As Myanmar descends again into pariah status, its loudest critic is perhaps the one that matters most: the United Nations.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has castigated Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led government for the military campaign that has expelled some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state with widespread charges of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Tit for tat, UN agencies have been maligned by Myanmar officials as aiding ‘terrorists’ for their dispensation of assistance to fleeing refugees while other UN aid and development activities have been sharply curtailed amid one of the region’s worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory.
The UN and Myanmar are now in a conversation of cognitive dissonance: What many observers view as pyromania-fueled mass murder in Rakhine state, Suu Kyi sees as a mere misunderstanding.
Myanmar’s relationship with the UN is now arguably at its lowest level in a decade, since the previous military government denied UN humanitarian access to populations badly affected by the Cyclone Nargis disaster in 2008.
The country’s autonomous military, known as the Tatmadaw, has hidden comfortably in the shadows of Suu Kyi’s sweeping denials. But as evidence mounts of the crimes committed by soldiers against civilian populations in the Rakhine ‘clearance operations’, the UN will largely define the world’s response to the carnage, with rising cries for some sort of punitive sanctions.
In a September speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Vice President Henry Vann Theo said on behalf of Suu Kyi’s government that “we condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence” and that “as a responsible member of the community of nations, does not fear international scrutiny.”
Five months later, Suu Kyi has still failed to condemn what are by now well-documented human rights violations perpetrated by security forces, shunned concerns from UN Secretary-General Guterres, and barred UN investigators access to the country to probe widespread allegations of rights abuses, including emerging revelations of mass graves in areas ‘cleared’ by the military.
The limited access allowed to Rakhine’s still smoldering conflict zones, including a handful of media tours, has so far been little more than stage-managed day trips, which some have referred to as “atrocity tourism.”
Suu Kyi’s rise and fall from junior UN employee – she worked at the UN Secretariat in New York in the early 1970s (her UN identification card was auctioned in 2009 to raise money for charity) – to celebrated international human rights icon and to ethically catatonic national leader has astounded many of her former supporters.
Suu Kyi has received but in effect rebuffed a succession of high-level UN officials who have visited since August last year, variously from humanitarian, refugee and political sectors of the world body.
The UN Security Council has been particularly critical, with Myanmar being placed high on the body’s global agenda. A rare Council Presidential Statement issued on November 6, 2017 called for unfettered humanitarian access and an end to military campaigns, neither of which were acknowledged or upheld.
Nearly four months later – and after a recent briefing to the Council by Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who just completed a tour of the teeming refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh – UN agencies are still being denied access while the planned repatriation of Rohingya refugees has already (and rightly) stalled.
The UN Security Council’s request to visit Myanmar this month was delayed because it was “not the right time”. Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN in New York, Hau Do Suan, appeared wearily detached in his formal response to the briefing, continuing the litany of denials his American counterpart Nikki Haley has termed “preposterous.”
The Tatmadaw’s admission of wrongdoing in the killing of ten Rohingya men in Inn Din, Rakhine state, was welcomed after months of denials and the arrest and detention of two Reuters reporters who were on to the story.
But further Council action pressuring Myanmar to end abuses against the Rohingya by the US, Britain and France will be constrained by China, which is attempting a diplomatic end-run to cover Naypyidaw, and Russia, which is lavishing the Tatmadaw with new weapons.
A series of special envoys of the UN Secretary-General, from the Malaysian Razali Ismael, Nigerian Ibrahim Gambari, and the recently departed Indian diplomat Vijay Nambiar, have for years produced lackluster results. No high-level envoy has been announced to replace Nambiar since he departed at the end of 2016, a reflection of the UN’s own dysfunction.
Classified internal UN documents reviewed by Asia Times outline the lack of coordination between the UN Country Team and UN headquarters in New York, as well as chronic internal divisions between UN agencies inside Myanmar.
That intra-agency rivalry, the documents say, is often exacerbated by the Myanmar government’s divide-and-rule habit of privileging one agency over others, including in terms of access to blocked areas of the country.
Names mooted so far for the special envoy post have included former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and former Philippines president Gloria Arroyo, but no decision has been made yet for a position that is likely to be thankless.
The recently departed Resident Coordinator Renata Lok Dessallien was widely criticized for her failure to promote human rights, particularly over Rakhine, but also in other conflict-plagued areas.
In an interview with the local Frontier news outlet, new Resident Coordinator Knut Ostby pledged renewed engagement with the government and civil society, and more communication with the media, outreach to which his predecessor was notoriously resistant. “If we start compromising our principles, then we risk doing harm or undermining our own work,” he said.
The UN’s Country Team has also been criticized over its halting commitment to the UN’s ‘Rights Up Front’ strategy, formulated in the wake of the war in Sri Lanka when UN agencies failed to intervene in that mass killing of an estimated 40,000 civilians by that country’s armed forces.
