A recent U.N. report joins the chorus of international condemnation of Myanmar’s military for the atrocities committed against the country’s Rohingya minority. But the situation is far from simple, and some governments say the criticism could derail the country’s fragile democratic transition. In an exclusive in-depth report, The Washington Diplomat spoke to ambassadors from the U.S., European Union and Japan about this delicate balancing act.
On Sept. 18, a U.N. Human Rights Council fact-finding mission published a damning report detailing atrocities and crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The three-man mission was established to investigate a wave of violence that kicked off on Aug. 25, 2017, when members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked a government military base, killing 12.
The response that followed, described by the U.N. mission as “immediate, brutal, and grossly disproportionate,” saw Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, launch a series of coordinated attacks targeting villages across Rakhine’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung districts.
By August 2018, nearly 725,000 had been forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, with the U.N. reporting extreme violence perpetrated during the Tatmadaw’s “clearance operations,” including the murder of thousands of civilians, forced disappearances, mass gang rape and the burning of at least 392 villages.
The fact-finding mission called on the U.N. Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC), or to establish an ad hoc international tribunal to hold seven senior commanders, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw’s commander in chief, to account. It also recommended targeted individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, as well as an arms embargo on Myanmar.
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning icon of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar, has seen her global reputation tank in the wake of the Rohingya crisis, which the U.N. called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Some governments have gone so far as to declare it a genocide.
But other governments and experts have gone against the grain by urging caution instead of condemnation. They point out that the military — not Aung San Suu Kyi — still controls the government. And that government is constrained by domestic politics, with many in the Buddhist-majority nation having little sympathy for the Rohingya, a largely Muslim population with its own distinct dialect and culture that has lived in the region for generations.
The current crisis is a complicated one rooted in centuries-old hatreds, not only in Myanmar but in neighboring nations, where Rohingya refugees also face discrimination.
As such, some officials argue that the best way to help Myanmar’s delicate transition from dictatorship to democracy is to work with the military, not against it. They note that the regime has survived decades of isolation and sanctions in the past, and that alienating Myanmar’s military could push it closer to China and erode whatever leverage the West has over it.
But others counter that the international community cannot stay silent in light of the recent atrocities — including eyewitness testimony of children with slit throats and elderly being pushed into burning houses — committed against the Rohingya, who are often called the world’s most persecuted minority.
International outrage and condemnation followed the U.N. report and calls for accountability and justice have grown louder in recent weeks.
Two days after the report was published, Canadian members of parliament unanimously agreed to declare the violence in Rakhine state a genocide. On Oct. 3, Canada’s parliament formally stripped State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) civilian government, of honorary Canadian citizenship — a first for the country.
The U.S. followed suit on Sept. 27, when the House Committee on Foreign Affairs introduced a bipartisan measure to declare the conflict a genocide, reporting that “the evidence supporting such a declaration is overwhelming.”
Two days earlier, a State Department investigation found that Myanmar’s military had orchestrated a “well-planned and coordinated” campaign against the Rohingya. The State Department detailed gruesome attacks such as prisoners being mutilated, women gang raped in front of their husbands and children, and soldiers dismembering or bulldozing bodies into graves or pits. “One refugee reported that the military put acid into victims’ eyes so they could not be identified,” the State Department said, although it stopped short of labeling the atrocities a genocide.
Perhaps most significantly, the European Union announced on Oct. 5, that it would send a monitoring mission to Myanmar to examine evidence of atrocities, potentially triggering a six-month process that could culminate with the withdrawal of Generalized Scheme of Preference (GSP) trade privileges. Those privileges have directly supported the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, particularly in the garment industry, and added millions of dollars to Myanmar’s export receipts.
The situation is complex and challenging: Anti-Rohingya sentiment is high among much of Myanmar’s majority-Buddhist population, and the conflict is not new — violence in Rakhine state has been ongoing since at least 2012. It is not limited to Rakhine state either, and the U.N. fact-finding mission detailed equally stomach-turning violence carried out in Kachin and Shan states, which share a border with China.
Prior to the most recent exodus, about 1.1 million Rohingyas lived in poverty-stricken Rakhine state, where they could not leave without government permission. Even so, various crackdowns in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s forced hundreds of thousands to flee, mainly for Bangladesh as well as Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.
While Bangladesh has been hailed for its humanitarian response to the waves of Rohingya refugees, like many of its neighbors, it refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship and other rights, insisting they go back to Myanmar. (A plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to Myanmar has so far been scrapped because officials cannot find anyone willing to return.)
