Myanmar is in an untenable position internationally in the wake of the Rohingya crisis. But that does not seem to have stopped the country’s leadership, not least Aung San Suu Kyi, to attempt to maintain some semblance of international credibility.
Just prior to the flaring up of the latest wave of violence in August last year, the civilian government of Myanmar was attempting to recover buttress the country’s public image by supporting a UN commission on the Rohingya situation led by Kofi Annan.
Agreeing to that commission did get Myanmar substantial sanctions relief. But as soon as the sanctions were lifted, the recommendations of the Annan commission were dismissed out of hand.
After nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in the second half of last year, international patience seems to have mostly run out. Nobody seems under any illusions that the former human rights icon will be either willing or able to help with the sustained attacks that the Myanmar military are carrying out against this civilian population.
With his departure, Richardson has helped dispel any lingering hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi, or her government, might come around on the Rohingya issue, and might take active measures to help themAzeem Ibrahim
Nevertheless, it is the duty of every humanitarian to pursue every available avenue available to them, if there is even a slight possibility of helping.
In this spirit, Bill Richardson, one of America’s most experienced diplomats, and a man with a remarkable humanitarian history in the Balkans and Iraq, had agreed to join an international panel set up by Aung San Suu Kyi to advise on the Rohingya refugee crisis.
But, this week he has quit this position, stating that the “advisory board is a whitewash”, and that he did not wish to be “cheerleading” the policies of the Myanmar government. This was to be expected.
Bill Richardson is a man of principle, while the political gestures that Aung San Suu Kyi has been making towards the Rohingya situation ever since she has come to power have never had the weight of conviction behind them.
The Kofi Annan commission
The story of this advisory panel is the same story as the Kofi Annan commission, and the same story as the repatriation agreement with Bangladesh. While the Myanmar army continues to purge the Rohingya off their native lands, Aung San Suu Kyi has made it her business to provide them with political cover by setting up commissions, signing deals and treaties, and generally keeping busy and looking like useful things are being done.
But Richardson is a highly experienced diplomat, and he can spot a stitch-up when he sees one. It is hardly surprising that he should refuse to be complicit in this farce. On the other hand, this is also a highly significant moment for the relationship between Myanmar and the international community.
With his departure, Richardson has helped dispel any lingering hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi, or her government, might come around on the Rohingya issue, and might take active measures to help them. There is no longer any ambiguity behind which the leaders of Myanmar can hide. They are complicit in this genocide, and are happy to serve as enablers for the military commanders who are carrying it out.
What is less clear is whether the international community will now assume responsibility for what is happening in Myanmar. But my bet is that we will stand by and watch, as we have done so many times before. My contacts in the international diplomatic circles all seem to believe that the permanent removal of the Rohingya from Myanmar is a done deal, and there is nothing we can do except to wait for the process to be complete.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washignton DC and the author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (Hurst Publishers & Oxford University Press).
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