Other scandals during Myanmar’s democratic transition saw UN agencies renting exorbitantly priced office property from former military officers; UNICEF reportedly paid US$87,000 per month to rent a Yangon villa from a retired army general.
Suu Kyi and the military have also affected indifference to the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Fact Finding Mission (FFM) mandated to investigate reports of abuses by security forces around the country since 2011. It is the first UN-mandated investigation of its kind for Myanmar since the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Commission of Inquiry into forced labor in the 1990s.
While barred from Myanmar, the FFM team has conducted investigations in neighboring countries and will report to the HRC in March, with all indications from its preliminary statements that it could accuse the military and civilian government of perpetrating and covering up widespread crimes against humanity.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid, has waged an almost personal vendetta against Suu Kyi and publically stated that “elements of genocide” may have been committed in the Rakhine crackdown.
Yet the HRC has lamentably persisted in privileging the Rohingya in its statements, with a December special session characterizing the situation of Rohingya Muslims and “other ethnic minorities in Rakhine State” – effectively relegating the systematic abuses against Rakhine Buddhists, ethnic Mro and Hindus in the state which have suffered immensely from the conflict as perceived secondary considerations.
The government’s proponents believe the UN and international media is biased in favor of the Rohingya, or in the paranoid Islamophobic imagination of some nationalists as being manipulated by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee has been laudably more balanced in her recent statements and assessments, whilst maintaining withering critiques of the government’s failings. The government’s blocking of Lee, perhaps more than any other official obstruction, has undercut its stated commitment to respecting rights and promoting accountability.
The government’s dismissal of UN concerns over the crisis, and its apparent wait-out-the-storm strategy will be severely tested as Western pressure rises amid media revelations of atrocities. This pressure will inhibit the resumption of normal humanitarian and development assistance while the relationship is so fractured.
The most immediate challenge to any repair of the relationship is the planned repatriation of 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Bangladesh to northern Rakhine state.
Aloof to the principles of refugee returns in safety and dignity, the government has been insouciant to the calls for access and assessments by UN agencies, with its private-public partnership of the Union Enterprise Mechanism standing in for what professional aid workers should be doing.
The UN has consistently stated the principles that need to be in place for any involvement in the repatriation and resettlement process. But what is really deterring returns is not humanitarian access by the UN but rather the naked fear of the Rohingya themselves – and UN aid workers know it.
Meanwhile, any hope that proposals by the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission will be implemented appear to have been ruined with the resignation of former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson from Suu Kyi’s handpicked advisory board. This called into question her sincerity in realizing the reconciliatory recommendations.
Richardson cited Suu Kyi’s “furious response” to his request to raise the case of the two detained Reuters journalists and her rejection of the severity of abuses and scale of the Rohingya refugee crisis as reasons for his abrupt departure.
He told Reuters Suu Kyi “seems isolated” in a “classic bubble” and has “brought upon herself the constant disparagement of the international community, which I think can be helpful to her.”
Outside of Rakhine, Myanmar’s government desperately needs UN assistance and expertise. The UN’s recent humanitarian needs assessment from late 2017 estimated that of Myanmar’s 53 million population, 8.3 million people lived in areas affected by conflict and natural disasters, with 862,851 in need of humanitarian assistance.
Over the last two years, the humanitarian space needed to help these people has dramatically shrunk, especially in Rakhine state, where UN agencies maintain a skeleton staff in Maungdaw and are denied travel authorization in the lunar landscape left behind by the Tatmadaw’s ‘area clearance operations.’
Recent satellite imagery has shown that authorities are bulldozing the remains of villages to sanitize the area for new developments, presumably to remove evidence of the violence.
Humanitarian access is also deteriorating to other parts of the country, particularly in the active conflict zones of Kachin and Shan states, where over 100,000 civilians remain displaced by insurgent-government fighting.
This affects not only the UN’s operations but also the many local aid groups and international NGOs in these areas, many of which are privately critical of the UN for what they perceive as a failure to advocate for unfettered humanitarian space.
The blame for the restrictions on humanitarian access, however, should be directed to the military’s commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and regional military commanders, though Suu Kyi’s civilian government has also notably refused to speak out for the need for humanitarian access.
The government’s lack of original thinking on peace or deep knowledge of the civil war, the Tatmadaw’s truculent refusal to permit local political dialogue in preparation for national peace, and growing armed conflict in the north and the borderlands of China and Rakhine state have all contributed to a moribund peace process that has limited the UN’s involvement in the country.
Myanmar diplomats, long adept at ignoring international criticism, often “reaffirm the readiness of Myanmar to increase cooperation with the wider United Nations system.” But this is clearly not the case so long as the government views the UN and its relief agencies as obstructionists and threats rather than partners.
Keeping the UN at bay imperils several local populations, including all those in Rakhine state, those affected by conflict zones in the north and other communities in need of basic assistance. For short-term nationalist appeal, the government is endangering the entire country’s long-term development for the sake of covering up the Rakhine violence.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst