The Miseries of Myanmar: The Relevance and the Rationality of ‘The Responsibility to Protect’

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Myanmar’s military stand guard at a checkpoint manned with an armored vehicles blocking a road leading to the parliament building, Feb. 2, 2021, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP/UNB)

What we are witnessing in Myanmar today is the catatonic behavior of a ruthless military junta bent on tightening its stranglehold on a hapless polity, exacerbating its miseries. The perpetrator- in -chief of actions leading to the pervasive dismal situation is, of course, the head of the Army (called ‘Tatmadaw’) and effectively of the government, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Alas, truth be told, there are few saints in the tragic Myanmar story. The civilian leader deposed on February 1, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is also not to be confused, as the world should know well by now, with Florence Nightingale or Mother Theresa.

Just as the international community was gazing upon Suu Kyi with beady eyes pinning hopes on her to help effect the transition to democracy, she not only condoned the Army’s unspeakable atrocities on the Myanmarese Rohingya minority, but also went so far as to press her reputation in the service of the Tatmadaw through her personal advocacy on its behalf at the International Court of Justice. It appeared to her shocked one-time global admirers that Suu Kyi was making a Faustian deal with the devil to keep herself in clover, selling her soul for the perks of office (though not of ’power’, for the generals continued to wield it). Small wonder that the arrangement came a cropper when the generals calculated she had outlived her utility. Thereafter, she was so unceremoniously jettisoned.

Some might be forgiven for going so far as to believe that nothing in Suu Kyi’s office (her somewhat odd designation, a product of compromise with the military, was ‘State Counsellor’) became her like her departure from it, granted under unacceptable circumstances. However, as things currently stand, the conflicted international view is that in terms of choice between the general and the lady, she remains the best of a bad bargain, utterly superfluous and yet ironically indispensable to the country’s democracy. This, even though the difference between them would be much the same as between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There”.

Alleging that last November’s election which overwhelmingly endorsed Suu Kyi and her party, the Nationalist League for Democracy (NLD), General Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw sent the civilians in the cabinet packing. They declared a state of emergency, promising fresh elections after a year. This time round the generals may have bitten off more than they can chew. The nation, normally somewhat ambivalent about civic pluralism, seemed to have its democratic appetite whetted by what was a modest exposure to freedom in the past few years.

The public agitation that followed grew more intense by the day, just as the fierceness of the crackdown by the military, initially moderate, but with the fangs eventually baring as the protests spread, that also included many civil servants and other public functionaries. The ethnic minorities, including some Rohingya spokespersons, have voiced solidarity with the protesters. Their hope is that the movement will throw up a new, and hopefully younger leadership, with more understanding for them, who will view the minorities as partners against military oppression. The end goal would be to turn the revolt into a revolution, and to forge a truly democratic future for Myanmar without sacrificing core freedoms by compromising with the Tatmadaw, the method adopted in the past.

Then last Friday, the rebellion was joined by one of the country’s top diplomats, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. At a session of its General Assembly, he described what was happening in his country as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” being conducted by the military, urging “strongest possible action” from the international community by use of “any means necessary”. Incandescent with rage, the military government sacked him. But by then he had given the international community, at its very citadel the United Nations General Assembly, much curd to chew upon.

So far, it seems unlikely the generals will budge easily. They seem to be treating the international opprobrium as neither fish, flesh, fowl nor good red herring. This, more than they are normally wont to do. Their calculus is that they cannot allow themselves to loosen their grip as they did when they partially allowed Suu Kyi entry into their tent. For now, with her in the doghouse, they would be hard put to find a civilian collaborator once again.

As Professor Ralph Pettman of Australia had underscored over four decades ago that the Burmese were a society that could survive “by opting out of the international system”. A respected Myanmar scholar, Thant Myint-U, a grandson of the Burmese Secretary General of the UN, U Thant, warned in his book “The River of Lost Footsteps”, almost a decade ago, that “much more than any part of Burmese society, the Army will weather another forty years of isolation just fine”. The aspiration at the current time is that domestic forces would be able to bring about necessary changes through civic action. But should that fail, and Myanmar becomes a failed or a repressed state, a focal point of conflict and drug trade which is not unlikely, then the onus for effecting change could, indeed should, shift to the international community.

An available norm in the UN system which might be appropriate under the circumstances is what is known the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, whose shorthand is R2P. The intellectual proponents of the concept originally were the Canadians, and Australia’s Gareth Evans. Eventually it was refined into a principle by the UN, and is contained in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the ‘Outcome Document’ adopted by world leaders at the UNGA in 2005. In brief, the principle states that governments have a ‘responsibility to protect’ their civilian populations from ‘genocide, war-crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing’. When a government is unable or unwilling to protect its civilians from one or more of these crimes, the ‘responsibility to protect’ falls upon the international community to encourage and assist the state to exercise the responsibility. Incidentally, the task of crafting and negotiating the paragraphs on R2P were given to the Slovenian Permanent Representative Ambassador Roman Kirn and myself, then representing Bangladesh at the UN, two of us being “Facilitators for UN Reforms” at that time. The idea was to have a European and an Asian coming from two distinctly diverse perspectives to give a broader flavour to the project (The President of the General Assembly, Jean Ping, to whom we reported, was an African).

