The UN Toughens its Myanmar Stance – Five Years into the Rakhine Crisis

The UN Toughens its Myanmar Stance—Five Years into the Rakhine Crisis

September 29, 2017

Rohingya refugees queue for aid at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on September 26, 2017. 

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

At the UN Security Council yesterday, both the UN Secretary-General and a number of UNSC members called for tough pressure on the Myanmar government, as the crisis in Rakhine State—and the exodus of refugees into Bangladesh—continues with little let up. U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley called for all countries to stop providing weapons to the Myanmar military, according to reports in Reuters. She said, “Any country that is currently providing weapons to the Burmese military should suspend these activities until sufficient accountability measures are in place” to ensure that the ethnic cleansing stops and commanders who oversaw the Rakhine operation are removed from their posts. This is a commendable stance, and may be an important step to convincing the Myanmar armed forces that they could pay for their ethnic cleansing operations.

Meanwhile, during the discussion on Myanmar, Security Council members repeatedly mentioned commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, who runs the Myanmar armed forces. He, even more than any other figure in Myanmar, is ultimately responsible for the army’s actions in Rakhine State. Yet his name has been barely mentioned in the international press as the crisis in Rakhine has escalated. (I will hopefully have two more pieces on Min Aung Hlaing next week, in The National and The Atlantic.) Although Aung San Suu Kyi certainly bears a significant part of the blame for the Rakhine crisis, Min Aung Hlaing needs to be front and center in discussions of Myanmar at the United Nations.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also has taken an increasingly tough rhetorical approach toward the Myanmar government. He seems to be getting increasingly frustrated with Myanmar’s stonewalling on letting in UN rights investigators, and Naypyidaw’s refusal to even acknowledge that there are serious rights violations going on in Myanmar. The Secretary-General has forcefully called on Myanmar to allow in UN investigators and to halt the army’s actions in Rakhine State. This week he called the Rohingya crisis “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”

But the UN’s actions, though welcome, are more than a bit late. Although the crisis has grown exponentially since August, Rakhine state has been wracked with violence for nearly five years. For five years, the military and vigilantes have laid waste to parts of the state. And for five years there have been massive refugee flights into Bangladesh, as well as large numbers of internally displaced people inside Myanmar.

Indeed, multiple reports, including by the BBC, have shown that the UN mostly avoiding taking serious action on the Rakhine crisis over the past five years.

The BBC reports that, until the crisis that began this past August, “the head of the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) [for Myanmar], a Canadian:

  • tried to stop human rights activists travelling to Rohingya areas
  • attempted to shut down public advocacy on the subject
  • isolated staff who tried to warn that ethnic cleansing might be on the way.”

The United Nations has “strongly disagreed” with the BBC report.

Other reports back up the BBC reporting on the UN’s go-slow approach to Rakhine. Last year, Vice obtained leaked documentswhich showed that “UN officials on the ground [in Myanmar] disregarded multiple recommendations on the rights and security of the [Rohingya].” The Vice documents further showed that an internal UN report had noted that the United Nations was focused mostly on “emphasizing development investment [in Rakhine State and Myanmar generally] as the solution to the problems in Rakhine State.”

Although Rakhine certainly could use development, investment and growth is hardly going to stop an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. What’s more, as some of the Vice documents showed, many UN officials accurately recognized that development in Rakhine State actually might be further fueling the conflict. Finally, the Vice documents noted that the United Nations’ coordinator in Myanmar had repeatedly “discarded or simply ignored information that underscored the seriousness of the [human rights] situation” in Rakhine state.

So, the United Nations’ actions this week on Myanmar are to be acclaimed. But they should have come much sooner.