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Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?
Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Myanmar: Rakhine State Faces a Third Crisis
Myanmar: Rakhine State Faces a Third Crisis
Report 78 / Asia

Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?

Myanmar's National Convention, dormant since the mid 1990s, is due to reconvene on 17 May 2004.

Executive Summary

Myanmar's National Convention, dormant since the mid 1990s, is due to reconvene on 17 May 2004. If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy (NLD) Deputy Chairman Tin Oo are released before then (as it is now widely assumed they will be) and if the NLD is able to effectively participate in its work (which is much less certain), the Convention process provides an opportunity to move beyond the desolate political stalemate which has prevailed in one form or another since the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1988.

That said, it is difficult to be confident that Myanmar's military government is any more willing to give content to a genuine constitutional reform process than it has been in the past. Despite the government restructuring and seven-step "roadmap" for constitutional and political reform that were announced last August in response to international outrage at the events of 30 May 2003 (when Suu Kyi's motorcade was attacked and a major new crackdown on the NLD began), the realities of the situation are that the military government retains all the levers of power, is as firmly in control as ever, and is showing no more signs of enthusiasm for a rapid transition to a full and genuine democratic system than it has ever done. While last August's shake-up saw Senior General Than Shwe relinquish his post as prime minister to the head of military intelligence, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the latter is not a democrat by any definition and remains constrained by hard-line elements in the army command structure.

So there is a real risk that, instead of the long-awaited political breakthrough, the clock has simply been turned back a decade and the stage set for a replay with the same actors, the same script and, quite possibly, the same ending. About the only basis for any optimism is that Khin Nyunt is sensitive to demands that Aung San Suu Kyi be released and given a role in the transition, appears to be seeking some form of accommodation with other political forces in the country, and also appears to be conscious of the need to make significant progress before Myanmar assumes the ASEAN presidency in 2006. His rise at least opens space for officers and officials who understand the limitations of the current approach to nation-building and economic development in a country facing an ever more serious humanitarian crisis. While far from ideal, the new roadmap provides at least a chance to begin a process of longer-term political and economic change. Considering the political orientation of the military and its all-dominant position within the country, it may be the best opportunity for some time to come.

If the country is to move forward, the main antagonists must overcome the more than 50 years of continuous conflict that underlie the current crisis of governance, including the increasingly serious humanitarian situation. Myanmar urgently needs a new constitution that deals not only with the distribution of power at the centre but equally importantly with local autonomy and ethnic rights. Strong institutions must be built outside the armed forces, which have dominated all aspects of public life for so long. It is vitally important to promote the conditions for broad-based economic growth and alleviate the struggle over scarce resources that is creating conflict at all levels of society.

The question, as always, for the international community is how it can best help make all this happen: how can the relevant players assist in creating an environment in which positive change is possible? It has to be frankly acknowledged that the present long-standing approaches have been largely ineffectual. Neither Western countries, who insist on both early and comprehensive democratic reform, nor Myanmar's neighbours, who prioritise regional stability and economic progress, have come up with solutions to the political deadlock and policy paralysis that obstruct progress toward either objective. The military is firmly in charge, while the economy remains unreformed and perilously unstable. Ethnic conflict continues, as do drug trafficking, illegal migration, and a burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic, each in its own way a threat to regional security.

At least in and of themselves, sanctions freeze a situation that does not appear to contain the seeds of its own resolution. The military, despite its many policy failures, has stayed in power since 1962, and there are no indications that external pressure has changed its will or capacity to do so for the foreseeable future. On the contrary, sanctions -- so long as they are not universally applied (and there is no ground for believing they ever will be, given attitudes in the region and the politics of the UN Security Council) -- confirm the suspicion of strongly nationalist leaders that the West aims to dominate and exploit Myanmar, and strengthen their resolve to resist.

The pro-democracy movement, symbolised bravely by Aung San Suu Kyi, remains alive in the hearts and minds of millions, but under the existing depressed political, social and economic conditions, it does not have the strength to produce political change. Sanctions may provide moral support for the embattled opposition, but they also contribute to the overall stagnation that keeps most people trapped in a daily battle for survival.

