Diminishing Junta Power and Rohingya Repatriation

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The United States Department of Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas explains current scenario in Myanmar, ‘The people of Burma are continuing to suffer a complex and deteriorating humanitarian crisis due to the military coup and security forces’ brutal violence against civilians.’ The Myanmar military, also known as Tatmadaw, has been waging anti-insurgency war for decades, particularly since its capture of power in 1962. Historically, the military regime created a new front of resistance by rejecting the elections results of 1990 won by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, National League for Democracy. The world condemned the action of the military junta and it faced a barrage of sanctions primarily from the western world. The Nobel laureate Suu Kyi suffered from more than twenty years of house arrest, detention and jail under junta rule before she was released by the same junta in 2010.

History repeats. The honeymoon of Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw ended in February 2021 with the annulment of another election held in 2020. This time, Suu Kyi was charged with multiple cases, including voter fraud. Alas! The elections were held under the supervision of the Tatmadaw as the part of the Myanmar government. With the ousting of Suu Kyi and her NLD from power, the junta completed another military coup in Myanmar with huge implications for security, peace and stability at domestic, regional and international levels. It raised another big question mark to the fate of Rohingya repatriation. At the same time, it plunged Myanmar into quagmire of instability, chaos, armed violence and chronic civil war.

The Tatmadaw is known for its brutality. It has always preferred violence to any other means to achieve its goals, which was evident in different historical trajectories of Myanmar. In 2017, the military committed genocide, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and crimes against humanity by expelling more than 800,000 Rohingyas in the name of Operation Clearance. Ironically, the Myanmar military has not been held accountable for any of these war crimes and gross human rights violations, which has created a culture of impunity. The regime started a reign of terror in the country in the face of unprecedented resistance from the people. The military government executed four democracy activists on July 25, 2022. This was the first judicial execution out of 117 death sentences issued by the military-run tribunals since the coup.

While the junta continued its brutality, it has been facing very strong resistance both from political and military fronts since the beginning of coup in February 2021. On the political front, the junta faced the unprecedented resistance spearheaded by nationwide civil disobedience movement. Later on, perhaps for the first time in modern Myanmar, a shadow government was formed in the name of National Unity Government. Initially, the government struggled to gain recognition. Now, it has wider acceptance from different countries and organisations across the world. Now we can see European Union, United States, ASEAN members are emphasising the role of the National Unity Government for the future of Myanmar. On the other hand, NUG constituted People’s Defence Force to strongly confront the junta. Junta was fighting against PDF, which is comprised mainly with NLD leadership and their followers.

On the military front, Myanmar is facing insurgencies for decades. The junta is encountering a fierce collective armed resistance from ethnic groups. Interestingly, the ethnic groups are supporting the National Unity Government. Notably, some of the groups have been a part of NUG. Thus, they have created a new relationship with NUG. Insurrections by armed groups have led to failure of junta to ensure absolute military rule of the nation although one and a half years have passed after the coup. Intense warfare has been taking place in seven different areas, including the centre states of Magui and Jagai, as well as the Kachin, Kaya, Kaiyin, Sin, and Rakhine. The ethnic armed organisations maintain their strong military capacity to fight against the junta ruler. As indicated earlier, junta was facing military situation and civil war in two fronts — on the one front, the National Unity Government supported the PDF and on the other front, strong insurgency groups.

Currently, junta is in deep trouble in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine. They are losing their dominance and even their basic presence. They have lost soldiers. They are regularly facing fatalities and have lost control of several military outposts. In Rakhine, they are heavily being attacked by the Arakan Army (AA) and notably have lost military supply lines and communication. In fact, the troops of military junta are defecting the government and joining in the Arakan Army.

Arakan Army gains

THE Arakan Army has become the talk of the town in recent months for their spectacular military success against the junta forces. As the AA dominated the conflict in the northern Rakhine and southern Chin states, the AA spokesman KhaingThukha announced that a large number of Myanmar troops had recently surrendered to the AA. In a press conference, he asserted that approximately two-thirds of central and northern Rakhine State is now de facto governed by the AA government, also referred to as the Arakan People’s Authority. The Karen National Union in the country’s southeast and the Kachin Independence Organisation in the north have long governed sizable portions of Myanmar. The Arakan Army has employed service delivery, much like these other organisations, to increase its credibility and win over the public. Another strength of the Arakan Army is that according to media reports, it receives support from both China and India, countries that have strong ties with the Myanmar regime. The AA rebels who have occasionally blocked India’s Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project no longer do the same.