Myanmar also denies the Rohingya citizenship, even though they have been living in Rakhine state for centuries, with many having migrated from the Indian subcontinent. During the 19th and early 20th century, when the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, Rohingya laborers from Bangladesh and India also migrated to the country, fueling resentment among the local Burmese population, which stills considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. A 1982 citizenship law effectively rendered the Rohingyas in Myanmar stateless, restricting their freedom of movement, education and employment.
Perhaps most importantly, the Tatmadaw still exerts considerable control over much of the country. Between 1962 and 2011, Myanmar was almost totally closed to the world under a military dictatorship. The NLD’s historic 2015 election victory was a major step forward in the long-awaited shift to civilian rule, but the process is far from complete. Democracy in Myanmar is fragile, and if the NLD government fails, it could have profound consequences for the country’s political transition.
Diplomats are wrestling with these issues as they seek to determine the best path forward, and major world powers have found themselves at odds over how best to address the crisis. The Washington Diplomat spoke with EU, U.S. and Japanese envoys in Myanmar about what should be done next.
The EU’s Principled Stand
Days after the EU announced it was considering suspending GSP privileges, the EU ambassador to Myanmar, Kristian Schmidt, was in Yangon awaiting the arrival of the European monitoring mission.
He was frank when describing the EU’s position.
“The possible suspension of GSP privileges is something that has already been discussed with the government since October last year. The crisis is not new, and the EU Commission, in writing, recalled that the very generous trade regime extended to Myanmar is conditional on respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, so the government knows that,” he said.
But loss of GSP privileges will have far-reaching consequences for Myanmar’s economic development.
As highlighted by a recent report in Frontier Myanmar, textiles and garments accounted for 72.2 percent of Myanmar’s exports to the EU in 2017. Myanmar’s €1.02 billion trade surplus with the EU is an anomaly — it runs a deficit with China, Singapore and Japan, three of its top four trading partners — and the country’s exports to Europe rose from just €165 million in 2012, the year before GSP privileges were extended, to hit €1.56 billion in 2017.
The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association reports that the sector employs 450,000 people at more than 600 factories, selling to major international buyers including Primark, H&M, Adidas and Gap. The growing threat of trade sanctions has already rattled investor confidence, with local NGO SMART Myanmar reporting that only 18 new garment factories commenced operations in the country during the first half of 2018, compared to 70 during the first half of 2017.
Loss of GSP privileges would disproportionately affect young, female garment workers who comprise 94 percent of the industry workforce, according to a 2017 survey commissioned by European clothes retailer C&A. Garment factory job losses put many young female workers at risk of being pushed into the sex trade.
Furthermore, 19 percent of garment workers surveyed are from Rakhine state and “are known to send a big share of their salaries to their families,” according to Frontier Myanmar, making the garment industry a critical economic lifeline for the conflict-stricken region where poverty rates are twice the national average.
Significantly, the U.N. itself has recommended applying targeted sanctions to culpable individuals, rather than broad-based economic sanctions that could push the country back into isolation, weaken the NLD government and threaten the country’s tenuous democratic transition.
But for European stakeholders, inaction and impunity are unacceptable.
“The EU Commission has made it very clear … that we need to see decisive actions on these issues. It is not the end of the process. It’s the beginning of enhanced engagement and enhanced dialogue. And so, the monitoring mission here will come to discuss, assess the situation and make sure that any decisions that will ultimately be taken in Brussels are well-informed by realities on the ground,” said Schmidt.
In the absence of tangible progress — the fact-finding mission noted the Myanmar government’s refusal to engage with the U.N. investigation — the EU will continue to focus on assisting with election monitoring and governance reforms, as well as providing funding for education, which Schmidt identified as key to changing the public perception of the Rohingya.
“We are extending €220 million in support of education because as everyone knows, when you emerge from a military dictatorship, education is one of the most urgent priorities. Dictators do not want an educated population, but democracy does,” said Schmidt.
He also stressed that a decision to withdraw GSP privileges would not necessarily be permanent.
“Throughout the process, there is always opportunity for dialogue. Even if the commission should decide to withdraw GSP, it’s a temporary withdrawal; it’s not necessarily irreversible. It really is up to the government of Myanmar to decide whether they want to address these things that are not EU concerns, but concerns raised in U.N. reports, upon which our trade concessions are conditional.”
One country stands out in its position on the crisis. Japan has been vocal in its support for the government of Myanmar, arguing that the country’s fledgling democracy is dependent on international support and robust economic growth.
