The tide is not turning

Courier Briefing
Thursday, October 12th, 2017


As the Rohingya crisis has unfolded, this newsweekly has mostly resisted the rather facile (bordering on infantile) calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked, or even criticising her in the strident tone that seems fashionable at the moment. As difficult as it was to grapple with the fact that such a fount of humanity and fortitude could also harbour prejudices, we also had to recognise the reality of the situation in Myanmar, and the stringent limits to her role even as her country’s long-awaited leader.


Yet there is something for which the Myanmarese State Counsellor, as she is styled, must be held to account, and it springs from the statement she delivered on September 19 addressing (or purporting to anyway) the present crisis. Twice during that speech, Suu Kyi insisted that September 5 was the date of the last reported armed conflict in the troubled state of Rakhine, indicating that the crisis was deescalating. It is now October 12, and apart from the fact that the bulk of the over half-a-million hapless souls who have taken refuge in Bangladesh arrived after September 5 (give or take some dithering),  as Dhaka Courier went to press this week, the reports coming in from the border were of UNHCR working with the Bangladesh authorities on a transit centre to prepare for a potentially fresh influx in the coming days.


“This is in view of a sudden increase in people arriving from Myanmar,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards  at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on October 10. Quoting Bangladesh border guards, the official said more than 11,000 Rohingya refugees crossed by land on Monday into south-eastern Bangladesh through several points.


UNHCR sources said that many of the new refugees came from the Buthidaung area in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state. Buthidaung town is some 25 kilometres east of Maungdaw. Some said they fled torching and killings back home; one boy was seen with a big gash across his neck. Others said they left in fear ahead of anticipated violence. To reach Bangladesh, they walked for up to 14 days. Many were carrying children and baskets containing whatever they could pack at short notice.


“We are also coordinating with the Bangladesh government and partners to provide urgent services – food, water and healthcare – to these new refugees,” the UNHCR spokesperson added.


To prepare for possible further new arrivals, UNHCR’s government counterpart, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), has agreed to set up small first aid stations at entry points to provide water and attention for major medical emergencies among the fresh arrivals.


In addition, RRRC has allocated land to set up a transit centre in the Kutupalong extension site. It will lead preparedness activities with UNHCR in coordination with partners including WFP, UNICEF, IOM, WHO, ICRC and ACF. Basic assistance will also be provided at the entry point.


The sudden influx does follow a period of slowing arrivals. However in recent days local people in the Anjumanpara area of south-eastern Bangladesh have reported hearing gunfire in Myanmar, reported our sister newsagency UNB on October 9. According to Bangladesh border guards they spoke to, the influx through the Anjumanpara border crossing point started on the night of October 8 and had passed the 6,000 mark by afternoon the next day. Many of the new arrivals were taken by the authorities to the Kutupalong and Balukhali areas about 20-km away, where refugee camps and settlements already exist. Several thousand new arrivals were also reported at other entry points south of Anjumanpara, including Shahporir Dwip near the southern tip of Bangladesh, where UNHCR is already supporting the authorities at a transit centre for boat arrivals. The series of drownings reported since late September underscore the importance of rescue operations for those fleeing by boat from Myanmar.


In the latest such incident, at least 23 people, mostly children, drowned when the fishing boat carrying them to safety in Bangladesh capsized in stormy weather on the night of October 8. The Bangladesh Coast Guard initially found 13 bodies, including seven boys between the ages of 3-10 years, and four girls aged 2-3 years, said the IOM. The bodies of a 70-year-old man and a 60-year-old woman were also recovered from the waves. There were approximately 60 refugees aboard the 20-metre, wooden fishing vessel when it left Myanmar undercover of darkness, hoping to avoid patrols on both sides of the border, survivors told the UN migration agency staff at the scene.


Coconuts Yangon, a liberal Myanmarese website, under the title “Myanmar is starving the Rohingya out of the country”, reported how the Myanmar military and government have created widespread starvation in Rakhine that is forcing Rohingya Muslims out of the country. “Restrictions on aid and movement, in addition to the threat of physical violence, are pushing a new wave of tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to seek a more bearable existence in squalid refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh,” it said.


With independent reporting still barred from within Rakhine, it is difficult to say whether the violence there- and it is important to point out that it is mostly one-sided, with the Rohingya on the receiving end – has truly ebbed, leave alone subsided. What is clear is that the conditions to allow the Muslim minority to live peacefully, without fearing persecution, without fearing for their lives, still do not exist in the state. And in light of these realisations, this week offered the first signs that the international community may slowly be catching on to the possibility that the Myanmar government may be acting in bad faith with their interlocutors.


