The implications of what is taking place in Myanmar

myanmar inside
As Myanmar is slipping into yet another deep political crisis, any remaining hope for the safe and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees is gradually fading away.

Following Myanmar’s short-lived transition to ‘democracy’ in the first decade of this century, the country’s then de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi invited foreign investment with open arms. Investment-led economic growth was seen as the key to the country’s economic development and ethnic peace, which would ultimately help achieve the long-cherished goal of stability and national unity. Paradoxically, the moment of transition to democracy and market liberalisation was also marked by fresh major waves of ethnic violence, especially against the Rohingya minority.

The military crackdown against the Rohingya in August 2017 was described by the UN Human Rights Council as an ethnic cleansing and a potential case of genocide.

International community contributed to this genocidal violence by prioritising ‘economic development’ and ‘economic growth’ over human rights. Certain powerful countries, including the UK, were too focused on maintaining new trade relations at any cost and on securing a share of Myanmar’s largely unexplored market which for too long was under Chinese monopoly. Soon after the atrocities of 2017, reports also emerged that in the four years prior to these horrific events, the Resident Coordinator of the UN Country Team (UNCT) discouraged human rights activists from travelling to Rohingya areas, tried to prevent public advocacy on the subject, and sidelined staff who alerted about the looming ethnic cleansing.

The Nobel Peace Laureate and the icon of Myanmar’s democracy Suu Kyi herself openly defended the genocidal violence of the Myanmar army (Tatmadaw). She even defended the country’s actions before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) when the Gambia brought a case against Myanmar under the Genocide Convention. These moves were risky but calculated: Suu Kyi wanted the army on her side given the fragility of the transition to democracy but also wanted to appease the increasing popular demand for harsher treatment of the Rohingya, who had already been denied citizenship. Despite the prevalence of minority problems on other frontiers and the chronic crises of governance all over, the country-wide popular zeal for the suppression of any political and economic aspiration the Rohingya may have, if necessary by brutal means, has offered today’s Myanmar a national purpose.

Suu Kyi’s strategies secured a landslide victory for her party National League for Democracy in the latest election earlier this year but provoked the Tatmadaw to stage a coup d’état on 1 February 2021 and to take over full political control. Suu Kyi is put under yet another house arrest while law enforcement agencies are indiscriminately killing protesters for democracy each day.

The developments in Myanmar are set to re-shape geo-politics in the region. After a short-lived romance with democracy and liberalism, the country is apparently returning under the protective wings of the Tatmadaw’s long-trusted ally China, which has made major investment in Myanmar. China always sided with the Tatmadaw, even when well-evidenced accusations of genocide were made against it in various UN forums. It is also vitally important for Chinese geo-political and economic interests that the Tatmadaw maintains a tight grip on recent political developments; unfortunately that would mean more tragic deaths on the streets of Yangon, Mandalay, and so on.  

In the wake of ever-increasing tension between the liberal West on the one hand and China and Russia on the other, developments in Myanmar and the responses of the West are going to send a strong message to a number of other authoritarian regimes influencing their own strategic priorities. It is, therefore, an important test for the West too.

The fate of more than a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is also dependent on how the political situation in Myanmar unfolds in the coming months and years. As Myanmar is slipping into yet another deep political crisis, any remaining hope for the safe and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees is gradually fading away.

Suu Kyi’s strategy of appeasing the army at the cost of the most vulnerable minority group, which she had the responsibility to protect, did not pay off in the long run. UN’s decision to prioritise economic development over human rights in the hope that economic development would eventually lead to ethnic peace did not work out either. There is an important lesson for the international community and the Burman majority here, if there is any appetite to learn from past mistakes. 

**Mohammad Shahabuddin's new book titled Minorities and the Making of Postcolonial States in International Law will be out in May 2021.

Mohammad (Shahab) Shahabuddin - Professor of International Law and Human Rights.