On Sept. 25, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono wrote an editorial in The Washington Post urging Western powers to maintain strong diplomatic and economic ties with Myanmar. The message took some by surprise, and Japan’s staunch support for Myanmar left it isolated at the most recent U.N. General Assembly.
But Japan’s ambassador to Myanmar, Ichiro Maruyama, argued there is more to the situation than meets the eye.
Maruyama had just returned to Yangon from a visit to Tokyo when he met with The Washington Diplomat. He traveled there for the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit, where Aung San Suu Kyi met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss bilateral ties and the Rohingya crisis. A Japan-Myanmar investment event was held during her visit — 400 companies attended — and Suu Kyi was the sole Mekong leader invited to a private dinner with Abe during the five-day event, underscoring the critical position Myanmar occupies in Japanese foreign policy.
“The Japanese government wants to provide full support to the Myanmar government, despite the threat of sanctions and criticism of the government…. If we could improve the situation by imposing sanctions then yes, we’d join, Japan would join that. But imposing sanctions is counterproductive. We don’t want to impose sanctions and increase pressure on the government of Myanmar; we want to work together,” Maruyama told The Diplomat.
Now on his fifth posting to Myanmar, and fluent in the local Burmese language, Maruyama is well-versed in Myanmar’s history and contemporary politics.
According to him, one of the biggest problems in addressing the crisis is that domestic and international views have become increasingly divergent in recent years.
“Before 2011, every local person in Myanmar opposed the military government, and of course the international community was the same. We all expected the change in this country from a military regime to a democratic country. This means that the domestic voice and the international voice were totally the same. But today, the people of Myanmar don’t like the Rohingya. And the international community is always the same about human rights. So, the voice of the local people in Myanmar and the international community are totally different,” he said.
The U.N. fact-finding mission’s report supported these assertions, stating that “the violence, particularly the ‘Rohingya crisis,’ has been used by the military to reaffirm itself as the protector of a nation under threat and to cement its political role further. This is remarkable considering its appalling human rights record and the long struggle of the democracy movement against its rule.”
The challenges are exacerbated by limitations to the civilian government’s authority and influence, which often go unrecognized by the international community. Although she has been increasingly vilified abroad for failing to stop the violence, Aung San Suu Kyi — who spent 15 years under house arrest prior to November 2010 — maintains a tenuous hold on power despite her status as a national hero and figurehead of the country’s democratic transformation. Military leaders continue to dictate the state of affairs across much of the country.
A new constitution was adopted in Myanmar in 2008. It was designed by the military, however, enabling it to retain a dominant role in politics and governance. The Tatmadaw appoints 25 percent of seats in both of Myanmar’s legislative bodies, and holds the power to select candidates for the key defense, border affairs and home affairs ministerial posts, as well as at least one of two vice presidents.
According to the U.N. fact-finding mission, “this is sufficient to control the National Defence and Security Council and the entire security apparatus, and to block constitutional amendments,” allowing the military to act without civilian oversight. Current and former Tatmadaw officers continue to occupy positions of authority across all branches of government, as well as within the civil service, judiciary and in state-owned enterprises.
For Japan, this means that while its position is unpalatable internationally, it will continue to encourage both sides — military and civilian — to engage with each other.
Maruyama said that Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing are “both managing their respective realities. In public, they are both careful never to criticize each other. Many NLD members were arrested when this country was under military government, so the NLD does not trust the military. During this time, the military was also severely criticized, particularly by NLD members, so the military does not trust the NLD. But the transition of power was held very peacefully; both have worked together to improve stability. The peace combination of military and civilian leadership is essential. That’s why our Japanese government policy is clear — we’d like to facilitate such collaboration between both,” he said.
Japan’s position is also a response to rising Chinese influence in the country, much of it under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an expansive global development agenda that aims to revive historic trade routes linking China to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. China has announced billions of dollars of infrastructure investment across key BRI waypoints in the Pacific, Southeast Asia and Africa since launching the policy in 2013. Myanmar, which occupies a critical position at the crossroads of China and India, could be the lynchpin to BRI’s success.
“Myanmar’s location is very important for BRI implementation, particularly with regards to accessing the Indian Ocean. Myanmar is in fact essential for China, which is why China is planning the deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu, as well as highways between Chinese borders and Kyaukphyu,” said Maruyama.
