The Myanmar military’s latest campaign against the Rohingyas began after the attack on multiple police posts in Rakhine on 25th August 2017. The country’s military leadership, with the support of radical Buddhists elements, is perpetrating an ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign killing, raping, maiming, and setting ablaze one Rohingya village after another. Nearly, 600,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed into Bangladesh within a short span of two months. The world has not witnessed such a large exodus of people in such a short span of time since the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. As a result of this brutal campaign, the majority of Rohingyas are now residing in Bangladesh. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that the host Bangladesh is itself a relatively poor country, with a very highest population density, and that the country’s southeast is not the most geographically accessible area, with hilly terrains and lack of proper infrastructure. All these factors have culminated in a crisis that has potentially high political, economic, and social costs for Bangladesh. Despite that, Bangladesh has continued to keep its borders open for the fleeing Rohingyas and has been doing as much as possible to provide them with the basic necessities.
At present, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have been negotiating the repatriation of the Rohingyas, although it is still unclear whether the negotiations will bear any fruit. However, mere repatriation, without addressing the causes that initiated the persecution, will not guarantee the rights and security of the repatriated Rohingyas. After repatriation, it is quite likely that the Rohingyas will continue to suffer because of the persisting deep-seated hatred and hostility towards them that has been sown into Burmese society by the radical Buddhist elements. Additionally, most of their homes have been decimated; hence, for the Rohingyas, repatriation under prevailing circumstances would mean being transferred from one camp (in Bangladesh) to another (in Myanmar). Therefore, the best possible way to ensure a lasting peace and reconciliation would be to establish a UN Interim Administration in Rakhine.
A UN Interim Administration supported by a UN Peacekeeping Force could be established with a specific mandate to: (a) maintain peace and security, (b) support humanitarian efforts, and (c) oversee the implementation of the recommendations made by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in its Final Report (Kofi Annan Report). Implementation of the Kofi Annan Report is vital to ensure that there is a possibility of lasting peace in Rakhine. The Report’s recommendations deal with issues of citizenship, freedom of movement, humanitarian access, access to media, health, education, security, and justice for the Rohingyas. In time, a permanent UN Observer Mission could be established to monitor the maintenance of peace and security in the long term.
Such a mechanism is not without precedent in history. UN peacekeeping missions and interim administrations are established through UN Security Council Resolutions by the exercise of powers enunciated in Chapter VII of the UN Charter. There are numerous instances of the establishment of UN Interim Administrations to maintain security and administer the transition to peace. UN Interim Administrations in East Timor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo are examples of the utilisation of the mechanism. Such interventions are generally supported by a Peacekeeping Force and the Interim Administration is headed by a Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), who is endowed with legislative and executive authority, including the administration of justice so as to be able to implement the mandate.
Of course, Myanmar could unilaterally set up ‘safe zones’ which could be monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations or some other international bodies. But such a move by the Myanmar government seems quite improbable. Thus, the onus is upon the UN to exercise its Chapter VII powers.
There are apprehensions that Russia and/or China may veto such a motion in the Security Council. This is where international politics and diplomacy come into play. Bangladesh and the supporters of the measure must allay the geopolitical concerns of Russia and China. Russia would most likely not veto such a measure as long as China does not, since Russian geopolitical interests in the region are quite different from that China. However, China is quite unlikely to support the measure since it fears losing its foothold in Myanmar to its geopolitical rival India. India has from the very beginning supported the Myanmar government and has steered away from condemning the Myanmar military’s actions in Rakhine, hoping that it will be able to counter China’s influence in Myanmar.
However, the Indian government is facing increasing pressure from its north-eastern states over the influx of refugees; its civil society and the general public have also been quite critical of its ‘uncompassionate’ position. Now, if both India and China publicly take the same stance on the issue of UN intervention, then neither would risk losing much ground in regional geopolitics to the other. In the Security Council, it is not necessary for China and/or Russia to actively support the measure. A Security Council resolution to intervene will pass even if they either abstain or do not participate in the voting; as has been the case on numerous occasions in the past. This would, in turn, maintain the current geopolitical balance and simultaneously provide the Rohingyas a long-overdue respite from the persecution.
The world stood by and allowed such atrocities take place in the past; in Bosnia and Rwanda. Thereafter, resolved to ‘never again’ allow such atrocities to be repeated but it now seems that ‘never again’ is only suitable in speeches and quite improbable in actions. Even if the intervention comes now, it is already too late for the thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children who are already dead, maimed, victims of rape, orphaned, and have lost their homes and land. This time we will have no one but ourselves to blame this catastrophe.
A shorter version of this article was originally published in The Daily Star on 24th October 2017 titled, ‘Case for a UN Interim Administration in Rakhine’. It is available at http://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/perspective/case-un-interim-administration-rakhine-1481185.