As the Rohingya crisis rages on, international actors ramp up pressure

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres briefs the Security Council on the situation in Rakhine state of Myanmar, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh over the last several weeks. Photo by: Evan Schneider / U.N.

TORONTO — The international community is implementing sanctions against the Myanmar military and is discussing how to ramp up pressure on the government over the brutal violence against Rohingya Muslims, which has sent more than 480,000 people, roughly 60 percent of whom are children, fleeing into Bangladesh since late August.

On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council held its first public meeting on Myanmar in eight years, insisting that the Southeast Asian country quickly end its military campaign against the ethnic Rohingya minority. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for “swift action” on what he said at the meeting has “spiralled into the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”

Earlier in the week, during an emergency debate about the Rohingya crisis in the Canadian House of Commons, the country’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said that she spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about how to increase pressure on Myanmar’s leadership, though she did not divulge any specific details. This follows an announcement made recently by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence, suspending 300,000 British pounds ($490,000) of financial aid in educational courses for the Myanmar military until the current crisis is resolved.

“We call on the Burmese Armed Forces to take immediate steps to stop the violence in Rakhine and ensure the protection of all civilians, to allow full access for humanitarian aid and to facilitate the civilian government’s implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations in full," a U.K. MoD spokesperson told Devex.

The Rohingya have lived in western Myanmar for centuries, but were stripped of their citizenship under the military junta in the 1980s. The more than one million stateless Rohingya living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have often been described as the world’s most persecuted minority. They have been attacked with impunity for decades, though violence has worsened in recent years. Those who have fled this year and last have reported mass gang rapes and the slaughter of babies with knives, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the rise of a new armed militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, and the turmoil they have wrought is giving the Myanmar army even more cause to persecute them.

On August 25, ARSA staged a coordinated attack on state security in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, killing 12 people. In response, the military suspended access to conflict areas, preventing aid workers from providing critical services to bystanders caught in the crossfire. Instead, the military conducted “clearance operations.” Authorities in Myanmar have indicated that at least 37 percent of Muslim villages in northern Rakhine have now been totally abandoned. No deadline has been set for when the international development community can resume activities, although they continue to hold out hope that suspended access will be temporary.

Mounting international pressure against the Myanmar military, which retains immense power in the fledgling democratic country, and Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, comes after the Nobel Peace Prize winner gave her first international address on the crisis last week. During the televised talk, the democracy icon said in English that there had been no clashes or clearance operations in Rakhine state since September 5. But, satellite images released by Human Rights Watch show that at least 210 Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground since violence erupted in late August.

Suu Kyi also claimed that all refugees would be allowed to return following a verification process. But the vast majority of the community are stateless, with the government claiming they have no right to live in Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s intentions have further been called into question following accusations from Bangladeshi officials that Myanmar authorities planted landmines on its side of the border to prevent the Rohingya from returning.

The unfolding crisis is putting massive pressure on Bangladesh, which despite a huge scale-up of operations is not well equipped to deal with the enormous demand for food, shelter and other assistance. As Devex previously reported, the World Health Organization is rushing to prevent disease outbreaks in refugee camps that have formed in the country’s beachside town of Cox’s Bazar. The international humanitarian community in Bangladesh has done much over the years to assist the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have poured into the country even before the current crisis. But Bangladeshis have been historically reluctant to host the Rohingya, whom many view as illegal immigrants intruding from Myanmar.

Last week the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina laid out a five-point plan that called for the protection of the Rohingya in “safe zones that could be created inside Myanmar under U.N. supervision." This would enable refugees to go home, but implementation would require support from the Security Council, where China and Russia — unlikely to back such a prospect — both hold veto power. Safe zones could also prove to be dangerous for the Rohingya because Myanmar is unlikely to support setting them up.

