Special Report | The world’s shameful, ongoing failure to hold Burma to account

Burma’s military have systematically targeted civilians, murdered women and children, and committed sexual violence on a shocking scale. Despite worldwide outrage, the international community is still failing to act. Steve Shaw reports for Ceasefire.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 14:58 - 0 Comments

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Rohingya children at Balukhai refugee camp, Bangladesh (Credit: AP)

Soldiers in Burma’s military have systematically targeted civilians, murdered women and children, and committed sexual violence on a “shocking scale”.

In Rakhine State they have even taken part in genocide, which saw Muslim Rohingya villagers massacred, shot, burned alive, hacked and beaten to death.

These are just some of the details uncovered by a UN Fact-Finding Mission that spent 15 months investigating human rights violations and heard graphic accounts from more than 800 people. Their report, published in August 2018, concluded that the military’s actions amounted to war crimes, and called on the UN Security Council to refer Burma to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Yet the international community has failed to act, due, in part, to their misplaced faith in the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party, National League for Democracy (NLD).

The NLD’s electoral victory in 2015 was lauded as a triumph for democracy and was expected to be an end to the oppressive military rule that had created one of the longest running civil wars in history. But two years after the election, Suu Kyi just stood by and watched as the country’s military, known as Tatmadaw, marched into areas occupied by the Rohingya people and launched a brutal military campaign of murder, mass rape and arson. It resulted in more than 700,000 fleeing to Bangladesh, where they remain to date.

When reports of the atrocities first began to emerge, Suu Kyi’s office launched an aggressive campaign branding foreign and social media reports as “fake news”. She even went as far as to post a banner on her Facebook page that called some stories “fake rape”, joining a stream of Buddhist nationalists who used social media to incite the kind of violence that led to the genocide.

In the aftermath, she has continued to support the imprisonment of two Reuters journalists who were imprisoned after investigating the massacre of ten Rohingya men.

The fact-finding mission states that Suu Kyi’s government had “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes” and criticised Suu Kyi for not using her position or her “moral authority” to prevent the genocide.

While international attention has focused overwhelmingly on the Rohingya genocide, the UN also documented human rights violations taking place against the Karen and Shan ethnic people — again, Suu Kyi has been silent.

The UK is the lead country on Burma at the UN Security Council, and the British government has issued strong condemnations against Burma for what took place, with Prime Minister Theresa May vowing to tackle the “inhuman destruction of the Rohingya people”.

And yet, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt took to Twitter to absolve Suu Kyi of any guilt, writing: “Unfortunately, she doesn’t control the military. They have a constitution which is halfway towards a democracy and the military are not accountable to her and are able to act with impunity. So we have to understand the difficulty of her position.”

Despite the mixed messages, the UK has attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade members of the security council to agree to a criminal court referral. Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, told Ceasefire:

“Although publicly the British government is still not supporting an ICC referral, in private they tried to get support for it at UN’s General Assembly, but failed. EU members won’t support it, and attempts to get France to support it and work with them to build support failed. US officials have been privately saying they won’t support anything with ICC involved.”

The UN proposed an alternative to referring to the criminal court and this was to set up an “ad-hoc international criminal tribunal” similar to those formed in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. Farmaner says the British did also make this suggestion but, as with the ICC referral, they failed to get support.

Farmaner continued: “An ICC referral or an ad hoc tribunal require a resolution at the security council, which was always going to be challenging with the Russia and China threat of a veto. Without the support of the USA or France it’s impossible.

“Next year we also have South Africa on the UNSC. They voted against the resolution on Burma in 2007, which called for Burma’s government to end attacks against civilians in ethnic minority regions and begin talks that would lead to a democratic transition.

“Germany is also on the UNSC in 2019, and within the EU they have always opposed stronger measures to support human rights in Burma. Having hit this impasse the British government focus is back on other action by the EU, such as adding more people to the EU sanctions list. However, even this is proving to be slow work.”

