With a plethora of humanitarian crises dominating our rolling news bulletins, it can be hard to keep up with the deplorable situation in Myanmar. What is happening? Who is to blame? How can it be resolved? These are just some of the questions that a recent special UN investigation aimed to answer – and it did so with damning conclusions.
Myanmar has long been in conflict with its Rohingya population, with the government failing to recognise them as citizens and instead referring to them as ‘Bengali migrants’. In the past year, the Rohingya people have faced intense persecution, leading to over 700,000 fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh and approximately 25,000 people dying. The circumstances are particularly severe in the Rakhine State region, where the predominantly Rohingya population have been stripped of any legal status and 140,000 have been forced out of their homes into desolate camps. And it gets worse.
Gang rape, torture, burning entire villages, murder, these are just some of the charges the UN report has aimed at the Myanmar military. This surfeit of charges has culminated in three overarching accusations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and the gravest indictment of all: genocide. This one word over any other represents the severity of the situation. It instils memories of Nazi Germany, Cambodia and Rwanda. It invokes a sickening feeling of despair and dread. It could also be argued that it demonstrates more than ever how man’s inhumanity to man is a sentiment that is alive and kicking in the 21st century. Whilst the military deny genocide has taken place, the reports of mass executions in Rakhine provide compelling evidence that the most heinous of crimes has been (and is continuing to be) conducted.
The weight of evidence gathered, and the gravity of the charges levelled means that some type of prosecution must take place. However, despite six top generals, including the Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing (pictured above), being named as conspirators, the UN desire for them to face the International Criminal Court (ICC) is unlikely to come to fruition. China, a permanent member on the UN Security Council, will likely veto this move, preventing a criminal prosecution. Yet, an independent criminal tribunal is still possible, as long as the Myanmar government cooperate.
Here is where the difficulty lies. Whilst the UN investigation reflects that there is no evidence that the civilian government ordered, controlled or had knowledge of the military attacks, those in power have undoubtedly stood by whilst the most catastrophic of crimes have taken place. The UN described the once revered ruler Aung Sang Suu Kyi (pictured below) as having failed in her ‘moral authority’, possibly in the hope that she will retract her support of the military and support a war crimes trial. However, it seems to be too little, too late for the previously cherished commander. Her government has blocked international investigations, justified military actions as a mere defence against terrorism and refused to take responsibility for the plight of its citizens, instead electing to strip them of their citizenship, and arguably their very humanity.
Furthermore, only this week the government prolonged the detainment of two Reuters journalists, sentencing them to seven years imprisonment on charges of breaching the Official Secrets Act. These indictments made against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were researching the plight of Rohingya Muslims before their imprisonment, have been condemned by the EU, the US and international media organisations. However, it’s often the case that a government fearful of negative press will use any trumped-up charge to prevent a tarnished reputation forming.
Considering this complicity, we are unlikely to see a collaborative and cooperative effort from the Myanmar government to bring the war criminals to justice and provide peace for the persecuted. The UN report was unexpectedly brutal in its denunciation of the Myanmar military, but it’s likely to be years before any reasonable recompense is sought. Alternative measures to mitigate the military might include increased sanctions, a travel ban or the freezing of monetary assets, but how far this will reduce the humanitarian hardship remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Rohingya population remain locked in a tragedy with seemingly little chance of freedom.