Is the UN failing Rohingyas?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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The UN office in Myanmar is in disarray as the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Renata Lok-Desallien, is due to leave the post prematurely. The office she presided over has been described as ‘glaringly disfunctional’ in internal UN documents, and the Coordinator’s strong emphasis on development programs and on having a good relationship with the Burmese government at the expense of human rights issues in the country has drawn sharp criticism from international observers.

This emphasis on ‘business’ over humanitarian concerns has been a stain on the UN’s reputation, but it is too early to say whether the incoming coordinator would address this problem, or whether the UN more widely is content to watch on as the Burmese military continues its methodical campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the north-west of the country, or as it continues to crack down on other border minority groups.

Other aspects of the UN’s involvement with the Burmese government are also quietly acquiescent to the developments in the country, despite strong protests from other Humanitarian agencies within the UN itself, such as officials from the UN refugee agency. An ongoing UN investigation led by Kofi Annan was supposed to mark a turning point in the UN’s approach to the Myanmar, but the investigation’s remit has been very strictly confined to just poverty reduction, and does not have any authority to comment on the humanitarian situation.

It should be clear by now that Suu Kyi is not on the same page as the rest of us on the humanitarian issues in her country. ‘Giving her space’ will not enable her to take charge of the situation and push for positive change.

Azeem Ibrahim

Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese civilian government, has asserted that she would only accept recommendations from the UN in that narrow area, and that any UN probe into human rights abuses would be blocked on the grounds that it would “increase tensions” in the country.

The UN’s approach to this situation has been too patient. The idea was that the new, democratically elected government in the country, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi needed to be given time to turn around the humanitarian situation in the country, and that the boat should not be rocked while they get their bearings after so many decades of military rule.

The hope was that under such a government the humanitarian situation would no doubt get better, even if it took some time for them to turn the direction of the country around.


Siding with the perpetrators

Unfortunately, the assumption that a democratically elected government under Aung San Suu Kyi would be keenly interested in the humanitarian issues the country is facing turned out to be baseless.

Suu Kyi has been in power for over 14 months at this point and throughout that period she has systematically sided with the perpetrators of the human rights abuses against the Rohingya whenever the question has been raised by the international community or by the international press.

She has reiterated and defended the ultra-nationalists’ absurd claims that the Rohingya are Bengali immigrants and that they do not exist as an indigenous ethnic group.

She has casually dismissed concerns that the country’s military is pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing against the group, despite the glaring facts that the entire Rohingya population have been rendered stateless, half of them have already been pushed abroad, and perhaps as many as a quarter of those who remain in the country are held in internally displaced people’s camps and not allowed to leave.

And she has obstructed even the most timid attempt by international agencies to censure the agencies of the state who are carrying out the latest crackdown on the group.

It should be clear by now that Suu Kyi is not on the same page as the rest of us on the humanitarian issues in her country. ‘Giving her space’ will not enable her to take charge of the situation and push for positive change.

It will simply allow her to give cover to the army to continue its crackdown on the Rohingya. Our patience will not be rewarded. And the price for our patience has already been and will continue to be paid with Rohingya blood.

This is a price we can no longer afford. Neither the UN, nor the rest of us in the international community can allow things to continue down their current trajectory. It is time to ramp up the pressure on the Burmese government, with proper humanitarian investigations, with the threat of UN peacekeeping missions on the ground if it comes to it, everything – lest we allow this to become a full blown genocide.

Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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