adding that the “systemic failure was further magnified by some bureaucratic and unseemly infighting.”

This week, Christine Schraner-Burgener, the UN envoy to Myanmar, said progress on alleviating the problems that led to the Rohingya exodus has been slow and warns that if there is no action it will be time to “ring the alarm bell.”

Ring the alarm bell? But how?

Indeed, there is deep frustration in the international community at the lack of progress in returning the Rohingya. Likewise, there is deep frustration and anger among Myanmar people toward the UN, as it has been sending mixed messages to the country for decades, not just on the Rohingya issue.

Since the crisis erupted, respected UN agencies have voiced concerns over the Rohingya, but there has not been a unified voice.

The Security Council delegation meets with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, in April 2018. / UN News

In August 2017, soon after the military launched its clearance operations, the UN human rights chief at the time described them as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and other UN agencies called for the immediate return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. At the same time, some UN humanitarian agencies said conditions were not conducive to the safe and dignified return of the Rohingya refugees. But this only sent a confused message to Myanmar.

In fact, the mass repatriation will not take place any time soon, due to the ongoing fighting between Arakanese rebels known as the Arakan Army and the Myanmar Army in northern Rakhine State. The situation there is expected to get worse before it gets better, with the fighting likely to be prolonged. There are also grave concerns that the longer the fighting drags on, the more likely it is that external forces will get involved in the conflict. China is one of the main investors in Rakhine State—particularly through its strategic deep seaport project in Kyaukphyu—but India, Japan and the West are also keen to get involved in the area.

Powerful backers

“The United Nations’ collective membership, represented by the Security Council, bears part of that responsibility, by not providing enough support to the secretariat when such backing was and continues to be essential,” Rosenthal wrote.

The 15-member Security Council, which visited Rakhine State last year, is deadlocked, with Myanmar allies China and Russia pitted against Western members over how to deal with the situation. The Myanmar military is seen has having moved closer to Russia and China. In recent years, the government in Myanmar is also seen as having formed warmer relations with Beijing.

Schraner-Burgener said the fighting involving the Arakan Army “is having a devastating impact on all local communities caught in the crossfire, independent of their religious or ethnic background.” And “it is also further impacting efforts toward the dignified, voluntary and safe return of refugees,” she said.

There is no doubt that conditions in the region aren’t conducive to the return of the Rohingya refugees. Last week the government suspended internet service in Rakhine State, prompting Yangon-based embassies and human-rights groups to express concern.

Moreover, with a general election due next year, Myanmar is now in election mode and few politicians including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will take any firm stance on the Rohingya issue. Meanwhile, the military and the nationalists will maintain their hardline stance toward the refugees.

The UN envoy also told the General Assembly that there are “not a lot of changes on the ground,” pointing to “many challenges” including Myanmar’s civilian leaders having “to navigate an extremely difficult environment in which the military continues to have considerable political influence.”

Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River on an improvised raft to reach Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Nov. 12, 2017. / REUTERS

Describing the reality on the ground, Schraner-Burgener said that “immense complexities” inside the country have been “an impediment” to tackling the Rohingya crisis.

She cited Myanmar’s 70 years of isolation, the 21 armed groups still operating in the country, a lack of development, drug production and human trafficking. Myanmar is a country of complex conflicts that no outsider could hope to solve or mediate. The irony is that UN envoys have been involved in trying to advance Myanmar’s “peace process” for a decade, but as things stand at the moment that process is more fragmented than ever, with more and more ethnic armed groups mushrooming in northern Myanmar and elsewhere. Can this be called a peace process?

In his report, Rosenthal also pointed out that the UN system “has been relatively impotent to effectively work with the authorities of Myanmar to reverse the negative trends in the area of human rights and consolidate the positive trends in other areas.”

He noted “increasing criticism regarding the lack of leadership displayed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” the government’s de facto leader, “as well as her unwillingness to take distance from the military.”

Indeed, the stream of stories about the deepening ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine State, can be a joy-killer, but seasoned observers know that real change in Myanmar will take time.

At the recent summit in Bangkok, which was attended by Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leaders of ASEAN said in a joint statement, “We stressed the importance of and expressed our continued support for Myanmar’s commitment to ensure safety and security for all communities in Rakhine State as effectively as possible and facilitate the voluntary return of displaced persons in a safe, secure and dignified manner.” As in the past, ASEAN’s involvement is key. The grouping was invited to—and became involved in—Myanmar when the country faced a humanitarian crisis in 2008.

On that occasion, ASEAN responded proactively, assuming a leadership role in reacting to the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargisin Myanmar’s delta region, both by convincing the Myanmar government to cooperate with the international community and in managing the response itself. Its recent statement on the Rohingya is indeed welcome, but it is barely a start. Myanmar will have to prepare to work with ASEAN, the UN and other international organizations to assist the safe return of the Rohingya in the future.

But if recent events in Myanmar have taught us anything, it is that real change will only come from within—not from outside.

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