The widely expressed belief in the West that just a little more pressure might break the regime has little objective basis. It is certainly not shared by Myanmar's neighbours and most important trading partners, who strongly oppose coercive methods. If sanctions are to be anything more than a symbolic slap on the wrist, there is a need for more flexible diplomacy that involves the country's neighbours and allies and embraces other more forward-looking initiatives to help overcome the structural obstacles to political and economic development. But that diplomacy clearly needs to be much more purposeful than the limp 'engagement' strategies with which, most of the time, Myanmar's Asian neighbours have been content, and which have conspicuously failed to produce positive change inside the country.

The way forward proposed by ICG in this report has three elements, designed to bridge the gap between Western and regional positions and interests in a way that maintains pressure for reform, but at the same time increases the capacity -- and will -- to implement reform within Myanmar itself.

First, the whole international community -- including both its more confrontational and more accommodating members -- needs to rethink its basic objectives for Myanmar, balancing what is desirable against what is realistically achievable. Among other things that means recognising, however much one might wish otherwise, that the 1990 election result is not itself going to be implemented, with the installation of an NLD-led government, in any foreseeable future, and that constitutional reform is necessarily going to be a gradual process.

Secondly, benchmarks for change need to be identified, as they have been in the past, and used in a constructive way. There should be some flexibility on sanctions and agreement on their gradual withdrawal as the government makes visible progress on political and constitutional reform; and there should be benchmark-based incentives for the resumption of international lending and other economic development support measures.

Thirdly, a positive environment for change should be created by the international community supporting -- without benchmark preconditions -- conflict prevention and resolution, institution-building, planning for economic development and, above all, humanitarian aid for vulnerable groups.

But before any of this strategy can be implemented there are two preconditions that have to be met, as a matter both of principle and Western political reality: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must be completely released from any kind of custody, and serious political and constitutional dialogue must be recommenced both within and beyond the National Convention framework.

Myanmar's partners in ASEAN have a particular role and responsibility to encourage the necessary change, made more urgent by the public relations disaster they will undoubtedly suffer if no significant movement occurs before Myanmar takes the ASEAN Chair in 2006. And the UN's mediation and facilitation role continues to be crucial, whatever mix of policies the international community pursues. It would be immediately helpful for the Secretary-General to develop and propose to the Security Council a credible plan for international engagement in the roadmap process, taking into account the objectives and benchmarks proposed in this report.

Myanmar's problems cannot be solved from afar, and there is no strategy, new or old, that can solve them quickly and dramatically. However, a longer-term, comprehensive international strategy that works pro-actively with government and society not only on the immediate political issues, but also to expose the weaknesses of the current system, promote alternative policies, and strengthen domestic forces of change might just begin to make some difference while providing immediate practical help to the suffering population. Putting it into practice will require more attention, more resources, and closer cooperation and coordination among Western and Asian countries within the framework of multilateral institutions.

Yangon/Brussels, 26 April 2004

Commentary / Asia

Myanmar: Rakhine State Faces a Third Crisis

Overlapping crises – displacement, conflict escalation and COVID-19 – threaten the already vulnerable Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to work closely with other donors in pushing for government accountability while remaining engaged in critical humanitarian and development support.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

Myanmar has made no meaningful progress since 2017 in addressing the Rohingya crisis, with no organised return of refugees from Bangladesh, and no improvement in the lives of those Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State. Prospects for progress have been further undermined by the dramatic escalation in armed conflict in the state between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgency, which has led to some of the fiercest fighting Myanmar has witnessed in many years. Civilians are regularly caught in the crossfire, at least 60,000 people are presently living in displacement camps as a result of the conflict, and de-escalation appears unlikely in the near future. The novel coronavirus now looms as a third crisis. Rakhine State has extremely weak health infrastructure, and its capacity is already overwhelmed by the rising conflict casualties. The April killing of the driver of a UN vehicle, who was transporting COVID-19 swabs for testing, underlines the dangers the conflict poses to an effective pandemic response. Across the border in Bangladesh, the disease is starting to spread in Cox’s Bazar district, with the first cases now detected in the Rohingya camps, where crowded conditions make social distancing impossible and poor sanitation is likely to accelerate any spread. Rohingya refugees are becoming more desperate. With no hope of a safe and dignified return home, many are once again choosing to put their fate in the hands of people smugglers as they seek to reach Malaysia by boat – an increasingly perilous journey as Malaysia and other countries in the region are tightening border controls and blocking their entry due to COVID-19 concerns.