Europe’s ‘solution’

Instead of referring the situation to the criminal court, the European Union has suggested an alternative course: they want to punish the country’s most vulnerable by withdrawing special trade privileges, known as ‘Everything But Arms’. This trade scheme makes all imports to the EU from the world’s least developed countries duty and quota free, with the exception of armaments.

According to data from the EU Commission, the EU ranked as the sixth biggest trading partner for Burma in 2017, with €1,549 million worth of exports. Of that number, the garment industry made up a massive 72 percent.

The chair of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association told the weekly magazine Frontier Myanmar that withdrawing the country from the trade scheme could result in more than half of all garment workers losing their jobs. Previous US sanctions crippled the garment industry in 2003 and resulted in many of the workers – mainly young women – being pushed into prostitution in order to support their families.

At an October 2018 meeting of European trade ministers in Austria, the EU trade commissioner, Ms Cecilia Malmström, highlighted that the UN’s report indicated Burma had undertaken the “gravest crimes under international law”. Yet her threat to withdraw Burma from this scheme represents a clear decision not to sanction military leaders who have been clearly identified as responsible for war crimes including military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and five other generals.

This also goes completely against the very recommendations made by the UN, which noted:

“The Mission does not support general economic sanctions on Myanmar. It is concerned that such sanctions in the past may have contributed to the impoverishment of the Myanmar people generally while having little impact on those most responsible for serious human rights violations.”

The UN adds that countries should increase development assistance and help reduce poverty providing there is no benefit to the country’s military; yet the EU will be doing nothing but causing greater suffering and increased poverty, particularly for impoverished rural families.

Commenting on the threat, Mr Farmaner, said: “There are human rights conditions linked to the trade privileges but Burma has never met them. The trade commissioner does not need EU member state approval to initiate the current review or to withdraw the trade privileges. So the EU, which to date has decided not to sanction Min Aung Hlaing or military companies, may now impose sanctions which will mainly impact ordinary workers.”

The EU has also decided not to ban member states from training Burma’s military and refused to reveal whether any are currently doing so. They have also failed to stop European companies from supplying equipment to the military, apart from arms.

Such failures should not come as a surprise. When there was a previous outbreak of violence against the Rohingya in November 2016, 75,000 people were fleeing their homes to escape from mass rape, murder and arson while Min Aung Hlaing was meeting with the Chairman of the European Military Council to discuss relations and cooperation. Five months later, he was treated to tours of arms companies, meetings with senior military officials and even a complimentary flight in a light aircraft.

Despite all the violence and the litany of human rights abuses prior to the Rohingya genocide, it wasn’t until September 2017 that the British government chose to stop training Burma’s military.

The US response

For its part, the US has imposed, in August of last year, a set of economic sanctions against Burma’s military for their role in “ethnic cleansing” and “widespread human rights abuses”.

Speaking when the sanctions were imposed, Sigal Mandelker, a senior Treasury Department official, said in a statement: “Burmese security forces have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights abuses.”

The State Department also published a report on the violence committed against the Rohingya. Among the documented atrocities, it noted:

“When the military shot adult families, multiple reports indicate they included the children in the executions. In some cases, witnesses report seeing soldiers or police grab infants out of their mother’s arms to kill them, and some reported seeing them physically brutalise young children by stomping on them, beating them or throwing infants on the ground.”

Despite clearly acknowledging war crimes had been committed on a massive scale, the US imposed sanctions on just four military officials, and did not target the man in charge, Min Aung Hlaing.

It can also be argued that former President Barack Obama helped create the conditions that allowed genocide to be committed, due to his blind faith in the election of Aung San Suu Kyi. Within a year of her election, the Obama administration lifted sanctions that were intended to help bring about reform and equal rights for ethnic minorities. Obama said he did this because the country had “greater enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and the country “has been significantly altered by substantial advances to promote democracy”.

In doing so, Obama completely ignored pleas from human rights groups, which had written a joint letter to him in September 2016 stating:

“The UN Refugee Agency has recorded 1.53 million people of concern in Burma, approximately 120,000 of whom are persecuted Muslim Rohingya people living in squalid camps since they were displaced by violence in 2012. Another million Rohingya continue to be persecuted throughout the country with heavily restricted rights, including on their freedom of movement, ability to marry and have children, and access to medicine.”

