The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in its report released on Feb 3 detailed that widespread human rights violations against the Rohingya population by Myanmar’s security forces have put tremendous pressure on the Myanmar government.
The OHCHR report was based on interviews with people who fled Myanmar after attacks on a border post in October last year, the ensuing counter-military operations and a lockdown in north Maungdaw. The report documents mass gang-rapes, killings, including of babies and young children, brutal beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations, some of which may be classified as crimes against humanity.
The question now is whether the Myanmar government will accept the allegations and do something to address them. What will be the response of the international community, such as the Bangladesh government, the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the United Nations?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement released on Feb 8 said that the government was investigating the allegations and would take legal action against the perpetrators if there is clear evidence of human rights abuses.
The home ministry, controlled by the military, has set up a team of five high-ranking police officials to investigate allegations of widespread human rights abuses committed by security forces.
The military has also said that five policemen have been sentenced to two months’ detention and three senior officers have been demoted over the incident of a selfie-style footage of police kicking and beating Rohingya in Koe Tan Kauk village of Rathedaung township in November last year.
The military has also said the man believed to have led the Maungdaw border outpost attacks, which killed nine policemen, was sentenced to death on Feb 10. The man, named Uruma, was charged under Section 302(1)(c) of Myanmar’s penal code for escorting the attackers to the police targets in Maungdaw. If convicted, it carries a punishment of a fine, a term of imprisonment of up to seven years, or the death penalty in the most severe cases.
Though the National League for Democracy (NLD) government has not officially accepted the serious allegations, it has come under intense pressure by the report. But because of the delicate and sensitive nature of the issue plus the international scrutiny, Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to handle the matter cautiously.
While the NLD government initiates its own investigation, behind the scenes Ms Suu Kyi is likely to reach out to the military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing for his intervention. The home ministry, which is in-charge of the “clearance operations”, is headed by the military.
Ms Suu Kyi’s role is crucial but limited. Because of her role as the de-facto leader of the civilian government as well as because of her international stature as a democratic icon, usually there are high expectations of the 1991 Nobel peace laureate. She has received her share of criticism from governments and rights groups from around the world.
However, it is important to note that Myanmar’s democratisation is still incomplete, which means there is a hybrid-nature political system whereby the civilian government and the military share power.
While criticising her, one should also recognise what she has done within her limited capacity. For example, she created the Kofi Annan-led commission to get international perspective on the sensitive issue, despite opposition from several political parties, including the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which governed the country for five years under President Then Sein.
The NLD government constituted a commission led by the country’s military-backed Vice President Myint Swe, and also sent a high-level delegation to Bangladesh in its attempt to resolve the Rohingya conundrum. Additionally, it has formed a leading body to accelerate the process of issuing National Verification Cards (NVCs) to Rohingya waiting for citizenship verification under the 1982 Citizenship Law, which classifies citizenship into three categories — full citizen, associate citizen and naturalized citizen.
But what Ms Suu Kyi and her NLD government could and should do is instead of denying human rights violations against the Rohingya population, especially in light of the OHCHR report, to work together with the military leadership to end atrocities and provide adequate humanitarian assistance to the affected population. Befitting punishment should be given to human rights violators.
Ms Suu Kyi and her NLD government should also lay out concrete and systematic policies and plans for addressing the fundamental problems of the Rohingya, such as identity or nomenclature and citizenship issues.
The report is also likely to put Bangladesh in the spotlight. The Bangladeshi government is seeking the international community’s assistance in developing Thengar Char island and in transporting the refugees there. The island in the Bay of Bengal, lashed by high tides year-round and submerged during the monsoon season, is largely uninhabitable marshland, far away from the mainland.
After putting the relocation plan on hold for several years due to criticism, the Bangladeshi government feels the need to reinstate it in the wake of new influx of about 65,000 Rohingya from Myanmar in October and November last year. But the plan may not materialise if there is strong opposition from the international community, including the United Nations. If it goes ahead against the will of the refugees, Bangladesh will get its share of international criticism and see itself under the international media spotlight.
While the Myanmar government is conducting its own verification process, the United Nations and the OIC should extend all possible assistance to the Myanmar government in its attempt to address the problem. This should include providing aids and logistical support, as well as the possibility of resettling some of the most vulnerable Rohingya population into their own or other willing third countries, like any other refugee populations of the world.
Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents — Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.