The Rohingya Crisis and the Myth of Myanmar Sovereignty

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The norm of sovereignty in the international system prohibits states from intervening in the internal affairs of other states. This norm has been instrumental in maintaining peace and stability, but it has also been used by authoritarian groups to oppress their own populations without being held accountable. The ongoing Rohingya crisis is a prime example of this.

The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, has used the norm of sovereignty to justify its brutal crackdown on the Rohingya minority while avoiding international pressure, stating it is an internal matter. Indeed, some other countries cited the norm of sovereignty to avoid taking action on the Rohingya crisis. They have argued that the crisis is an internal matter for Myanmar and that it should be resolved through bilateral negotiations.

The myth of Myanmar sovereignty has allowed the junta to commit atrocities with impunity. In order to end the Rohingya crisis, the international community must debunk this myth and take action to hold the Tatmadaw accountable.

The Call for a Sustainable Rohingya Repatriation

It has been almost six years since over 1 million Rohingya refugees entered Bangladesh, desperately seeking to avoid a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military. Since then, Bangladesh has been trying to repatriate the stranded Rohingya through bilateral and multilateral means. However, there is still no concrete hope of a sustainable Rohingya repatriation.

The massive influx of refugees has been creating new security threats for Bangladesh, as well as for the whole region. Due to frustration and lack of economic opportunity, some Rohingya are becoming involved in different crimes like drug trafficking, human trafficking, and arms smuggling. Political killings and clashes over the control of camps among different Rohingya criminal groups are also posing serious threats not only to the Rohingya themselves, but to the national security of Bangladesh. Moreover, due to the ongoing atrocities in Myanmar under the Tatmadaw, which seized power in a coup in 2021, many people are still seeking refuge by crossing the border and coming into Bangladesh.

In the face of the continuously growing Rohingya population in Bangladesh, Dhaka believes that repatriation is the only viable option to solve the crisis. To make this happen, Bangladesh has tried every possible avenue. Bilaterally, Bangladesh has engaged with Myanmar in different talks, and both countries even signed a repatriation agreement immediately after the mass influx in 2017. However, Myanmar’s government has never cooperated to implement repatriation, which would necessarily involve commitments to ensure the safety of the returning Rohingya population.

Bangladesh has sought help from countries like the United States, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, and the United Kingdom to pressure Myanmar for a safe return of Rohingya refugees to their homeland. Besides bilateral efforts, Bangladesh has been very active in multilateral forums to seek support for Rohingya repatriation. Most notably, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivered a speech at the 77th Session of the UNGA last year, where she urged the international community to support the country in repatriating over 1.2 million stranded Rohingya to Myanmar. It was the sixth UNGA meeting where Hasina had sought assistance to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

However, Bangladesh has little to show for its efforts. Although some positive steps have been taken by the United Nations and other countries, sustainable Rohingya repatriation is a distant dream. The lack of concrete actions from powerful countries is one of the main reasons for this. These countries often cite the norms of sovereignty as a reason for not imposing pressure on Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

The Myth of Sovereignty and Global Inaction in the Rohingya Crisis

The responsibility to protect (R2P) norm entails that sovereignty comes with responsibility. That means if a state fails to protect its people from internal or external harm, the international community will have not only the right but the obligation to intervene to protect human rights. The Rohingya crisis can be considered a blatant failure of international protection, which is evident in all three pillars of R2P.

The first pillar emphasizes the primary responsibility of the nation-state to protect its population. In the case of Myanmar, the Rohingya community faced deliberate persecution under the Tatmadaw on multiple occasions, notably in 1978, 1992, and 2012, even before the massive clearing campaign of 2017.

The second pillar pertains to the responsibility of the international community to support states in safeguarding their populations. However, before 2017, the international community focused primarily on promoting democratic reforms and economic development in Myanmar, rather than addressing the critical issues of citizenship and statelessness affecting the Rohingya community.

Finally, the third pillar underscores the duty of the international community to take necessary action, including the use of force, if a state blatantly fails to protect its population. Unfortunately, in the wake of the Tatmadaw’s targeted violence against the Rohingya, the response of the international community was largely limited to condemnation and imposing mere sanctions. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which is responsible for maintaining world peace and security, failed to implement any forceful measures due to opposition from veto-wielding nations such as China and Russia.

