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Myanmar/Bangladesh: A Humanitarian Calamity and a Two-country Crisis
Myanmar/Bangladesh: A Humanitarian Calamity and a Two-country Crisis
Op-Ed / Asia

Give Burma a Chance

Originally published in Foreign Policy

No, the country's remarkable democratic transition hasn't been perfect. But its critics should keep in mind how much has already been accomplished.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, which took power at the end of March, is the first democratically elected government to run Burma in more than 50 years. There has been considerable criticism of the new government from pundits and in the media, and even in some political circles in the West. Among other things, commentators have criticized weaknesses in addressing the plight of oppressed Muslim communities in Rakhine State and what is seen as the government’s non-transparent and non-consultative decision-making. But while many of the concerns are valid, there must be more understanding of the daunting challenges Burma’s new democratic leadership is confronting. So far, they have made some missteps, but no huge mistakes.

The tasks facing the government are formidable. It must find ways of moving the peace process with the country’s many ethnic groups forward, addressing the plight of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine State, and continuing the delicate process of rebalancing Burma’s external relations, particularly vis-a-vis China. The burden of leadership on all of these fronts will fall on Suu Kyi’s shoulders, since she has assumed simultaneously the positions of State Counsellor, Foreign Minister, and chair of various high-level committees. Success will depend not only on developing carefully thought-out policies and listening attentively to those affected, but also on her ability to delegate. These are the twin policy and personal challenges now facing Suu Kyi as Burma’s de facto leader.

The general trajectory so far has been very positive. Burma has passed through a year of considerable uncertainty and change with no major political turmoil. The previous military-backed government went ahead with broadly credible elections, held with almost no violence, that delivered a resounding victory for Aung San Suu Kyi — a former political prisoner. This massive victory set the stage for the first orderly transfer of power via the ballot box since Burma’s independence in 1948.

Suu Kyi had made clear before the polls that she would be the key decision-maker in the new government, and so it has proved. Her close confidant, Htin Kyaw, was chosen as president, but Suu Kyi is the undisputed leader, with her new title of “State Counsellor” effectively circumventing the constitutional bar on her taking the presidency. Her administration has now managed to enter into an awkward cohabitation with the military — as dictated by the 2008 constitution — without significantly compromising on key principles or prompting any fundamental rifts with the armed forces. Navigating these difficult waters has been a key early success of the government, the military, and the country as a whole. But with its inexperienced team, and enormous challenges ahead, the government cannot be expected to enjoy success on all fronts. Expectations for quick progress — of the kind more appropriate to mature democracies — should be tempered.

The government has taken early steps to address Burma’s authoritarian legacy, releasing political detainees and repealing or amending several oppressive laws — although there is much more to do. At the same time, it has made some initial missteps on the peace process and in addressing the discrimination against Muslim communities in Rakhine State.

Suu Kyi’s April 27 declaration that she would take personal charge of convening a new “21st Century Panglong” peace conference, named for the pre-independence gathering hosted by her father, was made without consulting armed groups or ethnic political leaders. She is now pushing to move ahead with this conference by the end of August, before the necessary building blocks are in place. Understandably, ethnic leaders worried that the substance of the new initiative was unclear and that it was announced without any prior consultation. In a subsequent meeting, she moved to allay some of these concerns by clarifying that the conference would continue the previously-agreed peace process rather than setting a different direction. She also established clear consultation mechanisms. Ethnic leaders are now worried that she may stick to an unfeasibly tight deadline for the conference, eroding trust and buy-in from armed groups, with potentially damaging consequences.

There have been some missteps in other areas as well, again related to a lack of consultative decision-making. To address the longstanding communal tensions in Rakhine State, a “Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State” was formed on May 31, chaired by Suu Kyi herself. The early focus of the committee has been on revamping a process to determine the citizenship status of the state’s Muslim population, most of whom have no citizenship documents and face pervasive discrimination, both by the government and by the state’s Buddhist Rakhine majority. Accordingly, this is one of the most difficult and contentious issues to be addressed.

The first steps have included rolling out a temporary identification document for Muslim residents, as well as attempts to sidestep the divisive issue of what the main Muslim minority group should be called. (They self-identify as “Rohingya,” but Rakhine nationalists insist they be called “Bengali” to suggest their Bangladeshi origins, despite the fact that many have lived in Burma for generations.)

