Southeast AsiaMyanmar

Myanmar: where ‘genocide’ doesn’t really matter

UN call to try military chief Min Aung Hlaing for 'genocide' is unlikely to reach any court and will only push the isolated nation even closer to China

Yangon, August 30, 2018 5:54 PM (UTC+8)
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar Commander In-Chief (L) and National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) shake hands after their meeting in Naypyidaw in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Phyo Hein Kyaw

It is still unclear whether Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is more upset by a United Nations report that recommends he be charged and tried for “genocide” for his military’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, or Facebook’s coincident decision to shutter his account for disseminating information the company said “enabled serious human-rights abuses in the country.”

Yangon-based observers suggest that being shunned by Facebook could be more damaging for the loss of face it caused the military in a nation where the platform is hugely popular. Min Aung Hlaing’s account, along with other military-run pages such as the Myawady television network and Myanmar Daily Star newspaper, had more than six million combined subscribers.

The UN Human Rights Council’s report, released in part on August 27, is more strongly worded than any previous document produced by a UN-appointed commission. It mentions “genocide”, a crime under international law and therefore considerably more serious than previous claims of “ethnic cleansing.”

The latter term has no legal bearing, but has been used by United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, among others, in referring to the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the Rohingya.

It is highly unlikely that the UN report, compiled by a group of international legal experts, will lead as suggested to charges being filed at the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC). Instead, it will likely drive Myanmar even closer to China, its main foreign ally and diplomatic protector in international fora like the UN Security Council.

Unlike Western nations that have strongly criticized Myanmar’s military abuses in Rakhine state, China has remained largely quiescent.

Rohingya refugees react as aid is distributed in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

While Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, must depend on Beijing’s support at the UN Security Council, where China has vetoed previous attempts by the West to impose sanctions over the Rohingya issue, its top generals remain suspicious of China’s long-term ambitions in their country.

Sources close to the military’s top brass say they see China as a tactical partner in managing international opinion, but at the same time feel the need to defend the country’s sovereignty against China’s strong commercial and strategic advances, which they aim to keep within certain boundaries and hedge by engaging other major powers.

The Rohingya crisis, which since last August has seen as many as 800,000 refugees driven across the border into neighboring Bangladesh, has limited the Tatmadaw’s room for maneuver as the country falls back to pariah status in the view of much of the West.

The generals earlier implemented political reforms, including allowances for limited democracy, specifically to engage the West and counterbalance China’s outsized influence. Those overtures saw the lifting of US and EU sanctions imposed against previous military rights abuses.

China’s ongoing plans to build a deep-sea port at Rakhine state’s Kyaukpyu and connect it with a high-speed railway to its southern province of Yunnan – part of Beijing’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative – is viewed skeptically in military circles as an attempt to turn Myanmar into a pawn in its fast expanding global economic empire.

China’s President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in Beijing, May 15, 2017. Photo: AFP/Pool

Myanmar’s civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), is seen by China as more conciliatory to such designs and perhaps easier to manipulate with promises of economic largesse, Yangon-based observers say. China earlier perceived Suu Kyi, a Noble Peace Prize winner for her non-violent resistance to military rule, as a staunch ally of the West.

But as Suu Kyi’s former Western allies condemn her for not acting or speaking out on the Rohingya crisis, with some even stripping her of awards she received for her long struggle for democracy, she reportedly feels betrayed and has turned to China for counterbalancing support.

The UN report falls short of accusing Suu Kyi of culpability for the carnage in Rakhine state, but does criticize her for failing to use her “moral authority” to stop the violence.

At the same time, Beijing has skillfully courted her NLD by inviting its leading members to China for all-paid “friendship visits.” China also paid for the renovation of the Daw Khin Kyi Women Hospital in Yangon, which is named after Suu Kyi’s mother, and has contributed to several charities run by people close to the NLD.

Suu Kyi’s elected government is legally and administratively hemmed in by the autonomous military, which maintains full control of the powerful defense, home and border affairs ministries. That means Suu Kyi lacks any command control over the troops who were allegedly involved in acts the UN now says constitute genocide.

Still, Suu Kyi has astounded many observers by defending the clampdown to avoid antagonizing the top brass and destabilizing her already weak government. Her government predictably rejected the UN’s assessment, with its Ambassador to the UN Hau Do Suan saying it questioned the mission’s “objectivity, impartiality and sincerity,” according to news reports.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at a press conference at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, July 2, 2018. Photo: AFP/Munir Uz Zaman

After the UN mission’s presentation of a preview of its findings and recommendations (the full report will be made public in September) the US and other UN Security Council members chimed in with calls for Myanmar’s military leaders, including Min Aung Hlaing, to be held responsible for the alleged crimes at the ICC.

It will be easier said than done, however, to prosecute Min Aung Hlaing and his fellow military officers mentioned in the UN report at the ICC. Myanmar is not within the ICC’s jurisdiction because it is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, under which the court was established in 1998.

The Hague-based ICC, which began functioning in 2002, works closely with UN agencies and could take up the genocide charge if the UN Security Council unanimously agrees. But China and Russia, both permanent Council members, will most likely block any such move through their veto powers.

Bangladesh, which is one of the Rome Statute’s 123 signatories, could conceivably bring the case to the ICC if it could be proven that the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military come under its jurisdiction.

But when asked by the ICC in June to give the government’s opinion regarding the issue of jurisdiction, Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Shahriar Alam said “we have provided the information only as requested by the court…Bangladesh is still committed to settle the matter bilaterally.”

Even if the ICC commenced proceedings and reached a verdict, Min Aung Hlaing and his colleagues would not risk arrest unless they traveled to signatory countries.

Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a parade to mark Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Major partners such as China, India, Russia and Israel are not Rome Statute signatories. Neither is the US, though it’s not clear the now disgraced military commander would be invited to Washington for any reason any time soon.

The only impact the UN report and its seemingly unrealistic recommendations may have on Min Aung Hlaing is that the bad exposure could hit his chances of pursuing a post-military political career. Many observers believe he eyes a run for the presidency at the next general elections, due to be held in 2020.

According to sources close to the Tatmadaw, some in the officer corps see a “NLD hand” in the UN’s “genocide” assessment and Facebook’s military ban as a backhanded attempt to discredit the military and bolster its position vis-à-vis the generals.

To clear the air, the government issued a statement saying that it did not have any advance notice of the Facebook ban. “Neither the government nor [the government’s] social media monitoring team played a part in [the decision by Facebook],” presidential spokesman Zaw Htay said.

The winner in the ruckus will likely be China, which both the civilian government and military will now look to for support in an hour of diplomatic need. But the two sides’ different perceptions of the nature and terms of that relationship could break into the open as international pressure builds for justice and local politics intensify ahead of the next elections.

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