Maruyama was referencing a planned deepwater port at the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine state. The port would offer strategic access to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal, cutting 5,000 kilometers of sailing distance between China and India. In January 2016, a consortium of Chinese companies led by CITIC Group won a contract to build the port, a deal worth $7.2 billion.
However, similar projects elsewhere in Asia have been debt traps for developing countries, which borrow heavily from China to build BRI infrastructure, only to find themselves unable to repay once construction has finished.
For example, a $1.4 billion port project in Sri Lanka was one of several Chinese-financed infrastructure projects that failed to deliver anticipated revenues. In December 2017, struggling to repay its debts, the government of Sri Lanka sold a 70 percent stake in the port and 15,000 acres of surrounding land to China for $1.1 billion under a 99-year lease. The transaction barely dented Sri Lanka’s debt to China, which stood at nearly $13 billion in mid-2018 — out of a forecasted revenue of $14 billion that year.
Developing transport infrastructure will be critical for future economic growth in Myanmar, and with BRI looming large, Japan’s overseas development assistance (ODA) is focusing primarily on three sectors: transportation, energy and electricity, as well as developing the city of Yangon.
Japan is Myanmar’s largest source of ODA, and the Japanese government has committed $8 billion over five years to projects including rail line construction and rehabilitation, urban transit, and upgrades to the national grid. As the Japanese view it, continued engagement with Myanmar and transportation investment will help counterbalance Chinese influence.
“From 1988 to 2011, this country was totally dominated by China, economically and politically,” Maruyama said. “We hope Myanmar understands the geopolitical importance of its own location, and I believe Myanmar has enough information regarding what happened in Sri Lanka.”
It appears that the country does: On Oct. 1, authorities announced the successful renegotiation of the Kyaukphyu port project, after downscaling its price tag to $1.3 billion and cutting CITIC Group’s stake in the project from 85 percent to 70 percent.
Like EU Ambassador Schmidt, Maruyama also strongly emphasized Japan’s commitment to democracy in Myanmar. He acknowledged, however, that the two powers are pursuing very different strategies in sustaining the country’s democratic transition.
“The EU is saying they don’t expect any regime change. But if you’re imposing economic sanctions, how can the regime survive? If we want to see Myanmar achieve steady and healthy economic development, Western engagement is essential. That’s why, as much as possible, Japan invites its allies, particularly the U.S., to engage in Myanmar,” he said.
The American Balancing Act
At the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, Ambassador Scot Marciel finds himself striking a delicate balance between taking a stand against gross human rights violations, protecting a tenuous process of democratization and juggling an array of complex geopolitical interests.
Marciel is a career diplomat who joined the State Department in 1985. Prior to his appointment as ambassador to Myanmar in March 2016, he served as the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, as well as ambassador to Indonesia.
He offered a measured assessment of America’s strategy in Myanmar, which will not include suspension of similar trade privileges extended under the GSP system.
“We’re not exploring trade measures at this point for a variety of reasons. What we and many others are trying to do is persuade the government and the military to pursue accountability in a credible way, which hasn’t been done to date, and to address the underlying problem, which is the severe restrictions on fundamental rights for the Rohingya community in Rakhine. The government has said it’s committed to doing both of those things, but obviously we need to see real progress,” he said.
Marciel recognized the challenges facing governments attempting to bring alleged war criminals to justice while minimizing harm to the broader population. For now, at least, the U.S. strategy will continue to emphasize targeted sanctions against individuals named in the U.N. fact-finding mission report.
“We’re trying to put pressure on the key actors, but also, as much as possible, avoid measures that hurt farmers in Shan state, for example. We’re trying not to punish the country as a whole. A lot of my friends in the human rights community — rightly, deeply upset about what they’re seeing — are cautious about broader sanctions,” he said.
Marciel noted that international condemnation has gotten the government’s attention and will continue to play an important role in alleviating the crisis, but pointed out that much of the pressure on authorities in Myanmar is coming from the private sector.
Tourism numbers and foreign direct investment (FDI), for example, have both dropped in the wake of the Rakhine conflict. On Aug. 27, the Myanmar Investment Commission reported that FDI inflows fell by $900 million during the 2017-18 fiscal year, sinking to $5.75 billion. Foreign tourist arrivals also have fallen, with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism attributing the decline to negative publicity.
“That’s not official pressure, but it’s real pressure. More and more people are saying, ‘We have to do something to get out of this mess,’ and I think that’s an important factor,” said Marciel.
He also recognized the risks of diminished economic and diplomatic ties.