Even Aung San Suu Kyi had stated that there was no need to lift the sanctions since they only targeted “those who are obstructions to the country’s democratic movements”. It is believed that his decision emboldened the military and a month after the sanctions were lifted there was a resurgence of violence, setting the scene for the 2017 genocide.

Mirroring its predecessor, the Trump administration has also appeared reluctant to hold Burma accountable and Suu Kyi even adopted much of the new president’s language in the way she dismissed news of the atrocities as “fake news”.

The US House of Representatives, which recently came under the control of the opposition Democrats, overwhelmingly approved a resolution in December labelling the persecution of the Rohingya, a “genocide” and calling on Trump to impose further sanctions on the military, specifically naming Min Aung Hlaing. However, because this has come from the opposition party, it is likely that Trump will ignore it.

The US government is also unlikely to support a referral to the international criminal court. While the US was initially a member of the court when it was formed in 1998, former President George W. Bush withdrew the country in 2002 saying the US would “follow its values” rather than the court.

In September of last year, national security adviser John Bolton dubbed the court “illegitimate” and went as far as to threaten it with sanctions if there were any attempts to prosecute Americans over the abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan.

No Accountability

The west’s response to what the UN described as “crimes of the highest order under international law” has been feeble at best, sending a message to those responsible that they can continue with impunity, just as Obama’s decision to lift sanctions did in 2016. Meanwhile, other countries that are key allies of western governments –including Israel and Australia – have been providing direct support to Burma’s military.

After the publication of the UN report, the Australian government imposed sanctions on Burma’s military leaders, excluding Min Aung Hlaing. However, it did not end the country’s $400,000 training programme, which the Australian government claim will expose the Burmese military to the ways of a “modern” defence force.

Meanwhile, Israeli weapons manufacturers are continuing to sell military equipment to Burma, including gunboats, and the two governments have even signed an agreement that allows them to edit each other’s school textbooks “concerning the passages referring to the history of the other state”.

While all these governments who are usually keen to proclaim their intolerance for war crimes and human rights violations do nothing, the governments of Burma and Bangladesh have been asking hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to return to their country. They are unlikely to be returning to the charred remains of the places they once called home but instead they would likely be confined to purpose-built camps where they may have even fewer rights and freedoms than before.

Meanwhile, outbreaks of violence continue to flare up in further parts of the country against other ethnic groups, such as the Shan and the Karen people. In September, the Shan Human Rights Foundation reported that the military had detained elderly people and children, and tortured villagers during “clearance operations”. The villagers had been opposing the construction of a new dam being built on Myitnge river, invested in by Swiss, German, Japanese and Chinese companies.

Last December, in a surprise move, the military pro-actively announced that it was suspending “all military movements” against opposition armed groups in the north and east of the country for four months. It said the purpose was “to enable negotiations to take place”, indicating their hope this would encourage rebel groups to sign a landmark 2015 peace process that had been overseen by Suu Kyi herself.

However, one armed group alliance has already declared its refusal to agree to the ceasefire, due to the Burmese military’s decision to continue operations in Rakhine State, where an estimated 600,000 Rohingya still live and large numbers of troops are now being stationed.

The UN’s coordinator in Burma, Knut Ostby, has warned of a “new major displacement and new need for major humanitarian assistance”.

If his warning becomes a reality, and the military launches renewed attacks on the Rohingya, they will be doing so without any fear of being held to account by the international community.

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Steve Shaw

Steve Shaw is a UK-based journalist whose writing has been featured in New Internationalist, The Diplomat, Global Comment, The Tibet Post and others. He has also contributed to several stories featured on BBC Radio and local news publications across the UK. He has lived and worked among exiled Tibetans in the foothills of the Himalayas and Burmese migrants in Thailand. His global reporting has covered major human rights issues ranging from state surveillance in the UK and human trafficking in Nepal to the genocide of the Rohingya people in Burma.

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