A parting in two acts


Having presented a mostly agreeable front during the visit of Suu Kyi’s special envoy  Kyaw Tint Swe last week, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali, in a briefing to diplomats stationed in Dhaka on October 9, laid out some stark and important differences in the way the two countries are viewing the issue of repatriation for example. Above all, Bangladesh differs with Myanmar over the return of ‘Myanmar nationals’ (as the ID cards being registered to the refugees in the camps by Bangladesh authorities proclaim) to their homeland on the basis of a 1992 joint statement that set the terms for an earlier repatriation effort. That agreement has been played up by Myanmar from the start (including Suu Kyi in her September 19 address), but as Mahmood Ali told the diplomats gathered at state guest house Padma, “the situation of 1992 and the current one are entirely different”.


During the meeting, Ali said, the Union Minister Kyaw Tint Swe had expressed Myanmar’s willingness to take back the ‘displaced residents’ of Myanmar and proposed following the principles and criteria agreed upon in the 1992 Joint Statement. As Dhaka Courier reported last week, in it Myanmar agreed to take measures that would halt the outflow of Myanmar residents to Bangladesh and to accept after scrutiny all ‘those carrying Myanmar identity cards’, ‘those able to present other documents issued by relevant Myanmar authorities’ and ‘all those able to furnish evidence of their residence in Myanmar’.


Mahmood Ali was keen to emphasise the futility of these criteria, as around half of the Muslim villages in the northern Rakhine State have been burned down. While the violence cannot reliably be said to have ended.


“So, identification of Rohingyas based on their residence in Rakhine would not be realistic,” said a Foreign Ministry statement issued after the briefing. Bangladesh therefore proposed and handed over a new arrangement to the visiting minister outlining the principles and criteria for future repatriation. A response from Myanmar on the proposed arrangement of return is still awaited. Minister Ali also said both sides also agreed to form a joint working group in this regard. But there has been no progress towards this.


The foreign minister did also share that Myanmar invited him and the home minister (a cross-border refugee crisis falls within his purview) to visit Myanmar and the invitations were accepted. Ambassadors, High Commissioners, CDAs from diplomatic Missions of Australia, China, Egypt, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, Sweden, the USA, the UK, Germany, Canada, India, The Netherlands, Vatican, Denmark, Spain, the EU, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Switzerland and Norway attended the briefing.


The next day, speaking at the Bangladesh Institute of International & Strategic Studies, the foreign minister notably upped the ante, telling his audience that a total of 3,000 Rohingya Muslims had been killed following the army operation in Rakhine since August 25. He said tensions had been brewing in Rakhine over a month before the operation when the Myanmar government started increasing army deployment at many points of the state. He even went as far as to allege that Bangladesh now is given to believe that Myanmar is merely trying to defuse the mounting international pressure by proposing to take back the Rohingyas from Bangladesh.


“Myanmar government and its media have been spreading this entire issue as Islamic terrorism or radical Bengali terrorism. Efforts are on to confuse some of the neighbouring countries by this campaign,” the Bangladesh foreign minister alleged.


Having initially entertained Myanmar’s desire to try and resolve the issue bilaterally, a clearly disappointed Mahmood Ali, a wily old pro of the foreign service, at BIISS was compelled to call for “increased international pressure” on Myanmar.


Conscience come lately


He may just get his wish, after Reuters reported this week that the US and the EU are considering imposing targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s top generals over the military’s displacement of over 500,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State, based on interviews with several diplomats based in Washington, Brussels, and Yangon. While stressing that nothing was decided as yet, they said “punitive measures aimed specifically at top generals” were among a range of options being discussed in response to the crisis.


Western governments agree that the military and its leaders must be the target of their response to the crisis, rather than State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who does not control the military and whose civilian leadership still enjoys their support. In a backhanded way, crisis may even present an opportunity to harm the military’s credibility further and hasten Myanmar’s progress towards genuine democracy.


The EU would seem to be further down this road. Foreign ministers from the 28 states – Britain are still in it – that comprise the bloc will discuss the situation in Myanmar on October 16, but a leaked draft of their joint statement said they “will suspend invitations to the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar/Burma armed forces and other senior military officers”.


The text, which will be discussed further by envoys from the EU states this week and may be modified, said the EU may consider further measures depending on developments in Myanmar but would “respond accordingly to positive developments”. The document also confirmed support for an existing EU embargo on arms and equipment “that can be used for internal repression”.


Danish minister for development cooperation, Ulla Tornaes, said her government had been working to get the crisis on the agenda, “with the wish to put further pressure on the military.” Two Washington-based US officials with knowledge of the Trump administration’s Burma deliberations said targeted sanctions against commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and several other generals, as well as leaders of ethnic Rakhine Buddhist militias accused of torching Rohingya villages, were being considered.


At the same time however, Western diplomats admit their leverage is limited. Myanmar has a long history of defying much tougher sanctions. Even the senior military men who may be targeted will probably scoff at such travel bans. But if asset freezes and prohibitions on their citizens from investing in Myanmar could be brought into the framework of possible, their chances of success would dramatically improve.  Otherwise they may only end up serving symbolic value. And for the Rohingya, all too little, all too late.

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