The violence against the Rohingya in Northern Rakhine in Burma amounts to ethnic cleansing, and may also constitute crimes against humanity and even genocide. The displacement of over 600,000 people to Bangladesh is a compelling sign of a desperate population, and the traumatic experiences they have described are reminiscent of infamous atrocities elsewhere. The definition of the violence is important, because it can invoke the Responsibility to Protect, requiring states to act. The UK Government’s equivocation over classifying this violence has therefore been frustratingly confusing. It has also failed to undertake its own legal analysis. This was not befitting its leading international role, and it should immediately investigate and conduct its own assessment of the situation.
International action has also been inadequate given the gravity of this charge, and as the ‘penholder’ on Burma in the UN Security Council, the UK bears some responsibility for failing to turn international outrage into tangible action and improvements on the ground. The Government achieved a surprisingly strong UN Presidential Statement, but this did not impose any measures or deadlines on Burma. It should not be further hamstrung by China’s veto in the UNSC and should focus on regional forums and allies to achieve results. Although sanctions are an imperfect tool, it is wrong for the UK to continue engagement with Burma with no demonstration of censure. If substantial improvement is not achieved soon, the Government should pursue sanctions on senior military figures and businesses.
Commander in Chief of the Burmese security forces General Min Aung Hlaing bears ultimate responsibility for the violence. The UK Government has continued to support the Burmese civilian Government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, though the UK-Burma relationship does not seem to be a close one, and continued UK support seems in part because of a lack of alternatives. Aung San Suu Kyi is constrained by a lack of control over the military and strong domestic public opinion, but we were disappointed that the State Counsellor has not shown the leadership that was hoped for and needed. She remains a better option than the alternatives, and perhaps the only hope for the future, but she is now a compromised one.
Bangladesh deserves praise and material support for accommodating over half a million new refugees, and the UK Government also deserves credit for its quick and generous provision of aid. It will be a great challenge to secure a future for this displaced population. Any repatriation must be safe and voluntary and the UK should make clear that it will not support a deal that does not have the confidence of UN agencies. Meanwhile, the UK should be realistic about the prospect of permanent camps and the danger of leaving people without hope and vulnerable to radicalisation. It should begin to make a long-term plan.
This crisis was sadly predictable, and predicted, but the FCO warning system did not raise enough alarm. There was too much focus by the UK and others in recent years on supporting the ‘democratic transition’ and not enough on atrocity prevention and delivering tough and unwelcome messages to the Burmese Government about the Rohingya. The UK Minister was commendably candid about the FCO’s need to reflect, and the FCO must now learn lessons on atrocity prevention from the crisis to apply to Burma and elsewhere. In Burma, the UK Government should take a more hard-headed approach based on the new understanding of the political trajectory in the country and the limits of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership or ability, or willingness, to speak out.
8 December 2017