The EU and its member states can help address these evolving crises in the following ways:

  • Seize opportunities for incremental change. Prospects for a ceasefire or major positive developments in Rakhine State appear slim, and the leverage of the EU and other Western powers constrained. Nevertheless, it remains possible to achieve more limited change in respecting Rohingya rights and addressing the armed conflict’s impact on both Rakhine and Rohingya civilians.
  • Cooperate with like-minded donors to pursue concerted diplomatic action. In a context of limited leverage, coordination among international actors is all the more important in order to defend principles, maximise advocacy opportunities for humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas of Rakhine and Chin States, and push for changes in government policy toward the Rohingya.
  • Stay engaged and maintain current levels of humanitarian and development funding for Myanmar. Whatever the frustrations with the lack of progress in steering the government toward accountability and rights for the Rohingya and a political solution to Rakhine grievances, lifesaving needs of conflict-affected populations and developmental challenges remain high and must continue to be addressed. Disengagement would risk exacerbating structural factors underlying Myanmar’s multiple crises.
  • Continue to support the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh. The humanitarian response should continue to be adequately funded. The risks of failing to do so – in both human and security terms – are considerable. The EU should also better integrate its humanitarian and development funding streams for a more effective aid response targeting both refugees and local communities in Cox’s Bazar district

Worrying Developments

Myanmar’s Rakhine State now faces three overlapping crises. The Rohingya crisis remains unresolved, with no sign of refugee repatriation through official channels almost three years after the mass exodus. Those Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State have seen no meaningful improvement in living conditions: many remain corralled in squalid displacement camps; the rest are confined to isolated villages. All face apartheid-like bans on access to most hospitals, schools are mostly segregated and freedom of movement remains curtailed. Restrictions on humanitarian access further compound their plight.

Civilian casualties have spiked in the first four months of 2020, with disturbing attacks on schools, medical facilities and humanitarian convoys.

In parallel, fighting has escalated dramatically since late 2018 between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group fighting for greater Rakhine autonomy. There are regular, often intense clashes across central and northern parts of the state – including many areas from which Rohingya fled or in which they remain – as well as in Paletwa township in neighbouring Chin State. There have also been sporadic attacks in the south of Rakhine State, as the Arakan Army attempts to expand its areas of operation. Chances of de-escalation or a ceasefire appear remote as both sides vie for strategic control of key townships and waterways. Civilian casualties have spiked in the first four months of 2020, with disturbing attacks on schools, medical facilities and humanitarian convoys. Young men in Rakhine are particularly exposed to the risk of violence at the hands of the military for being suspected Arakan Army members; women and children are disproportionately affected by conditions in displacement camps, where risks of domestic violence are high and health and education facilities limited or non-existent. The March government designation of the Arakan Army as a terrorist group has scuttled prospects of peace talks and will restrict possibilities for third-party mediation. The armed conflict has diverted what little attention the government was devoting to the Rohingya crisis, making significant policy steps even less likely.

In the Bangladesh camps, desperation is growing. Living conditions are dire, and with no prospect of returning home and no real future in Bangladesh, increasing numbers of refugees are taking extreme risks to escape the situation by any means possible. As in 2015, smuggling boats packed with human cargo are adrift in the Bay of Bengal, blocked from reaching Malaysia or landing elsewhere. The EU has urged regional maritime states to conduct search-and-rescue operations, but little has been done to save these people, many of whom are women and children.

