The UN condemns Myanmar
A UN investigation has found that the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces have acted with “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya Muslim community during civil strife in the country’s Rakhine state. The UN reporters have further stated,
“The crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts”.
The report also indicates that trying Myanmar’s military commanders in a war crimes tribunal would be an appropriate response in light of the UN’s findings. About this, the report states,
“There is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw (army) chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine state”.
Myanmar should have followed Syria’s example and allowed genuine independent journalists and investigators in after an appropriate vetting process
Even forgetting that the UN report unilaterally assigns responsibility for the atrocities in Rakhine to the military where other sources have strongly indicated that the desperate situation has been primarily caused by a combination of armed civilians and organised paramilitary groups not affiliated with the state, because Myanmar has decided not to give independent journalists easy access to Rakhine and surrounding areas, it is now increasingly the case that challenging the UN report on a factual basis will be an exercise in futility at this stage.
While Myanmar was well aware that in the 21st century many agenda driven individuals or even agents of foreign regimes can present themselves as “independent journalists” while being nothing of the kind, Syria in spite of fighting a war on multiple fronts has executed a vetting process whereby trusted independent journalists have been allowed into the country to freely investigate the situation on the ground. In this sense, Myanmar in taking an overly cautious approach to such matters may have inadvertently led to the publication of a UN report which can no longer be easily (key word) challenged.
What it means
In addition to manipulating the genuine fears of the wider global Islamic community, the report sets the stage for a hardline and asymmetrical response by the United States. While the report does not authorise military action against Myanmar and while in any case only a vote of the UN Security Council could authorise such a military action, the report may have never the less given what the US considers to be an official green light for military action whether or not the report’s authors intended this.
It is widely known that in spite of Aung San Suu Ky being Myanmar’s putative civilian political leader, that in reality she shares political power with the Tatmadaw. Others would insist that the Tatmadaw still controls most government functions while Aung San Suu Ky is more of a figurehead whose strength derives from her lineage rather than her political wisdom. Because of this, while the UN report mainly focuses on the military, a case can and almost certainly will now be made by Myanmar’s strategic adversaries that because the “military is the government” and the UN report recommended judicial action against the military – ergo a removal of the government would be in order if the leadership does not cooperate with a future tribunal. As the report also assigns a measure of blame to Aung San Suu Ky herself, the idea that the report is effectively a call for “voluntary regime change” means that if this does not occur, the US could easily extrapolate the report as calling for aggressive regime change in the event that Myanmar’s authorities refuse to assign guilt to themselves.
Separating emotion from reality
It is perfectly understandable that many millions of Muslims throughout the world will feel a sense of justice and vindication as a result of the UN’s report. After decades of Muslim majority nations and regions being disproportionately victimised by the neo-imperial western powers, one can or at least ought to fully understand such a reaction.
That being said, as Muslims have been victims of US led regime change operations in Iran, Indonesia, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, while unsuccessful US led regime change operations have been attempted in Syria and Turkey, it would be incredibly dangerous and hypocritical for the wider global Islamic community to rally behind the US when it inevitably calls for regime change in Myanmar. The fact that the US levelled sanctions against high ranking members of the Tatmadaw just over a week ago makes it all too clear that either the US anticipated or helped to shape the conclusion of the report in question. Such things are historically not beyond the scope of US ambitions to meddle in international affairs and clearly the US has a motive to do so.
The US war on what was left of Yugoslavia in 1999 was as much about destroying and then co-opting the broken pieces of a united, prosperous non-aligned nation in southern Europe as it was about humiliating a Serbian nation that had historic fraternal relations with Russia.
While Russia had no realistic means of asserting itself geopolitically in the 1990s, the US wasted no time in ‘NATOising’ both northeastern and southeastern Europe throughout the 1990s. In the case of Myanmar the stakes are already much higher. Not only does Myanmar form a self-evidently crucial component the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a trade route which after the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor would represent another east-west trading route for China which would avoid the US dominated Strait of Malacca, but China has also brokered a peace deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh in order to settle the crisis in Rakhine state.
According to the terms of the first ever Chinese authored peace process for foreign partners, three steps would be taken to ensure a lasting return to peace and normalcy in Rakhine. First of all, local authorities were to take positive steps to de-escalate local tensions, something that Beijing acknowledged had already begun as of late 2017. Secondly, Myanmar and Bangladesh are to work constructively to re-house and normalise the citizenship status of Rohingya refugees. This process is ongoing and while at times difficult is nevertheless proceeding as smoothly as such a difficult process realistically could. Finally, China pledged to work as an investment and development partner with both Myanmar and Bangladesh to improve the material conditions of Rakhine and surrounding areas effected by the crisis in order to bring long term peace through prosperity.
