Opinion & Analysis

Myanmar: No easy answers

Last month marked the third anniversary of the fleeing of around 730,000 Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine State to Bangladesh, after a military crackdown in response to an attack by Muslim militants on Myanmar security posts.

Three years on, Rakhine State has now become the theatre for conflict between the Burmese Army – the Tatmadaw – and the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists of the Arakan Army.

Meanwhile Myanmar approaches a general election, with leader Aung San Suu Kyi desperate to hold onto power amid international criticism and a Covid epidemic which is spiking across the country. Graeme Acton reports 

Earlier this week Myanmar's apparent continued targeting of civilians in the Rakhine and Chin states were cited as possible crimes against humanity, by the UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Speaking in Geneva at the opening of the 45th UN Human Rights Council, Bachelet demanded action to remedy the serious rights violations suffered by Myanmar's Rohingya minority in particular.

UN Human Rights Ambassador Michelle Bachelet/ photo UN

Military operations in 2017 forced almost all Rohingya to flee from conflict-torn Rakhine state to Bangladesh.  Myanmar now faces charges of genocide at the UN's top court.

Bachelet pointed out that the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar are still being targeted, describing on-going disappearances and extra-judicial killings of civilians; massive civilian displacement; arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in custody."

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights joined a chorus of criticism over the last three years, demanding accountability for what she  calls a “human rights crisis” inflicted upon the Rohingya by the Burmese military.

Bachelet says government agents have been reclassifying areas where Rohingya villages were previously located, altering the official records, and potentially altering how the land may be used in future. 

northern rakhine

Myanmar's Northern Rakhine State/ photo Unicef

Satellite images and eye-witness accounts indicate that areas in northern Rakhine have been burnt in recent months - something contested by the government, Bachelet added.

"This only underscores the need for independent, on-the-ground investigation," she says.

Myanmar's military has always justified its 2017 operations as a means to root out Rohingya militants after attacks against around a dozen security posts and police stations.

The on-going situation around the massive refugee camps they now occupy near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border has slipped from the headlines over recent months , as Covid-19 swept all before it.

But the issue lingers, as the world moves on.

Steve Marshall is this country’s Ambassador to Myanmar, a country he knows well, full of long-running conflicts he’s very familiar with after more than a decade there in various roles.  

 “The on-going Rohingya issue is a shocking situation, and the western world has some difficult decisions to make as a solution evolves.” he says.

“Looking from the outside it’s very difficult to discern at times, but everything inside Myanmar is very inter-related. The peace process, the citizenship debate, what happens in terms of the Rohingya. It’s all really tied up with the other problems the country faces.”


Steve Marshall, NZ Ambassador to Myanmar/ photo G Acton

Marshall says it’s vital that outside countries are not seen as advocates for a particular ethnic group, because the list of ethnicities really suffering in Myanmar is a long one. “In the Rakhine State for example, where most of the Rohingya lived before the fled, there is now a conflict between the government and the Arakan Army which is Rakhine Buddhist.”

 “If you look at the Rohingya, of course the outside world says they have to be returned home, but that’s a war zone now.” he says.

 “So, do we make their lives better in an IDP camp in Bangladesh, and if so, how do we do that? ..The Bangladesh government isn’t too happy with the idea of the massive Rohingya camps developing into permanent settlements.”

 “Yes, the world calls for accountability, and of course there is absolutely a need for that .. but prosecuting some senior generals will have some serious implications for the democratisation process in Myanmar.”

 “That’s the issue [Myanmar’s leader] Aung San Suu Kyi is struggling with, and she’s receiving some criticism from the outside world for that.”

Marshall makes the point that Aung San Suu Kyi can only achieve change in Myanmar if she brings the military with her, and the last thing she needs is the military thinking they are being put in a corner.

 “She doesn’t want to go back to a dictatorship, and neither does the Army.” he says.

 For Steve Marshall, it comes back, as it often does in Myanmar, to the country’s violent history, and events which occurred hundreds of years ago.

 “The Myanmar people for generations have been told who to like and who to hate, and then we come along and say please be nice to each other.” 

 “The Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhist communities have had issues over a long period. They have also shown they can co-habit.“

 “But in Myanmar people have a huge capacity for memory and history - Rakhine has a huge amount of history, and this heritage is sitting there still festering.”

 Marshall says the vast majority of Rohingya now languishing in Bangladesh really want to go back to Myanmar, back to the Rakhine State, where they have been for generations.

 For that to happen, he suggests a massive dose of pragmatism will need to be administered to Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours, and to the wider world, which continues to demand justice in a land struggling to find its democratic feet.     

 -         Asia Media Centre