The coronavirus adds a worrying new dimension to the situation in both Rakhine State and the Bangladesh refugee camps. Although Myanmar has so far avoided a major epidemic, with fewer than 200 reported COVID-19 cases and six reported deaths as of mid-May, it remains vulnerable to an outbreak. Conflict in Rakhine State is a significant impediment to disease preparedness and response, with little hope of cooperation between the government and the Arakan Army, which controls large swathes of the countryside. Many of the most vulnerable do not even have access to the health system – the Rohingya, due to movement restrictions and discrimination in access to health care; and ethnic Rakhine people living in conflict areas, many of whom now reside in crowded displacement camps, due to their inability to cross checkpoints. The April killing by unknown gunmen of a World Health Organization staff member transporting COVID-19 testing swabs highlights the direct impact that conflict can have on the response. The government’s internet ban in eight townships is also an obstacle to disease surveillance and public health messaging. In Bangladesh, COVID-19 has reached Cox’s Bazar district, and the first case was reported in the camps on 14 May. If the disease is not contained, it would likely have devastating consequences given the extreme population density, unsanitary living conditions and the internet ban in the camps, which limits refugees’ access to information about the disease.

What the EU Can Do

The likelihood of any major positive developments in Rakhine State is slim, and the EU, like other Western powers, has had diminished leverage over Myanmar since the Rohingya crisis began. The EU should continue pushing for accountability for the Rohingya displacement and for review of Myanmar’s policies on freedom of movement, access to non-segregated services and respect for fundamental human rights – also preconditions for any refugee repatriation. It needs to be realistic, however, about the impact it might have with this advocacy, which it should combine with efforts to achieve more limited, incremental changes to improve the lives of the Rohingya and mitigate the impact of armed conflict on civilians. Working with national and regional officials more open to engagement and reform is one such approach, although it is important not to overexpose such individuals.

In order to be effective, it is critical that the EU work closely with other donors. While international assistance constitutes only a small proportion of Myanmar’s GDP, it still provides opportunities to influence policy – not enough to prompt policy U-turns by the government, but sufficient to generate meaningful openings for dialogue and engagement and influence outcomes for the most vulnerable, including Rohingya and conflict-displaced people. This can be achieved through negotiating better humanitarian access to Rakhine internally displaced person (IDP) camps or advocating for local policy changes – for example, allowing Rohingya greater access to medical facilities and reducing the cost of and time for referrals. Coordinated and unified approaches among donors will be important to defend humanitarian principles, ensuring that international aid is channelled to all communities in a neutral and impartial manner. Working closely with other donors will also allow the EU to maximise chances of achieving the incremental steps described above.

An impoverished and less educated Myanmar is a recipe for further bigotry, social division and armed conflict.

Frustration with lack of progress on policy objectives in Myanmar ought not to translate into either political disengagement by the EU or its member states, or cuts to humanitarian and development support. Isolating Myanmar is unlikely to produce positive change and could instead exacerbate the structural factors underlying the country’s multiple crises: a poorer and more insular country will struggle even more to develop tolerance for diversity and the political imagination required for a more inclusive and peaceful future. Lifesaving needs of conflict-affected populations still need to be addressed, and development aid has a key role to play. An impoverished and less educated Myanmar is a recipe for further bigotry, social division and armed conflict. But the EU should implement development projects in a way that is sensitive to local contexts – particularly in conflict zones and areas in the throes of human rights crises – and gendered analysis. This means, in particular, recognising the challenges of providing development assistance in a context where one community, the Rohingya, is segregated and cannot benefit equally or at all from public goods, and designing programming accordingly.

It is also critical for the EU to remain fully engaged in the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh through adequate development and humanitarian funding, especially given the uncertainties and risks engendered by COVID-19. Donor fatigue is a real threat. The European Commission has already mobilised critical aid for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Much more support is needed, but the pandemic’s impact on the EU’s overall financial capacity could well reduce the Commission’s spending power in the coming years. For a more effective response, the EU should aim to achieve better complementarity between its humanitarian and development funding in Cox’s Bazar district, which remains one of the country’s poorest. This implies engaging with the government of Bangladesh both to address the growing restrictions on providing immediate assistance to refugees and vulnerable local communities, and to discuss longer-term policy changes that would allow the active participation of refugees in the local economy and community. Should the European Commission choose to deprioritise Rohingya support in Bangladesh due to lack of meaningful progress, consequences could be dire. With no sign of refugees returning to Myanmar in the near future, failure to provide needed support could lead Bangladesh to adopt a more uncompromising stand toward the Rohingya and push more desperate refugees into people smugglers’ hands.