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