The military coup in Myanmar has been widely denounced as a lethal blow to a fledgling democracy. But it also increases the likelihood of further atrocities and mass displacement. The world cannot forget that the Myanmar military is the same institution that led the campaign of genocide against the Rohingya people.
The coup will negatively affect much of the population in Myanmar, rolling back tentative democratic reforms and freedoms and leading to further mass arrests. But ethnic minority groups, which have long been a target of military abuses, have particular reason to be concerned.
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Even with the veil of a quasi-civilian government in recent years, the military has continued to commit atrocities against the Kachin, Karen, Rakhine and other states inside Myanmar. For the 600,000 Rohingya still living in Myanmar, the threat is even clearer. They survived the military’s genocidal campaign in August 2017. Indeed, the head of the military and now of the country, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has referred to the Rohingya as a long-standing problem and an “unfinished job.”
The coup will also affect refugees outside of the country. The more than 1 million Rohingya living in Bangladesh now face even greater odds against a safe return to their homeland in Myanmar. In a way, the coup only underscores the reality that conditions for return have been far from safe and sustainable all along.
Rohingya in Bangladesh have told Refugees International that they are alarmed by the coup and worried about the fate of loved ones still in Myanmar. At least with the quasi-civilian government, there was some hope that international pressure could eventually inspire a change. But as long as the military — the entity responsible for the genocide — remains in charge, the idea of a safe return seems inconceivable.
International Pressure on Myanmar
If there is a silver lining, it is that the newly galvanized international outrage about the coup might break the inertia in addressing the military’s abuses. In a report released in January 2021, Refugees International laid out critical policy advice for the Biden administration to address the Rohingya crisis. The report recommendations also provide a playbook for responding to the coup.
As a first move, the Biden administration must recognize the crimes committed by Myanmar’s military for what they are: crimes against humanity and genocide. Given the ample evidence available, it is perplexing that the United States and many other countries have not yet made this determination. A genocide declaration would not only speak truth to power about what the Myanmar military has done to the Rohingya, but it would also galvanize more urgent global action. It would signal how serious the US and other allies take the threat of the Myanmar military.
Second, the Biden administration should use the urgency of the coup and a genocide determination to engage allies and lead a global response marked by diplomatic pressure and coordinated targeted sanctions. The Biden administration has already said it is considering new sanctions and is reaching out to other countries to coordinate. Those sanctions should be placed both on Myanmar’s military leaders and military-owned enterprises, including, but not limited to, the two large conglomerates, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). Future lifting of sanctions should be phased and tied not only to a return to the quasi-civilian government elected in 2020, but also progress on creating conditions conducive to the return of Rohingya refugees.
Third, the US and other allies must push for a multilateral arms embargo. Ideally, this would be done through the action of the UN Security Council. But as long as China and Russia are likely to block such actions, countries like the United States and European Union members that have already ended arms sales to Myanmar should use diplomatic pressure to urge others — including India, Israel and Ukraine — to do the same.
Fourth, countries must revitalize support for international accountability efforts, including at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court. The Gambia’s genocide case against Myanmar at the ICJ has the support of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Canada and the Netherlands have expressed their intent to intervene in the case. The US and other allies should add their support.
Finally, the United States and other allies must push for coordinated high-level diplomatic pressure at the UN Security Council, even with Chinese and Russian reluctance to allow stronger measures. As an important first step, the Security Council did issue a statement that expressed concern about the coup and called for the release of detainees; however, it fell short of outright condemnation of the coup and did not commit to any concrete action. Nonetheless, a discussion at this highest level still adds pressure on Myanmar’s military by keeping the possibility of stronger action alive. The fact that there had been no UN Security Council session on the Rohingya for the past two years is ludicrous and only fueled the Myanmar military’s impunity.
Ethnic minority groups in Myanmar know all too well that the military is capable of — and willing to execute — mass atrocities. The US and all states that stand for democracy, and against mass atrocities, must act now while the eyes of the world are on Myanmar.
*[Daniel Sullivan is the senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.