They were Muslims, and they were leaving the country in droves.
Their homeland, a remote corner of a multiethnic country, had become a warzone. Militants had taken up arms to fight for their rights, and the central government retaliated in force.
Human rights abuses, mostly by the government, were rampant. Caught in the gunfire, hundreds of thousands of people became refugees. The central government wasn’t unhappy to see them leave, since it believed that the refugees belonged with their ethnic and confessional brethren across the border.
The story of the Rohingya of Burma/Myanmar is a familiar one. But it also sounds an awful lot like what happened to the Kosovars in the late 1990s.
At the time, the Clinton administration declared the situation a humanitarian crisis, a genocide in the making, and intervened militarily on the Kosovars’ behalf against the Yugoslav government. Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic eventually agreed to a settlement – the Kumanovo agreement – that replaced Yugoslav forces with international peacekeepers. Most Kosovar refugees returned home, where they constitute more than 90 percent of the population. Kosovo subsequently declared its independence, but Serbia has yet to recognize it.
The Rohingyas face even longer odds. First of all, they’re a minority in Rakhine province. Second, their armed resistance is slight and poses little real threat to the government in Naypyidaw. Third, the conflict is taking place far from Europe, and the refugees are flooding into Bangladesh, not the wealthy countries of the West.
Finally, the Trump administration has no intention to intervene on anyone’s behalf for humanitarian reasons. Human rights figure rather low on the administration’s priorities. Without a strong push from Washington, the West will shy away from a forceful intervention on humanitarian grounds.
The UN, too, is hamstrung. Even though UN High Commission for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has declared the plight of the Rohingya “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the UN body has not invoked the “responsibility to protect.” Yes, the body will discuss the topic, but countries like India have agreed to do so on the grounds that no resolution will be introduced.
That doesn’t mean that the Rohingya lack supporters. The Muslim world is outraged at their treatment, with countries from Turkey to Nigeria to Indonesia up in arms.
The stark contrast between the outrage of the Muslim world and the lack of action from the international community does not bode well for the responsibility-to-protect doctrine. Nor, frankly, does it bode well for the future of the international community either.
Religion plus nationalism
A common ploy of Islamophobes is to claim that some religions are inherently violent while others are inherently peaceful. Sometimes they put Christianity in that latter category, though it’s a rather heavy lift given the Crusades, the Inquisition, the clerical fascism of Mussolini, and so on. Desperately backpedaling, the Islamophobe will then say, “Ah, but what about Buddhism? That is indisputably a peaceful religion.”
The Rohingya would beg to differ.
Around a million Rohingya live in in Rakhine province. The Myanmar government, claiming that they’re just Bangladeshis who crossed the border after the 1972 war of independence, refuse to consider the Rohingya to be citizens. The Rohingya themselves argue that they’re descendants of Arab traders dating back to the 8th century. Historians can trace evidence that some Rohingya have lived in Rakhine since the 18th century.
What isn’t under dispute is the discrimination they’ve suffered at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Ironically, or perhaps not, that discrimination has increased during the democratization process, as nationalism and its handmaiden of Buddhist chauvinism have intensified. As Adam Taylor writes in The Washington Post:
A growing Buddhist nationalism in Burma, where 90 percent of the population identify with Buddhism, has led to a number of laws on religion, including restrictions on interfaith marriage. There has also been major ethnic violence in Rakhine; most notably in 2012, when sectarian riots after the rape of a woman in the state led to large-scale displacement of Muslims, with many moving into squalid camps for internally displaced people.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh during this period, a country ill-prepared to handle a flood of refugees. In October 2016, militants with a shadowy outfit – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on border posts that left nine Myanmar soldiers dead. The central state proceeded to crack down against Rohingya in general, and ethnic cleansing began in earnest.
When ARSA again attacked border posts at the end of August, killing a dozen soldiers, the war intensified. The military used the attacks to go on a genocidal rampage. Writes Robert Rotberg:
Nearly 400,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar’s military attacks since July, crossing under desperate conditions into already densely populated Bangladesh. Hundreds of Rohingya settlements in Rakhine State have been torched. At least 3,000 Rohingya have been killed, thousands raped, and more than 140,000 forced into concentration camps thanks to Myanmar’s security actions.
Particularly disappointing has been Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis. The Nobel Prize laureate gave her first speech on the situation in Rakhine province this week in Yangon in which she labeled ARSA a bunch of terrorists and insisted that the government needed more time to figure out what the rest of the world already knows: hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are fleeing violence and discrimination.