“The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is known, has repeatedly shown that it is a military that cannot be trusted to respect human rights, so there is significant concerns that without clear guarantees agreed with all the key stakeholders, asking the Rohingya to return to so-called safe zones would amount to just putting them back into harm’s way,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

World leaders expressed strong outrage over the Rohingya crisis at the recently concluded U.N. General Assembly in New York, from which Suu Kyi was noticeably absent. French President Emmanuel Macron said at the event, "the military operation must stop, humanitarian access must be guaranteed and the rule of law restored in the face of what we know is ethnic cleansing." He also said that he would start a Security Council initiative to ensure humanitarian access and an end to the violence.

But, while foreign leaders have been vocal on the crisis, many of their international development partners active in Myanmar are opting for a lower profile. Over a dozen INGOs have refused to speak with Devex on the Rohingya crisis. Several emphasized that their priority is to regain access to the conflict areas in Rakhine and that being quoted by the media as overly critical against the government could derail efforts to provide much needed aid. With anti-INGO sentiment running at an all time high in Myanmar, country directors are concerned for the safety and well-being of their staff members still in Rakhine.

A changing narrative

The tumultuous state has dominated international media attention since the crisis first started in 2012. But Myanmar also faces violent, protracted, though less high-profile ethnic conflicts in Kachin and northern Shan states, despite Suu Kyi previously stating that peace is her top priority. The Kachin ethnic group alone has been fighting for autonomy from the Myanmar government since the 1960s, making it one of the world’s longest running civil wars. In 2011, a 17-year cease-fire deteriorated, and since then fighting has resumed. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 119,000 people remain in need of humanitarian assistance in Kachin and Shan states with some 50 percent of them staying in areas beyond government control where humanitarian access is limited.

With conflict raging in various areas of Myanmar and little hope for peace in the near future, some international development experts are worried that the negative publicity and severe losses will impede the otherwise promising development trajectory of the country as a whole.

“I expect the current crisis in Rakhine, along with those in Kachin and Shan States, will have a dramatic impact on future international development funding and support for the country,” said Kelland Stevenson, who has been working in Myanmar for six years and is the Yangon-based country director for Plan International. “Needless to say, recent events have altered quite negatively the external perspective on the country. Whereas Myanmar was a donor favorite just a few years back, now outsiders aren’t really sure of what to make of what’s happening. Though donor countries have been very keen to see this government succeed, the changing international narrative on Myanmar will require them to rethink their funding strategies and quite likely reduce their support.” 

Myanmar has much to lose if it alienates the international development community. In recent years, following the slow opening of the country in 2011 and landmark free election of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in 2015, Myanmar has become a development darling.

According to the aid transparency portal Mohinga, the country received $7.68 billion in aid commitments from donors so far this year. That’s an almost 500 percent increase from the same time period five years ago when Myanmar received just $1.31 billion in commitments. And that money is finally starting to be mobilized. In the past year and a half, development partners have moved past the research stage to implement projects on the ground in the areas of transport and storage, which is critical because roughly 40 percent of the country’s population don’t have basic road access; energy generation and supply, crucial support since the government plans to go from having only roughly 33 percent of the population currently with access to electricity to providing energy access to all households by 2030; and agriculture, which is the backbone of the country’s economy and contributes to almost 40 percent of Myanmar’s GDP.

In fact, up until the latest crisis, many of the country’s donors were so impressed by the government’s performance during its first year of democratic rule that they were talking about changing the way funding is distributed. Rather than channeling development funds through the U.N. and INGOs, as was common practice when sanctions were in place, donors were contemplating giving development funds directly to the Myanmar government, said Stevenson. How donors move forward now is anybody’s guess.

“There’s a lot of pressure on donors now,” Stevenson said.  “As many donors have said, they feel they do not have a lot of leverage on the government or the military at the moment in terms of influencing them to bring about change with regards to how they address the conflicts in either Kachin or Rakhine. As we heard in Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent speech on Rakhine, the government is going to respond to the situation on their terms — they’re not going to be influenced by international rhetoric or pressure.”

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About the author

  • Fatima Arkin

    Fatima Arkin is a Devex contributor specializing in climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. She has reported across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America for Foreign Policy,, Maclean's, and many others. She holds a B.A. in international development and history from McGill University and a graduate diploma in journalism from Concordia University, both located in Montreal, Canada.