Myanmar — apportion blame and sanctions where they belong
Myanmar is back in the news again. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) is meeting in Geneva this week and will consider the recent report by the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, headed by the distinguished former Indonesian Attorney-General and Cabinet Secretary Marzuki Darusman, which has suggested the country’s military, the Tatmadaw, has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in its treatment of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. The mission proposed that international legal action be taken against the senior leadership of the Tatmadaw, including the commander-in-chief. There is talk now of the EU and others sponsoring sanctions specifically targeting these figures.
The report briefly sketched the long history of military abuses against civilians over the last 60 years. It recognized the recent steps the government had taken in establishing both a Rakhine Advisory Board to follow up the sensible recommendations of the international commission headed by the late Kofi Annan and an Independent Commission of Enquiry into the violence there. It applauded the government’s latest attempts to engage with the UN, through recent agreements with UNHCR and the UN Development Programme, for example. But it regretted the government’s refusal to receive the Fact-Finding Mission and suggested that these steps were in any case inadequate. It expressed disappointment that Aung San Suu Kyi — in her position as State Counsellor and more so because of her global moral standing — had not done enough personally and publicly to stand up against these abuses, particularly those committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine.
I have written about this before. My view remains that the senior leadership of the Tatmadaw is the guilty party in all this. Over the past 60 years, it has repeatedly committed the same crimes against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and indeed against anyone, including Burmans, who has challenged its authority. The 2008 constitution gave them undisputed control of the defense, interior and border ministries and the National Security Council, plus a permanent blocking presence in the Parliament (rather like Hezbollah in Lebanon). Suu Kyi accepted this constitution as a means of getting to general elections — which she and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won convincingly in 2015 — in the hope that further political progress could be made toward a genuinely representative and accountable democratic system for all citizens, in which the abuses of military rule could be properly addressed and remedied. In practice, the military has simply established a state-within-a-state and is determined to maintain its position. This makes handling the current situation, where public opinion inside Myanmar remains hostile to the Rohingya and government capacity remains very limited, almost uniquely difficult.
The senior leadership of the country’s military, the Tatmadaw, is the guilty party. Isolating Aung San Suu Kyi simply plays into the hands of her enemies and risks entrenching the power of the army.
Sir John Jenkins
The question is how we can collectively help. The new UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, the experienced Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, has made a good start and is clearly keen to work assiduously from the inside out. Others believe it is more appropriate to make public criticisms not so much of the army (to whom criticism is water off a duck’s back) but of Suu Kyi, whose main asset has always been international support and goodwill. This seems counter-productive to me. Isolating her and the NLD simply plays into the hands of her enemies and risks entrenching the power of the army, supported among others by China, which has its own record of mistreating Muslims, notably in Xinjiang.
I was reminded of the futility of public virtue signaling the other day, when I read a tweet from the UN about the importance of including women ministers in the new Iraqi Cabinet. Don’t misunderstand me; I think that is important too. I just don’t think it is going to happen. When I was ambassador in Baghdad nearly a decade ago, the then-human rights minister was a woman, Wijdan Michael Salim. She was excellent, but she did not last long. And I don’t expect that the issue of female ministers will be high on the list of priorities for the sectarianized Iraqi political groupings currently contesting power. In these circumstances, simply announcing that something should happen is a radio transmission into empty space from “Planet Let’s Pretend.”
Since my last visit to Myanmar two months ago, I have been reflecting on other similarities with Iraq. In both countries, the British colonial authorities imposed a model of rule that was derived from British India to replace a shattered system of governmental legitimacy. In neither case was this appropriate. And in both cases it aroused fierce resistance. In Myanmar, we replaced a monarchy. In Iraq, we introduced one. But in both places the eventual key contest was centered on the creation of praetorian militaries. King Faisal insisted in the 1920s that Iraq needed a strong army. In the end — from Bakr Sidqi in 1936, through Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani to Abdul Karim Qasim — the army destroyed his dynasty.
In Myanmar the armed forces came into being to protect a newly independent country threatened from all sides by insurgencies, starting in Rakhine. They came to believe — as the army did in Iraq — that they were the only legitimate guardians of the national interest, and, under the mercurial leadership of the late Ne Win, destroyed Burmese democracy in the late 1950s. In both countries, this did enormous and lasting damage, of which the rise of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and Daesh in Iraq and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar are simply the latest examples.
We have a choice. We can wash our hands of all this, say it is all your fault and spray-paint blame on to the walls of the Twittersphere. Or we can decide that we are in this for the long term and find ways to make things better. In the case of Iraq, this means working not for a gender-inclusive government but for non-discriminatory good governance (men, women, unicorns, it does not matter — as long as they are effective, accountable and clean).
In Myanmar, it means finding ways to enable Suu Kyi and the civilian government to tackle the major challenges that face the nation as a whole. These include making progress with ethnic reconciliation and the ending of conflicts in Kachin and Shan States; economic reconstruction that gives ordinary Burmese everywhere a sense that things are getting better; and, in Rakhine State, building on the work that Suu Kyi and the UN have done so far to stabilize the situation, making the work of the Commission of Enquiry effective (with support from the UN), and dealing with the human suffering. Above all, we must apportion blame and sanctions where they belong.
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.