A lack of trust rooted in years of discrimination by the central government against both Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State had meant that these initiatives have raised objections from both communities. In particular, there has been very strong reaction by Buddhist Rakhine nationalists to the government’s preferred term, “the Muslim community in Rakhine State,” which may make it much harder to reach a future compromise on nomenclature. A lack of public information about the citizenship process has meant that it has seen low levels of interest in most places. In some cases it has faced outright resistance. Success in addressing the complex situation in Rakhine State will require a solid understanding of the nuances, together with a willingness to consult broadly to obtain buy-in (or at least reduce opposition) of hardliners in both Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities.

Each of these missteps arises from a lack of sensitivity to some of the complex details at play, and a lack of consultation in advance of announcing important decisions or initiatives. Such mistakes are understandable, and can perhaps be attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi’s initial settling-in period. It is also possible that they reflect a deeper culture of non-consultative decision-making, which would be of concern; but it is too early to come to such a conclusion.

Another challenge is the government’s relationship with the military. Both sides have a clear interest in working together. Suu Kyi cannot effectively govern the country without the military’s support, or at least its acquiescence. On the other hand, the military is reliant on Suu Kyi to achieve some key objectives — a better domestic and international reputation and improved military-to-military relations with the West. More fundamentally, the military is invested in the success of the transition: The current government’s failure would be a failure for the transition process the military itself initiated.

Yet shared interests have not always translated into positive relations. The military was particularly upset with the bill that appointed Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, introduced only a few days after the transfer of power. On substance, they objected that the bill was anti-constitutional because it created a position that undermined the president’s authority and that it violated separation of powers by providing for a direct relationship with the parliament, a view shared by some ethnic and other opposition legislators. The military is particularly sensitive on constitutional matters, as the prerogatives it is granted were essential in giving it the confidence to hand over many other powers.

There have been recent positive steps in civil-military relations, including the commander-in-chief’s attendance for the first time of the annual Martyr’s Day ceremony commemorating the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father. But such highly symbolic events should not be over-interpreted — there are still plenty of challenges ahead.

The international community can help Burma’s new government navigate these difficult waters in several ways. It is rightly giving the government strong political backing, but it should not shy away from offering frank and honest advice. Financial and technical support is very much needed, although there is a significant risk that uncoordinated aid projects and overlapping and inconsistent technical assistance will overwhelm the government’s capacity and potentially do harm; the beginnings of this were already visible over the last few years.

Donors also need to keep in mind that the state — and by extension the government — remains absent or contested in many conflict-affected areas. Assistance projects need to be carefully designed and closely monitored to reflect this. In expanding support to government, it is also vital that the West in particular explore appropriate avenues of military-to-military cooperation. This is for two reasons: In the first place, it is essential that the military see institutional benefits from its decision to give up a significant portion of its power. Furthermore, the socialization of a new generation of military officers with their peers in democratic countries can make a critical contribution to reform.

Burma’s new government has come in for a lot of criticism — some of it deserved. But we must remember that Burma remains one of the most successful examples of democratic transitions in modern times. The government should be criticized if it fails to meet realistic expectations, but it is counterproductive to hold a country still emerging from decades of authoritarianism and civil war to impossibly high standards.

Commentary / Asia

Myanmar/Bangladesh: A Humanitarian Calamity and a Two-country Crisis

More than one million Muslim Rohingya forced to flee from Myanmar now live in camps in south-eastern Bangladesh. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to increase funding for refugee assistance and use diplomatic leverage to find a compromise on the issue of refugee repatriation.

This commentary on Myanmar and Bangladesh's humanitarian calamity and two-country crisis is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Violent operations by the military, border police and vigilante groups in Myanmar have forced some 750,000 Rohingya to flee northern Rakhine for Bangladesh over the last twelve months. These numbers represent more than 85 per cent of the Rohingya population in the three affected townships. Significant bilateral and multilateral criticism – in the UN Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council – has failed to temper the approach of the Myanmar government and military. The UN, as well as the U.S. and other governments, have declared the 2017 campaign against the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing” and likely crimes against humanity; some have raised the possibility that it may constitute genocide.

