The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar

Myanmar has been back under the spotlight in recent months, as the state army has launched a campaign against the ethnic Muslim minority of the Rohingya people.What’s the reason behind the ethnic cleansing?

The operation is officially referred to as “counter-terrorism” after a rebel group, the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked and killed border guards in the western state of Rakhine in late August, causing a large scale backlash by the central government. Following mass killings, rapes and arson of villages perpetuated by the Burmese armed forces, more than 600.000 Rohingya civilians have been forced to flee their homes and cross the border to Bangladesh.

Suu Kyi

The government response appears to be clearly out of proportion: while a precise estimate is not available, the Rohingya militia is thought to be composed of only 500 armed men, whose level of training is unclear. Amid accusation from international watchdogs, especially the UN human rights council which defined the operation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aun San Suu Kyi has been reluctant to address concerns regarding violation of Rohingya’s rights. After all, her position has quite an unsteady basis in spite of the country’s democratic transition, given that the military still retains a pivotal role in Myanmar’s politics.

In a country characterized by strong nationalism and ethnic fragmentation, the Rohingya have a long history of persecution. They are not recognized as any of the 135 different ethnic groups officially composing the population and are thus denied citizenship, even if they were more than 1 million before the start of the most recent crackdown. Among the reasons for this exclusion, the most apparent one is Rohingya’s Muslim belief, which is seen as incompatible with the Burmese Buddhist identity by a big share of the population and is regarded as a potential source of social unrest by the military authorities. Over the years, the persecution supported by the regime has created a huge diaspora of this population across South East Asia and the Middle East, leading to more than 1.4 million of Rohingya escaping, mainly to other Muslim countries. More specifically, it is Bangladesh which is confronted with the latest Rohingya’s diaspora, having had to set up refugee camps for around 600,000 Rohingya since the end of August. Overall, the path to possible solutions for this humanitarian crisis looks quite uncertain.

After reaching an initial agreement in late October on bilateral border and security cooperation to restore normalcy, a new deal for the return of the Rohingya to Myanmar has been signed on 23rd of November by the two countries. Nonetheless, a clear and definitive resolution looks far from being implemented in the near future. No clear statement has been made on how the repatriation process will take place, nor on how stateless Rohingya are supposed to return home, as Myanmar will only accept people who are able to show identity documents issued by the government in the past. Not only, many have raised concerns regarding where this persecuted minority will be relocated since most Rohingya villages have been completely burnt down. Finally, how the Rohingya’s safety will be ensured is still an open question, given the outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment supported by the Burmese military.

Meanwhile, Muslim leaders worldwide are being prompted to react to such persecutions of the Rohingya in an attempt to place themselves ahead of the Islamic world. Indeed, this humanitarian crisis is offering a strategic political platform especially towards the global ambitions of the Turkish president Erdogan. Perhaps the most prominent advocate of Rohingya’s rights, he has been the first to manage to get permission to send humanitarian aid to Myanmar’s conflict zone in Rakhine state and refugee camps in Bangladesh and he has also been very vocal in calling for a unification of all Muslim forces to denounce this “genocide”. However, Turkey must face competition from Iran, which is trying to enhance its pan-Islamic status by imposing economic and political pressure on Myanmar, as well as mobilising diplomats and doctors to conflict zones.

Xi Jinping at the Congress of the Communist Party.

Nonetheless, Myanmar has its supporters too. The most assertive is the Chinese giant just across the border, whose envoy to the UN has recently asked for “patience” in dealing with the issue, claiming it is due to complex historical, ethnic and religious factors. China (together with Russia, and for similar reasons) is siding with the Myanmar government and preventing the UN Security Council from taking a tougher stance on the issue. This is buying time for the army to expel as many Rohingya civilians as possible, knowing that a complete repatriation program, if ever agreed, will take many years and will come with significant economic aid from Western and Islamic countries. The country led by Xi Jinping is not only following the much celebrated “non-interference policy” in internal affairs of foreign countries, but is also creating closer ties with a growing economy in a region where China’s influence has much to gain, especially at the expense of the US and India. During the years, it has shifted its foreign policy in the country from the direct support of at least two different rebel groups with weapons and training to a much more effective appeasement policy with the military rulers, in the context of a geopolitical expansion in the area using various forms of soft power, especially investments and trade deals. Furthermore, the persecution against an Islamic minority has many similarities with the current situation in the Western region of Xinjiang, and China is probably expecting a similar support from Myanmar government against international criticism on human rights violations.

Finally, Myanmar is a fundamental part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative promoted by Xi Jinping as a mean to boost the Chinese economy in the years to come and the infrastructural projects already carried out or still under construction are of primary importance. A pipeline carrying both oil and natural gas arrives directly in the Rakhine State (in the port in Kyaukpyu) and there are plans to build a deep-sea port worth some 7.3 USD billion, meaning that the control of this area is of the uttermost importance: the fear of an attack on such infrastructure has probably been one of the most important reasons behind the large scale crackdown.

Furthermore, one of the most worrying aspects of the crisis is the apparent support for the persecution from the vast majority of the non-Muslim population, whose faith in Buddhism has long been exploited by the army to bolster a strong nationalism that could justify the regime. In a classic example of scapegoat for the several problems of the country, the Rohingya have long been identified as “strangers” and today, even after international media outlets have documented the terrible conditions of the civilians fleeing the country, many cities in Myanmar claim proudly to be “Muslim-free”, explicitly endorsing the actions of the government. From this standpoint the persecution of a minority group reviled by the population is probably a double fold signal of the army to both the civilian government and the international community: even if formally it has ceded power to the Parliament, it still calls the shots when dealing with security issues and, in doing so, it can even gain a wide popular support, thus challenging the democratic government in its own field.

To complicate things, economic growth in the most recent years has been disappointing, reaching 5,6% in 2016, below most forecasts. To put things into perspective, the early 2000s have been a golden decade for Myanmar, with real GDP growth that averaged more than 12% for the period 2000-2010. This dropped dramatically to 5,6% in 2011, the year in which the army started the transition towards a democratic government, and never fully rebounded after that, even if the country, with a population of more than 50 million and a GDP per capita of only 1,275 USD has still a huge growth potential. The reasons behind the slowdown are several, ranging from a high exposure to natural disasters (such as the devastating floods of last year) to the fact that 70% of the total workforce is currently employed in agriculture, where productivity gains are limited. In addition, the reforms implemented and the uncertainty around the democratic transition have made international investors wary of a possible worsening of the political situations and approved FDI stopped last year at 9.4 USD billions, far below the peak of 20 billions reached before 2011. The over-reliance on foreign capital has had harsh consequences on growth; not only, funds from the Asian Development Bank and a growing tourism industry have not made up for the losses and the civilian government is thus likely to be blamed for the slowdown.

In summary, the international community feels powerless in dealing with the issue, struck between the desire to take a stance against this persecution and the fear to spoil the democratic transition that has brought San Suu Kyi to power, even if the army still holds a tight control on the run of the country. Additionally, the lack of unity among the international community, as well as the support for the Burmese army coming from China and other actors, have made the political pressure on the security forces limited. While no punishment will likely ensue for the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing, a resettlement of all the refugees will also have to face huge political and logistical hurdles. Finally, overall a full reconciliation with the other ethnic groups living in Rakhine looks very unrealistic in both the short and medium run, leaving a very bleak outlook for the refugees.

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