While early stages of the peace process are already being implemented, the US is clearly scrambling to indict Myanmar as guilty of crimes against humanity before a geopolitically redeeming peace process can reach its final stages. In this sense, the US sanctions against officials from Myanmar and the UN report whose date of release was in suspicious in terms of proximity to the issuing of sanctions, likely occurred because of rather than in spite of the peace process. To put it bluntly, the US wants to indict Myanmar on the world’s stage at a time when emotions run high, rather than allow a peace and reconciliation process to cool heads, calm tensions and focus Myanmar observers on the future rather than the recent past.
If the US succeeds in regime change in Myanmar it will in fact be far more significant than in 2011 when for manifold internal reasons, Myanmar pivoted west only to pivot back towards China over the last several years. The reason for this is because while in 2011, the US seized upon a Sino-Myanmar relationship that had reached a point where the weaker side was growing dissatisfied, today, US agitation against Myanmar is a clear provocation against an incredibly healthy win-win partnership between Myanmar and China as of 2018.
Any US led disruption to the continuity of government in Myanmar would consequentially not only be a major setback to in terms of constructing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor but it would represent an embarrassment to China at a time when China looks to bolster its credentials not only as a major economic power but as a power that is able to broker peace agreements among its partners.
China can call the US bluff
China, like Russia has in recent years quietly stood up for Myanmar’s government at the UN when matters surrounding Rakhine state arise. While China and Russia do not want to offend their key partners in the Islamic world by vocally championing Myanmar’s stance which continues to be analysed through the prism of unilateralism across much of the world, the eastern superpowers also realise the clear and present dangers of allowing the US free rein over the situation in Myanmar.
Now though that the UN report has been released, China can call the US bluff in what could potentially be a highly effective way to turn a perilous situation into a genuine win-win. Rather than outright reject the report, China can challenge certain factual points of the report while offering a solution to the issues raised by the UN. Crucially this solution can be one that involves sending China’s own peace keepers to Myanmar in order to ensure peace and stability.
China can further call the US bluff by inviting its chief Asian rival India to send peace keepers to Myanmar. While Sino-Indian relations remain tense, China and India have recently been in talks to establish levels of increase military communication and cooperation as part of the wider drive to de-escalate long standing tensions. As China and India are both valued partners of Myanmar, this would be a highly appropriate theatre in which to put the spirit of cooperation in military/peace keeping affairs to the test. What’s more is that because India’s closest superpower partner is now the United States which has rapidly supplanted its Cold War partner in Moscow, the US could hardly accuse such a peace keeping operation of being a “Chinese conspiracy”.
Adding to the mix, China could also call on its partners in the Muslim world that have long histories with the United States to support the peace keeping effort. Here, both NATO member Turkey and Pakistan come to mind. As Turkey’s President Erdogan has been a vocal advocate for the Rohingya people and is also moving Turkey’s economy closer to China at a rapid pace, this could help and solidify an existing partnership while also demonstrating that a proudly Muslim President like Erdogan can work on fragile matters of peace and humanitarianism in a country like Myanmar alongside secular China.
Finally, China can work with Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN states on the procurement of additional peace keepers. In particular, peace keepers from Muslim majority Indonesia could play an important role in de-constructing the “Buddhist vs. Muslim” sectarian narrative that the US has long attempted to promulgate regarding Myanmar’s multi-sided civil conflicts. This would further help provide a united front for peace among ASEAN rather than allow Muslim vs. non-Muslim south east Asian states to develop mutual suspicion over would-be conflicted approaches towards the conflicts in Rakhine.
It would not be surprising to learn that in private, the US State Department thinks that China has now be checkmated in Myanmar. The best way to prevent this ambition of the US from becoming a manifest reality is for Beijing to overtly reject anything approximating regime change in Myanmar and instead invoke the spirit of the controversial but unavoidable UN report in order to strengthen the existing peace process in Myanmar with the cooperation of US allied India and Muslim majority nations that are on good terms with China but which also have long histories of association with the United States.
Putting together such a peace keeping coalition will not be easy, but if China can accomplish this it could potentially save the world from another dose of Washington ordered regime change.