“There’s a struggle underway here, as there has been for some time, between people and groups that are trying to build real democracy and end the conflict … and elements that are less enthusiastic about that. And I think, generally speaking, isolation probably favors that latter group, and more integration and engagement probably favors that former group,” said Marciel, stressing that while inaction is not the answer, most stakeholders working to improve women’s empowerment, equal rights, democracy and media freedom have urged the world to stay engaged with Myanmar.
Like Maruyama, Marciel argued that the peace process will also take much longer than many in the international community would hope. He also argued that progress is possible, identifying short-term measures such as improved accountability and human rights, including freedom of movement and citizenship, for the Rohingya still in Myanmar.
“If every three months you could say, ‘OK, well, during these three months we saw some tangible progress,’ that would be really meaningful. It would allow us to say, ‘The government is doing its best. It’s not perfect but things are getting better.’ I think that’s what we would hope to see,” said Marciel.
Accountability is the most pressing and likely most challenging issue. Myanmar is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and the office of President Win Myint has dismissed a Sept. 6 ICC ruling that it can prosecute Myanmar for crimes against humanity. Trials at The Hague for any accused Tatmadaw war criminals are unlikely.
However, the government of Myanmar announced in August 2018 it had formed an independent commission, a four-member body led by Rosario Manalo, a former deputy foreign minister of the Philippines. It will be assisted by national and international legal experts, according to media reports, with the government of Myanmar repeatedly stating that if the commission finds evidence of human rights violations, action will be taken.
Many among the diplomatic and humanitarian community doubt the commission will make an impact, but Marciel has adopted an optimistic approach.
“Given what we’ve seen to date with previous investigations and government denials, there’s certainly skepticism about this, but it’s an opportunity … to address the issue in a way that is credible, or certainly much more credible than what’s been done in the past. Should the commission be able to do a credible investigation and a credible report with a credible outcome, that would be a big positive. If it’s not, then we can expect the pressure from the international community to continue to mount,” he told us.
Further down the road, the most pressing challenges will likely concern resettlement, reintegration, and restoration of basic human rights.
Here too, more problems.
On Oct. 13, Frontier Myanmar published a cache of leaked documents detailing concerns among the humanitarian community that the government plans to replace Rohingya refugee camps with permanent shelters for internally displaced people, sustaining a policy akin to apartheid.
“The government has not been clear. On the one hand they’ve built these particular areas and centers, and on the other hand they’ve said people will be able to return to their original villages or places very nearby,” said Marciel.
“What we’ve been focused on as a necessary first step is improving conditions for the 500,000 to 600,000 Rohingya who are still in Rakhine state. These people, for the most part, still are not enjoying fundamental rights: freedom of movement, access to education, health care, citizenship or other legal documentation.”
This is reflected in recent spending announcements, and on the same day the State Department released its report on the crisis, the U.S. nearly doubled its aid to displaced Rohingya, allocating $185 million in humanitarian assistance, in addition to $156 million already committed to host communities in Bangladesh.
Citizenship is another major challenge. Although the government has claimed a planned national verification process will act as a pathway to citizenship for the stateless Rohingya, many have refused to participate in the scheme due to widespread distrust.
Freedom of movement requires citizenship, but reports have emerged that those Rohingya who have applied for citizenship face extremely lengthy delays in obtaining it. Others who have received citizenship remain unable to exercise the rights that it entails, including the right to education, health care, livelihoods and voting.
One major issue has been the use of the word “Rohingya” to identify a community that most in Myanmar view as Bengali. Marciel acknowledged the problem.
“That’s going to be one of the tougher issues, and there are different ideas out there about that. Some have suggested, and I don’t know if this would work, but some have suggested separating out the term by which people call themselves from what their political rights are. Because in this country it’s connected, and that’s part of why the name issue has become so sensitive,” he said.
It seems at times as though a resolution to the Rohingya crisis is facing insurmountable odds, but Marciel stressed that despite their different approaches, the U.S. and its allies remain committed to a core common principle: supporting Myanmar’s transition to democracy.
“Generally speaking we are all really, really troubled by the human tragedy of Rakhine, and also see that it’s taken the whole country off course, and so we are very focused on trying to help them address it both on a humanitarian level, but also in a way that allows the country to move forward,” he told The Diplomat.
“Most of the differences are really tactical and concern how to phrase things and so on, rather than fundamental differences. We all face the same challenges here. There’s no magic bullet, there’s no ‘if we just did this, everything would be better.’”
About the Author
Paige Aarhus (@paigeaarhus) is a freelance writer working in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.