Despite the global commitment to the R2P principle, most international actors avoided engaging in political confrontations with Myanmar concerning the Rohingya issue, citing norms of Myanmar sovereignty. Furthermore, until the 2021 coup, no significant international efforts were made to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for their atrocious crimes. This created a culture of impunity inside the Myanmar military. Additionally, regional actors with potential influence over Myanmar, such as Indonesia or ASEAN, were unable to overcome the principle of non-intervention.

China has a long history of supporting Myanmar, both politically and economically. This was evident in the 2017 UNSC meeting on Myanmar, where China blocked a resolution to condemn Myanmar for its atrocities against the Rohingya ethnic minority. China has always opted for pursuing a bilateral solution to a global problem and emphasized the necessity of economic development in the Rakhine state to resolve the crisis.

Not coincidentally, the Rohingya crisis has given China an additional opportunity to cement bilateral ties with Myanmar to advance its geopolitical ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Its emphasis on development as the solution also allows Beijing to continue to pursue its geoeconomic goals in Myanmar under the fig leaf of somehow addressing the Rohingya crisis.

In a recent statement, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang expressed China’s support for Myanmar’s pursuit of its unique development path. He also called upon the international community to uphold Myanmar’s sovereignty and assist in achieving peace and reconciliation within the country. Qin highlighted China’s intention to expedite investments associated with the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which traverses Rakhine state, where most of the persecuted Rohingya originally lived.

China is building a deep seaport in Kyaukpyu, Rakhine state, and has already invested billions of dollars to establish oil and gas pipelines from the port to the landlocked Chinese province of Yunnan. China considers Myanmar a key gateway to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. These geopolitical interests have so far restricted China from taking any decision that goes against Myanmar’s favor.

Alarmingly, a recently published U.N. report claims that the military in Myanmar has imported weapons and related supplies totaling at least $1 billion since the coup in February 2021. The report specifically identifies $406 million worth of weapons and materials originating from Russia, $267 million from China, and $254 million from Singapore that were provided to the Myanmar military. Providing the Tatmadaw with arms is truly detrimental to the overall international response to the ongoing Rohingya crisis and dire humanitarian conditions in Myanmar.

However, it is not true that China has done nothing to resolve the Rohingya crisis. In fact, Beijing has done better than some other Asian governments in this regard. China brokered an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2017 for a sustainable Rohingya repatriation, even if the agreement has not netted results. Moreover, it initiated trilateral talks including Bangladesh and Myanmar back in 2018. But the military coup in 2021 halted the process.

Fortunately, with Chinese pressure, Myanmar’s new military junta agreed to resume the talks, and a third round of tripartite meetings was held in January 2022. Recently, on March 10, ambassadors from eight nations, including Bangladesh, India, and China, visited Rakhine. Moreover, China has also convinced Myanmar to run a trial program starting the repatriation process before monsoon season. That said, China needs to be firm in its policies to make this attempt a success, unlike previous ones.

Although the world pinned much hope on ASEAN to take a leadership role in resolving the Rohingya crisis, it has completely failed to meet the expectations. ASEAN acknowledged in a report on the Rohingya crisis that it has encountered difficulties in formulating a clear vision and strategy to put an end to the cycle of violence and displacement. The regional bloc finds itself caught between its core principles of consensus and non-interference, which has hindered its ability to respond effectively to the crisis.

In April 2021 – again motivated to action by the coup, rather than the ethnic cleansing seen earlier – ASEAN adopted a Five-Point Consensus (5PC) aimed at ceasing violence. However, the 5PC was later rejected by junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who asserted his own “five-point” plan as the way to resolve tensions. Myanmar’s non-cooperation shattered the unity of the association, leaving ASEAN in a state of disarray with an open-ended “10-minus-1” configuration. The inability of ASEAN to hold Myanmar accountable highlights the unfortunate reality that human life is undervalued, while national interest and the global norms of sovereignty and non-interference take precedence over justice for the victims.

When the Myanmar military committed mass killings of the Rohingya community in 2017, the United Nations’ human rights chief at the time called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Since then, it has also been labeled a genocide, by the U.S. government and in a court case filed at the International Court of Justice by Gambia. But the barbarity is yet to be stopped, as the junta has killed over 2,500 people and detained over 17,000 people in the post-coup era.

The lack of concrete measures from powerful actors like China, Russia, ASEAN, and many other nations – usually citing Myanmar’s sovereignty and the principle of non-interference – has so far created a culture of impunity inside the Tatmadaw. The Rohingya crisis is a stain on the conscience of the international community. We must act now to end the suffering of the Rohingya and to prevent future atrocities by creating consensus and debunking the myth of sovereignty.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Diplomat [Link]