Several hundred Rohingya continue to flee each week. For the more than 100,000 who remain, as well as the non-Rohingya population, life is extremely difficult. Security fears, curfews and checkpoints severely restrict civilian movement, particularly for the Rohingya, making it very difficult to reach farms, fishing grounds and markets. The International Committee of the Red Cross is exerting enormous efforts to deliver aid to those in need, but the government has denied access to most other agencies, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, human rights bodies and media outlets. Myanmar also refused to allow a UN-appointed international fact-finding mission to visit the region and subsequently announced it would no longer grant visas or cooperate with the special rapporteur on human rights. Two Reuters journalists were arrested in Yangon on 12 December after gathering evidence of military abuse, including information about a mass grave; they are being held incommunicado and face charges under the Official Secrets Act.

Continuing violence in northern Rakhine also undermines prospects for a solution to the crisis. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group (whose 25 August 2017 attacks triggered the crisis) claimed responsibility for a 5 January ambush on a military vehicle that injured five soldiers – the first known attack by the group since the end of its unilateral ceasefire in October. While ARSA’s ability to sustain an insurgency remains uncertain, even occasional minor attacks have a major political impact, amplifying security concerns and sharpening anti-Rohingya sentiment.

Prospects for repatriation

Many refugees are still deeply traumatised and remain fearful for their physical safety should they return.

Many observers have expressed concern that the November 2017 signing of a repatriation “arrangement” between Myanmar and Bangladesh, with a two-month timeframe for repatriations to start, could lead to the premature and unsafe return of Rohingya to northern Rakhine. For now, however, that appears unlikely, given that the process has stalled. Though Myanmar has declared its readiness to commence processing returnees through two new reception centres as of 23 January, it has yet to initiate much of the detailed logistical and policy planning required for a successful operation on this scale; for its part, Bangladesh announced on 22 January that it was postponing the start of repatriations.

Many of the 750,000 Rohingya who fled northern Rakhine over the past year would return under the right circumstances: Myanmar is their home, where most have lived for generations, and they see no future for themselves and their children in the Bangladesh camps. But there is unlikely to be any voluntary repatriation in the near term. Many refugees are still deeply traumatised and remain fearful for their physical safety should they return. The paramilitary Border Guard Police, which operates only in northern Rakhine, and Rakhine vigilante groups remain unchecked; Rohingya blame both for brutalities. Curfew orders and other onerous restrictions on freedom of movement remain in place, making it impossible to sustain livelihoods. The prevailing political environment also gives the Rohingya little hope for a positive future in Myanmar. The authorities deny most reports of abuses and have made little effort to address fundamental issues of desegregation, rights and citizenship.

Bangladesh’s government is wary of openly espousing the Rohingya’s cause for fear of stirring tensions with Myanmar and losing the support of its main backer, India, and main trading partner, China, both supportive of Myanmar. It wants the refugees to return as quickly as possible. But at the same time, Dhaka is reluctant to force refugees to return given domestic political dynamics ahead of the 2018 general elections and the glare of the global media and political spotlight. The upshot is that hundreds of thousands of traumatised, hopeless Rohingya will remain confined to the Bangladesh camps for the foreseeable future, requiring a huge humanitarian operation. Most Rohingya have not been involved in violence and there is little evidence of jihadist influence in their communities. Nevertheless, their trying circumstances could create risky new dynamics for Bangladesh and the region.

Situation in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is facing the consequences of the fastest refugee movement across an international border since the Rwanda genocide in 1994. More than one million Muslim Rohingya – a figure that includes refugees from previous exoduses – now live in camps near Cox’s Bazar in the south-eastern corner of the country, close to the border with Myanmar. The area is among the country’s poorest. Since the influx of the Rohingya refugees, local wages have fallen while prices have climbed. Discontent among local residents – now in the minority – is rising. Camp conditions, though improving, are still desperate: it is a major challenge to procure water and fuel without depriving other residents, and the threat of disease looms. Addressing the emergency will cost around $1 billion annually – 0.5 per cent of Bangladesh’s GDP – and donors are paying most of the aid bill.

While relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar are tense, there appears to be little risk of direct conflict between the two countries’ armies. Likewise, in the view of Bangladeshi security forces, the possibility of the displaced Rohingya being recruited or used by Bangladeshi or transnational jihadist groups is low. Perhaps more dangerous, ahead of national elections to be held near the end of 2018, is that the presence of a large refugee population could ignite the simmering communal conflict among Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus as well as ethnic minorities, especially in the highly militarised Chittagong Hill Tracts. It also is worth noting that these refugees – whose presence Bangladeshi politicians privately suggest could well be permanent – are located in a part of the country where the influence of Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), a hardline coalition of government-allied Islamist organisations, is strongest. The Hefazat was first to respond to the refugee crisis. It has since threatened to launch a jihad against Myanmar unless it stops persecuting the Rohingya. Hefazat has in recent years gained significant influence over the nominally secular Awami League, the ruling party, and now holds effective veto power over the government’s social and religious policies.

Perhaps more dangerous, ahead of national elections to be held near the end of 2018, is that the presence of a large refugee population could ignite the simmering communal conflict among Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus as well as ethnic minorities.

The gravest security risks, though, are associated with the possibility of bungled repatriation. While no repatriation appears likely any time soon, the return of the Rohingya under the wrong conditions – notably in the absence of rights for Rohingya returning to Myanmar – would jeopardise the lives of refugees and prolong the crisis. The further suffering of the Rohingya in Myanmar itself could lead foreign jihadist fighters, notably from South Asia, to adopt the Rohingya’s cause; Bangladesh itself might even lend support to a cross-border insurgency. One way to guard against this outcome is to ensure UNHCR involvement in any repatriation process, a demand many Rohingya living in camps have themselves made. But while Dhaka is not opposed to UN involvement, it continues to seek a bilateral arrangement with Myanmar knowing the Myanmar government is more likely to accept repatriation without what it would consider intrusive international oversight. Moreover, Bangladesh has traditionally refused to grant stateless Rohingya refugees rights; in fact, the government refuses to call them refugees and threatens to move some to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. Outside powers, including the EU and its member states, should not underestimate Dhaka’s willingness to return the refugees if an opportunity presented itself in the future – even under conditions that are far from ideal.

Bangladesh’s current short-term policies risk producing slum-like conditions in the camps, which would amount to their protracted, donor-funded confinement. The Rohingya are barred from work and their children from state-run schools, forcing many to work illegally and leaving poorly regulated religious schools as their only option. The government’s approach is rooted in the belief that state support in Bangladesh for the Rohingya risks attracting more refugees. With the population now mainly in Bangladesh, this logic no longer holds; the government should take steps to allow the Rohingya to better integrate including by working and attending regular schools.

Straddling two countries and competing preoccupations

The challenge for Bangladesh and its international partners is to craft a long-term humanitarian response to provide for the refugees, while maintaining diplomatic engagement and other forms of pressure on the Myanmar authorities to create favourable conditions for their eventual voluntary, safe and dignified return. At the same time, they should start laying the groundwork for steps toward more politically sensitive policies, notably integration in Bangladesh or resettlement elsewhere, in the most likely scenario that voluntary repatriation proves impossible. For now, Dhaka and many Western diplomats resist such discussion, not wanting to ease pressure on Myanmar; Delhi, too, rejects it, fearing that the Rohingya may end up in India. But given the slim prospects of the Rohingya’s return, preparing for their potential integration in Bangladesh – a process which already is informally underway – and the possibility of resettlement elsewhere would make sense.

Regional actors have critical roles to play. China and India in particular are among Myanmar’s and Bangladesh’s closest international partners; neither power wishes to see a festering two-country border conflict in the Bay of Bengal. The EU and its member states should engage Beijing and New Delhi to forge a common approach to encourage Myanmar to commit to a pathway to citizenship for most Rohingya, in keeping with the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by Kofi Annan.

The EU and its members also should impress on Dhaka that botched repatriations would present the greatest security risk, even while acknowledging the enormous burden Bangladesh is shouldering. They should work closely with the government, UN agencies and humanitarian organisations to determine how best to coordinate the enormous task of providing services and relief to the Rohingya in the camps. These decisions should be made in consultation with the Rohingya themselves – including women, whose voices are even more rarely heard, in part due to cultural barriers. The EU pledged an additional €30 million at an October UN conference, but funding remains insufficient given the magnitude of what inevitably will be a prolonged crisis. Simultaneously, the EU and its member states should use their diplomatic leverage to pressure Bangladesh and Myanmar not to implement their repatriation agreement without adequate international oversight. Finally, they should continue to push for accountability, including supporting efforts to gather the detailed evidence necessary to identify those responsible for violence against the Rohingya and their forced expulsion.