The R2P asserts that should the state manifestly fail to protect civilians, the international community can act, first with peaceful measures, using economic, political, and legal tools, and that failing, with collective use of force through the UN Security Council under Chapter V11 of the Charter only as a last resort. It is worth bearing in mind that the responsibility of the international community also involves capacity-building in potentially vulnerable states so that such compelling situations do not occur in the first place. So, R2P does not entail military intervention unless as a last resort. Indeed, the essence of the principle is to avoid it.

There were “safety clauses” in bold print, carefully built- in. Military interventions could take place only if one or more of the four factors-genocide, war-crimes, ethnic- cleansing and crimes against humanity- were present. At all times, such interventions would have to be endorsed by the Security Council. During the 2005 UNGA Session, the principle was unanimously approved by world leaders.

It is worth noting that the possibility of this principle was once before seriously mooted in the caser of Myanmar, though under different circumstances. It was when following the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2009, the then military government, which obviously did not possess the wherewithal to tackle a disaster of this magnitude, also dithered to accept life-saving foreign aid. The then Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France, a UN Security Council member, declared: “we are (considering) at the UN whether we can implement the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, given that food, boat and relief teams are there, and obtain a UN resolution which authorizes the delivery of aid and imposes this on the Burmese government”.

Kouchner’s remarks at that time raised understanding ire in certain quarters, particularly China, another Security Council member, which argued that the issue in Myanmar was involved natural disaster and hence beyond the Council’s mandate and purview. However, this time round, it is different. Ambassador Tun had spoken of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” as existing situation in his country, and there is a burgeoning consensus in the world that the Burmese treatment of the Rohingyas, compelling a million to seek shelter in Bangladesh, comes perilously close to ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ (In fact the UN had called it a “text-book example” of ethnic cleansing”). Any one or more of these criteria could legally and technically trigger the principle of R2P.

However, the reality is that China and Russia, always averse to interventionism involving key western powers would not allow its adoption in the Security Council. India, another current Security Council member power wielding considerable regional influence, would also be wary. But it would open up the possibility of a positive collaborative action among Washington, Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi and other key capitals of negotiating a ‘’Big Tent” conference on Myanmar, with the blessings of, but outside, the formal framework of the Security Council.

It could include, besides Council members, other involved parties as the ASEAN and Bangladesh. Unlike in an ASEAN meeting, where Myanmar representative of the current government would have to be invited as a peer, which would involve recognition and hence be unacceptable to Myanmar opposition. In the ‘’Big Tent” format they, as well as the opposition, could be invited without being considered State actors. The modalities could be worked out by the UN Secretary General and his Special Envoy for Myanmar. This could become a novel method for implementing R2P.

The central purpose of the R2P option would be to formally legalize international involvement in Myanmar. This would be logical, because what happens in Myanmar will not remained confined to Myanmar. Domestically there appears to be no letup to violence through the use of existing internal mechanisms, barring more extreme repression. It may be possible that in the proposed “big tent” format of negotiations the big powers would set aside their structural differences that are always reflected in the Security Council setting. It would also allow for non-governmental actors such as the civil society in Myanmar, or recognized eminent global persons to participate, for what may be critically necessary is fresh ideas.

The situation in Myanmar might have reached an impasse. It is abundantly clear by now that some radical changes, including with regard to the 2008 Constitution that ensured continued military predominance in government, will be necessary. The challenge might need to involve allowing the Tatmadaw to save face, without having to eat the humble pie. At the same time to smoothen the way for a new generation of leaders to emerge. All this would most certainly call for “out of the box” thinking. The people of Myanmar deserve a chance. There is a possibility that the generals may grab the option recommended above as a way out of the morass. Otherwise, Myanmar and its people may be in for a continued and unending period of sunless future, far beyond the rim of the saucer.

History often points to the incontrovertible veracity of the sad fact that just because there is a problem, does not mean there is a solution. This is an issue that could go either way; it can either be resolved or remain a forever crisis. It will put to test the maturity of the contemporary global society. In the meantime, it would be apt to say this of Myanmar, paraphrasing the poet John Keats’ bemoaning of the fate of the isles of Greece and the Greeks: For the Burmese a blush, for Myanmar a tear!

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg

  • The Responsibility to Protect
  • The Relevance and the Rationality
  • The Miseries of Myanmar
  • Nationalist League for Democracy (NLD)
  • Aung San Suu Kyi
  • Myanmar

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