Sanctions on Myanmar the only leverage world has left

Sanctions on Myanmar the only leverage world has left

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Aung San Suu Kyi attends a hearing in a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. (Reuters)

Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) into the Rohingya crisis finalized its report on Monday, just prior to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reaching its preliminary conclusions in the case brought against Myanmar on the matter by the Gambia. 

The full ICOE report has not been made public; only the executive summary has been published and is widely seen as a whitewash — as was to be expected. The commission had been formed by the federal government of Myanmar in 2018 specifically to respondto “false allegations made by the UN agencies and other international communities,” according to a spokesperson for the Office of the President of Myanmar, who went on to insistthat “there will be no blaming of anybody, no finger-pointing of anybody… saying you’re accountable.” 

What has been published seems to reinforce the genocidal stance of the federal government of Myanmar by, for example, using the same language to describe the victims of the genocide as “Bengalis” and thus to deny and erase their identity as a group indigenous to Rakhine state, in the west of the country. From that, it seems very likely indeed that the report will not be “blaming anybody,” except perhaps the victims. 

So what purpose could such a report even serve? Of course, the intended audience for all this is not the international community. The UN and the international observers concerned with the Rohingya genocide would have always demanded access to the actual evidence on the ground, and would have looked to draw their own conclusions on what happened — as indeed the ICJ, which on Thursday ordered Myanmar to take emergency measures to prevent genocidal violence against the Rohingya, is doing.

Rather, the audience for the report will be domestic. This is a transparent maneuver by the government to take charge of the news cycle in Myanmar for the next period, to help it construct the argument that there is some kind of international conspiracy to paint the country in an unfavorable light. The government’s “independent” report shows that bad things have happened to the “Bengalis” but there was no genocide; and should the ICJ ultimately find there was a systematic effort to destroy the Rohingya community in Myanmar and erase their identity, that can only show that the ICJ and whoever else is “biased” against Myanmar, for whatever conspiratorial reasons you prefer. 

What no one should expect is that Myanmar can be shamed into acknowledging its crimes by the ICJ ruling or by any other form of censure from the international community. As if to emphasize the point, reports are now coming out of Myanmar that the government severed the little aid going to the devastated Rohingya areas in Rakhine state as recently as last week. 

No one should expect the government to be shamed into acknowledging its crimes by the ICJ ruling.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Moreover, as China continues to build one of its key Belt and Road Initiative routes through Myanmar — indeed through Rakhine state, linking to the western port of Sittwe — the government can expect to be shielded from official UN censure in the Security Council, where Beijing will wield its veto to defend its protectorate. 

As much as Western leaders are loathe to, and as much as the US under the current administration is unlikely to take a stand to defend a minority Muslim population in an area where there could be business to be done, it seems increasingly likely that the only leverage members of the international community who maintain an interest in international order and human rights law will have is to revert to harsh sanctions against Myanmar. We hoped this would never again need to be the case, as Myanmar started its apparent transition toward democracy in 2008, but we have run out of options. And, as the ICJ declared there was prima facie evidence of breaches of the 1948 Genocide Convention, we have also run out of excuses. 

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim​
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