Essentially Suu Kyi claimed that her country needed to focus first on national cohesion before it could focus on such particularist claims. In other words, as in virtually every nation-building exercise in history, certain people(s) are sacrificed for the purported good of the whole.
Granted, Aung San Suu Kyi is in a difficult position. She’s not an elected leader – the constitution prevents her from becoming president – and the military still controls much of the country’s political life. The generals could step in at any moment and declare martial law, extinguishing the so-far-brief experiment with democracy.
The question remains: Is Aung San Suu Kyi looking for ways to reduce the military’s influence, or has she decided to strengthen her own position with the military and Burmese nationalists at the expense of the Rohingya?
Donald Trump made no mention of the Rohingya crisis in his speech at the UN. He barely mentioned human rights at all.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert has said, “We urge all in Burma to avoid actions that exacerbate tensions there,” and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy is heading over to Myanmar. Neither Trump nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has addressed the crisis directly (in marked contrast to statements by both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry). And forget about Trump easing his immigration policy to take in Rohingya refugees.
It’s hard to imagine that another wave of Muslim refugees is going to elicit any action from the Trump administration. But Muslim-majority countries are rallying behind the Rohingya.
Turkey moved quickly to supply humanitarian assistance to Rakhine province. As the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has helped to mobilize global Islamic public opinion.
Erdogan has a larger agenda. He wants to advance his conception of “civilizational politics” that emphasizes Turkey’s Ottoman legacy and the central role it can play in a volatile region. Turkey’s Islamist political tradition also offers something distinct from the United States and China, neither of which care much about human rights at the moment, particularly the rights of Muslims.
Some Muslim-majority states have gone even further than Erdogan in calling for military intervention on behalf of the Rohingya, comparable to what NATO did for the Kosovars.
“Why aren’t we Muslims thinking about forming a NATO-like joint military force that can intervene in such situations?” Ali Motahari, deputy head of the Iranian parliament, said in early September. “The crimes of the government of Myanmar will not be halted without using military force.”
That’s not likely to happen. But Muslim-majority states are concerned that, as James Dorsey argues in LobeLog, “militants will gain an upper hand in projecting themselves as the true defenders of the faith compared to Muslim governments who do little more than pay lip service and at best provide humanitarian relief.”
It’s telling that Motahari appealed to a “NATO-like” force rather than invoking the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. When it comes to international doctrines, the only thing worse than being reviled is to be ignored.
The future of R2P
In 2011, which seems like a golden age for the international community at this point, writer David Rieff declared that Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, had reached its “high water mark.” Or, as The New York Times titled the essay, “R2P, RIP.”
Rieff was writing in the aftermath of the military intervention in Libya, which was intended to prevent the government of Muammar Qaddafi from murdering large numbers of his own citizens. That, Rieff concluded, required not a limited operation but a full effort to back regime change:
War, even when it is waged for a just cause and with scrupulous respect for international humanitarian law, always involves a descent into barbarism (think of the way Qaddafi died). This is why even when R2P is applied well, it carries moral risks. And when it is distorted, as it was by NATO in Libya, R2P is not a needed reform to the international system, but a threat to its legitimacy.
Given the even further descent into barbarism in Libya since 2011, Rieff’s words are prophetic. True, R2P could claim certain successes: Kenya in 2008-2009, Ivory Coast in 2011, and to a lesser extent in Mali in 2013. But the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen suggest that, despite continued invocations of R2P, the international system is incapable of implementing the principle on the ground.
For critics of R2P, that’s fine. Who needs yet another set of high-minded words to disguise the reality of strong powers disregarding the sovereignty of weaker powers? Sovereignty, whether defended by Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang or Donald Trump at the UN or Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, remains a core principle of international relations.
But sovereignty doesn’t help the stateless.
If the international community doesn’t lift a finger to help the Rohingya – by intervening diplomatically, economically, and in a humanitarian manner – then they can at best hope for assistance from Muslim states. They’re fortunate to have some advocates, regardless of the motivations of those actors.
But the test of a robust international community is its capacity to act on behalf of everyone, not simply support a segmented response whereby only Christians help Christians, only Han Chinese help Han Chinese, only women help women, and so on. If only Muslims reach out to help the Rohingya, the international community will suffer another blow to its reputation.
With R2P becoming even more moribund than before, states will continue to use the shield of sovereignty to flout international law, disregard the rights of minorities, and ultimately make Rohingyas of us all.