OPINION: Is Myanmar changing its tune?

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - Bangladesh's decision to respond to the ICC's request regarding the Rohingya situation, particularly about the territorial jurisdiction of ICC, is a welcome development.

Bangladesh's decision to respond to the ICC's request regarding the
Rohingya situation, particularly about the territorial jurisdiction of
ICC, is a welcome development. It's encouraging to see that Bangladesh,
at least presently, is making a prudent move to consider options beyond
the bilateral arrangement with Myanmar regarding repatriations of about
750,000 refugees. The futile policy of “putting all eggs in one basket”
seems to have run its course with no visible results.

This decision coincides with the signing of MOUs between UN agencies
and the Myanmar government. Understandably, signing of these MOUs didn't
come as an isolated act, but also with other indications of a new tact
of the Myanmar government. These developments include a statement by the
national security adviser U Thaung Tun that Myanmar is open to
accepting all refugees, Aung San Suu Kyi's meetings with military
leaders, and high-level meetings between the Indian government and
Myanmar in recent days. All these may provide an impression of a U-turn
of the Myanmar government. It sounds like a new tune. But whether these
are paving the road for refugee repatriation is an open question.

Myanmar's new tune is hardly a result of a change of heart, for there
have not been an acknowledgement of the heinous acts in Rakhine State
since August 2017, which is tantamount to acts of genocide, or any
discussion about the state policies of ethnic cleansing over the past
decades that engendered the current situation. Thus, it begs the
question, why did Naypyidaw even bother to show humility after its
previous mood of blatantly ignoring the international community? Perhaps
the road ahead, especially the likelihood of any acceptable solution to
the crisis, can be assumed from the causes of, and conditions for, the
rhetoric and actions of Myanmar.

Although the potential threat of a veto by China and/or Russia has
kept the UNSC paralysed, there have been increasing efforts to put
pressure on Myanmar by the international community for the past months.
For example, early last month, the British envoy to the UNSC, Karen
Pierce, said that if Myanmar fails to investigate the actions of its
military, it will face the ICC referral. The prevalent mood seems to be
keeping the possibility alive.

Beside the potential investigation by the Office of the Prosecutor
(OTP) of the ICC, other avenues of punitive measures against Myanmar are
also being explored. Some observers and policy analysts have brought up
the concept of Responsibilities to Protect (R2P). The R2P framework,
which allows the international community to intervene in case of serious
human rights violations and war crimes, adopted at the 2005 UN World
Summit, has become controversial in recent years after being allegedly
abused by global powers. It also requires UNSC approval, therefore it
remains a distant possibility.

But other similar steps are on the horizon. “The Protected Return to
Protected Homeland” (PR2PH) plan, presented at the Berlin Conference on
Myanmar Genocide in February this year by the members of global Rohingya
community and their supporters, has gained traction (C R Abrar, The
Daily Star, April 10, 2018). The proposed PR2PH plan requires setting a
“safe zone” within a wide area of the country and deploying
international forces to ensure safety of the inhabitants, including
bringing the refugees back to the protected area.

The presence of the international community has been considered in
the report of Rob Rae, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Special
Envoy to Myanmar. Rae has said that Myanmar can no longer enjoy impunity
and recommended that “Canada should lead a discussion on the need to
establish an international, impartial and independent mechanism (IIIM or
“Triple I-M”) for potential crimes in Myanmar, such as was established
by the UN General Assembly for Syria” (Rob Rae, “Tell them we're human”
What Canada and the world can do about the Rohingya crisis”, Global
Affairs Canada, April 2018).

The chorus of imposing stricter embargo on Myanmar has grown louder
in Europe which led to the EU's restrictive measures on Myanmar,
strengthening the EU's arms embargo and targeting the Myanmar army and
border guard police officials in April. There are two bills pending in
the US Congress which demand that the US government takes further
punitive measures. One of these bills, the Burma Human Rights and
Freedom Act, will ban certain forms of military cooperation with the
Myanmar military until the US State and Defense departments certify that
officials have ended the violence.

Samantha Power, who served as the US ambassador to the UN between
2013 and 2017, said on June 9 that if the international community wants
to change the cost-benefit calculus of the Myanmar government, it has to
“change the incentives for them.” What Power was referring to is to
target the sources of Myanmar's revenue (Independent, June 9, 2018).
That's essentially targeting the flow of Foreign Direct Investments
(FDI) and the Official Development Assistance (ODA). Rob Rae's report
also mentions the ODA issue. It is well recorded that in 2016, the
largest ODA to Myanmar came from Japan (USD 507 million), followed by
the United Kingdom (USD 144 mn) and the USA (USD 132 mn). These are
being targeted as an instrument to put pressure on Myanmar.

These are, apparently, making Myanmar anxious and compelled to act
fast. If Myanmar's record is any indication, perhaps the Myanmar
leadership is thinking that some symbolic steps and gestures will help
them deflect these potential pressures. It may try to ride out the storm
by adopting a delay tactic. Whether it will be able to do so depends on
the resolve of the international community and Bangladesh's diplomatic

Granted, diplomacy is not a linear path; it takes twists and turns.
At times it requires course corrections. But repeated U-turns are less
likely to produce the desired, let alone the best, outcome. Bangladesh
has already made a few U-turns since the crisis began: from its initial
offer of security cooperation with Myanmar to internationalisation of
the crisis as reflected in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's five-point
proposal at the UNGA in September 2017, to a bilateral agreement to
adopting a twin-track measure.

An impression that Bangladesh is a reluctant participant in the
international efforts to compel Myanmar is detrimental to Bangladesh's
own interests. The response to the ICC should be followed up with
working closer with the members of the international community who feel
punitive measures against Myanmar should be mapped out, and pressure
should be continued until the crisis is resolved instead of buying into
Myanmar's empty promises and signing a few MOUs.

Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at the Illinois State University, USA.


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