Diplomatic isolation of junta

THE junta is also in trouble on the diplomatic front. They became further isolated from the world. Although China and Russia could save the regime in the United Nations Security Council, it is increasingly ostracised from different diplomatic corners in the world. Even its allies and friends are showing a growing level of uneasiness and disapproval amid concerns of deteriorating political violence, armed attacks, gross violations of human rights and a rule of savagery in the country. The people of Myanmar have experienced three prior coups in the past 60 years — in 1958, 1962, and 1988, but the coup of 2021 caused a sense of déjà vu. The recent flare-up of fighting in Myanmar has alarmed neighbouring countries, threatening the region’s stability. The region has been affected by the ongoing insecurity and instability in the Rakhine state. This time, ASEAN is clearly changing its mode of pressure towards the junta, which is a clear sign that ASEAN could reassess its overall stance on the ‘Myanmar question’. ASEAN minus Myanmar or ASEAN-9 is being talked about in the ASEAN capitals. Even countries like Japan and South Korea have taken a strong pro-democracy stance. China and India are also often critical about the regime for its excessive use of force and flouting even the basic norms of democracy. The west is continuing its policy of maintaining diplomatic pressure, however ineffective, on Myanmar.

Thus, visibly, the junta could not establish command in the country. Not to mention about political control, they have failed to establish considerable military control in Myanmar. They have almost lost in three fronts — diplomatic, political and military. They are steadily losing their ground. Given how the violence is rising to new heights, more people are dying, and more people are using weapons, a protracted battle is being waged. According to media reports, the junta only controls 17 per cent of Myanmar’s territory, while the National Unity Government controls 52 per cent of it. In the remaining territory, neither party is in complete control. The fragility of the Myanmar state under the successive military regimes is the hallmark of politics in the country. According to Global Terrorism Index, 2022 Myanmar is ranked 9th slipping from its 15th position in 2021 and in the category of Fragile State Index 2022, it is ranked at the bottom with 10th rank. It demonstrates the military junta’s role in continuing destruction of Myanmar and losing capacity of the Tatmadaw. Consequently, it is reasonable to believe that the junta has lost a major ground in the nation. All nations bordering Myanmar face a looming threat of instability and insecurity in their vicinity. The country, which has enormous significance from geopolitical perspective due to its location on the shore of the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, has gradually become a major hotspot in the Indo-Pacific region.

The diminishing power of the junta is also reflected in the fast worsening economic situation in the country. The junta’s military troubles with various groups aggregated the country’s economic woes. The economy of Myanmar is plummeting. Since government income has begun to decline, a sizable budget deficit is anticipated during the next several years. The public sector has felt the effects of the twin shocks, which have resulted in a precipitous decline in income, a halt in the implementation of expenditure plans, and an increase in the need for funding. Central Bank reserves were $7.67 billion before to the coup. Western experts now estimate it to be less than $6 billion. The United States’ freeze of $1.1 billion is included into the NUG’s estimate of around $4 billion. Inflation in Myanmar is forecast to increase to 18.15% in financial year 2022, from 3.6% in 2021. Food crisis is acute in the country. In Rakhine State, 30 percent of households reported having no food in 2021 compared with 9 per cent in 2020. It is facing catastrophic energy crisis. During the first half of 2022, the cost of gasoline and other fuels rose by over 70 per cent. Myanmar’s economy experienced an 18 per cent contraction by September 2021 and since then the growth projected till September 2022 is only around 1 per cent. Myanmar under junta rule is moving ahead with a bleak future of their economy despite their lofty projects of junta-dominated business-industry complex.

While the current scenario of Myanmar creates deep trouble in its security, political and economic realms, a critical issue is the imperative of Rohingya repatriation. The 74 years of its post-Independence history indisputably shows that Myanmar’s policy and attitude towards more than 30 per cent minority ethnic people determine its politics and social fabric. Torture, atrocities and genocidal crimes against the Rohingyas are the roots of problems in Myanmar. Regional and global actors cannot ignore it. The Rohingya crisis has created an inescapable urgency for its resolution through safe and dignified repatriation to their homeland while the state of Rohingya repatriation is in a precarious situation. Multiple initiatives of Rohingya repatriation have not been able to bring about positive outcomes primarily due to defiance and non-cooperation of the Myanmar regime, which created the crisis. Concomitantly, regional actors and the global community have failed to create pressure on the successive Myanmar regimes. Particularly, the post-coup military regime has shown little interest in resolving the Rohingya crisis through repatriation. With the Tatmadaw in power, the possibility of a sustainable Rohingya repatriation looks more challenging.

While visiting the UN in September 2022, prime minister Sheikh Hasina asked the international community and the United Nations again to do more to help solve the Rohingya crisis by sending Myanmar nationals back to their home country. She made the call when Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, came to see her at her hotel. During the meeting, Sheikh Hasina pushed the UNHCR to do more in Myanmar to help the Rohingyas. Grandi assured that he would soon go to Myanmar. Bangladesh has been attempting to resolve this issue diplomatically in different phases. First, Bangladesh used bilateral means based on mutual support and cooperation to deal with the crisis. Second, Bangladesh sought support from regional actors like China, India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, as well as, extra-regional powers including the US, United Kingdom, and Russia. It is further seeking the assistance of South Korea and Japan which have significant and historical ties with Myanmar. Third, Bangladesh works relentlessly to ensure the return of the Rohingyas emphasising the repatriation issue free from geopolitical calculation and responding accordingly to false claims or any misinformation.

Despite Myanmar’s repeated commitments to start the repatriation process, the last two attempts under a bilateral agreement signed in 2017 between Bangladesh and Myanmar were unsuccessful. On January 23, 2022, Myanmar agreed to begin Rohingya repatriation. However, the plan was never materialised and rather when the deadline for the beginning of the repatriation process passed, Myanmar blamed Bangladesh for the delay. More ominously, Myanmar created a new round of unfriendly atmosphere in September 2022 for the repatriation of the Rohingyas through its provocative and aggressive behaviour on the border. Myanmar violated its border with Bangladesh on several occasions and mortar shell was thrown inside Bangladesh territory in the border. A Rohingya youth was killed due to mortar shell. Bangladesh strongly protested the incident and called the Myanmar ambassador in Dhaka to the ministry of foreign affairs for four times.

Bangladesh government had to brief the regional and international communities about the border situation. It is widely believed that Myanmar has been doing it to derail any process whatsoever about the repatriation of the Rohingyas and militarily engage with Bangladesh to divert domestic and global attention from the misrule and atrocities of the junta. The world powers are still widely split on the Rohingya issue because of their geopolitical and economic interests, even though the western nations imposed sanctions on the top officials of the Myanmar military. Due to resistance from China and Russia, the UN Security Council has yet to pass any resolution in the previous five years. The military junta always looks for pretexts and conditions to delay and derail the Rohingya repatriation process.

Notably, the momentum of armed resistance, the losing grip of the Tatmadaw in its command and growing diplomatic pressure have generated a new landscape for Rohingya repatriation. The Rohingya crisis, along with the current domestic situations in Myanmar is an imminent threat to the entire region and beyond. The negligence of the regional powers and global community to the humanitarian situations and the junta’s atrocities and brutality cost dearly for its common masses and its neighbouring nations. The flouting of norms of civilised conduct of state affairs, particularly when it matters to the interests of the Rohingyas cannot be rules of game indulged by the world. During a high-level side event on the Rohingya crisis, the prime minister stated that ongoing global tension and Myanmar’s internal conflict have shifted the world’s attention from the Rohingya repatriation to new global and internal armed conflicts in Myanmar. Most importantly, in her speech at the 77nth UN General Assembly, she reminds the world, ‘The ongoing political turmoil and armed conflicts in the country has made the repatriation of the displaced Rohingyas more difficult. I hope, the United Nations will play an effective role in this regard.’ Under the current state of affairs in Myanmar, the world must take the opportunity to create a conducive environment for Rohingya repatriation and thus save the entire region from the crisis of humanity and instability.

– Delwar Hossain, Ph.D. is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and the founder of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in NEWAGE [Link]