More than 820,000 Rohingya have now fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, at least 607,000 since August 25. That is more than half the Muslim population of Rakhine State displaced in just ten weeks. The scale of human suffering is mind-numbing, and the destruction vast.
Human Rights Watch has released satellite imagery showing that at least 288 villages have been destroyed, including 62% of all villages in the Muslim-majority westernmost township of Maungdaw. Many have labelled this “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide”.
On September 11, 2017, even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declared it appears to be a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. In light of this, there have been growing calls to boycott Myanmar and impose new sanctions, including by one of our colleagues in Australian academia.
But what is this the best way for Australia to respond?
Boycott or engagement?
In stark contrast to the international outrage, public opinion within Myanmar overwhelmingly supports the relative inaction of the government and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Support for the military action is also very high. Why?
Many people are angry, arguing that the international perception is biased and partial, and based on selective reporting. For example, they note that more than half the non-Rohingya population in Northern Rakhine state has also been displaced, mostly towards the south (admittedly a much smaller number of people, as the Muslim Rohingya who have fled across the international border constitute 95% of all displaced).
Likewise, they point out that the military crackdown that prompted the exodus was in response to attacks on 30 police posts and an army base by Rohingya militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
After all, what sort of security response would we demand if a jihadist group launched co-ordinated attacks on 30 police stations in Australia, Europe or the US? We should hardly be surprised this is how many Burmese feel.
ARSA claimed that its actions were in defence of Rohingya communities, in response to decades of marginalisation, persecution and harassment by security forces. The Myanmar government, for its part, has labelled ARSA a “terrorist” organisation, and raised fears of an Islamic State-sponsored descent into a Syrian-style disaster.
They argue that ARSA’s strategy was precisely to provoke a large exodus to obtain international sympathy. In support of these claims they point out that the ARSA attacks were timed to follow the release of the Kofi Annan Rakhine Advisory Commission report, which contains a comprehensive reform plan that was immediately accepted by the government.
There are many perspectives and fears at play here. All require respectful acknowledgement, as many facts on the ground are not yet established. Neither are all the facts underlying the historical background of this conflict yet clear. It is significant that all major protagonists frame this multifacted crisis very differently.
The Rohingya claim a centuries- or millennia-long history in this land. Most others in Myanmar claim they are recent or illegal Bengali migrants. The name Rohingya is strongly claimed by the Muslims, and hotly contested by others. The politics around names is not incidental in a nation whose own name is disputed.
For now, the massive Rohingya flight – on the back of denial of citizenship and decades of marginalisation – is the principal crisis.
Focus on reconciliation
One thing is clear: the situation in Bangladesh requires immediate humanitarian and political responses. But it is too easy to opt for simplistic, black and white positions.
While responding promptly, we must not lose sight of the need to grapple with the complexities involved in achieving long-term political and cultural reconciliation. We thus reject calls for a boycott or sanctions (targeted or general), and call instead for a policy of productive, principled engagement.
Boycotts and sanctions would be counterproductive, harming prospects for long-term reconciliation for five key reasons.
First, the Burmese military had a legitimate responsibility to respond to militant attacks on security posts across an entire township area. While their response was disproportionate, and their action may have provoked the attacks, they also have an important role to play in any long-term solution. Their co-operation will not be gained without acknowledging their duty and the difficulties faced.
Fourth, they will undermine still nascent efforts to rebuild the educational, health and legal infrastructures and delay the emergence of new leaders who can support much-needed, long-term cultural development.
And finally, decades of recent experience demonstrate that sanctions and boycotts rarely work, and are incapable of generating progressive social and political change.
How can Australia help?
Australia is well placed to support long-term reconciliation and economic development, something disengagement will only undermine.
Only sustained measures built on bilateral and multilateral engagement can support social and political change and address decades of oppression, neglect and communal tensions. The Annan report already provides a good framework.
Australia should lead the international community in pledging to support its implementation. We should strongly state our commitment to principled engagement with those working for progressive change and democratic reform, while committing to long-term plans for the economic development of this, the poorest region of the country.
Assistance is required to strengthen the rule of law and rebuild robust educational and health infrastructures which can help promote social cohesion and communal coexistence. Cultural reconciliation through dialogue and civil society interactions will require long-term support.
At the same time, Australia can call for a robust and just process for the repatriation of displaced Rohingya people. This would include guarantees for their security and human rights, transparency and limits on the exercise of military power in the region, and a firm commitment to quickly restoring Rohingya citizenship.
But these calls will be most likely to be effective if made in the context of constructive dialogues.
The recent military operations were grossly disproportionate, brutalising tens of thousands of innocent people. The ARSA attacks and the exodus of the majority of the Rohingya people is testament to the deep-rooted communal basis of this crisis.
But political boycotts and economic sanctions are not the answer. Australia can contribute most productively through critical engagement.