Empty Mantras Won’t Protect Myanmar’s People

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So we’re back to “never again.” Again.

Those two words are best-known in association with the Holocaust. Now many view them as an empty mantra, representing the international community’s vow not to repeat its failure in the 1990s to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, despite explicit warnings of the impending bloodshed, or the atrocities in the Balkans.

That sentiment spawned the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, which states that the world should step in when a government commits crimes against its own people.

Pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar have now put out their own global call for help, referencing “R2P” — as the convention is known — on signs at demonstrations as the death toll from the military crackdown rises, along with fears of an even bloodier backlash to come. 

The international community has, so far, limited itself to carefully worded statements calling for restraint since the military forced the democratically elected government and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power Feb. 1. While the U.S. and U.K. have placed sanctions on the coup leaders, most other countries have resisted taking concrete measures even as they’ve pushed for a peaceful solution.

When does the world have a responsibility to protect? The policy was first invoked in 2011 by the UN Security Council to justify NATO-led airstrikes in Libya in the dying months of Moammar Qaddafi’s regime. But even here the actions drew criticism from those who contend the doctrine will only ever be used by powerful states against the weak.

Since then, the Security Council has missed many opportunities to enact the convention. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own people in the now-decade long civil war. More than a million Uighurs are being held in “reeducation” camps in China’s Xinjiang region.

And in Myanmar itself, as many as 700,000 Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee across the border to Bangladesh in 2017 in what the UN has called a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. The International Court of Justice at The Hague has since ordered the implementation of emergency measures to protect the Rohingya from genocide.

On Monday, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing tightened his grip on the country, shutting down five local media outlets that have been central to reporting the protests. His government insists it’s acting with restraint and says protesters are threatening national security and stability.

At the same time, images of a nun kneeling before security forces with her hands in the air went viral as she pleaded with soldiers to spare the demonstrators. It was followed soon afterward by photographs of her rushing toward a slain protester. “Myanmar people need UN - R2P,” a sign at a rally read. “How many more bodies?” another asked.

It’s a valid question in the context of Myanmar’s violent history. Yet what can the international community do? There are limited options given the Security Council is so often constrained by member states and their veto powers.

Two key actions will help, and neither relate to military interventions, said Chris Sidoti, an international law expert and member of the UN Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar who is now part of a three-member special advisory council on the Southeast Asian nation.

Both the UN and member states should immediately sanction the country’s vast network of military-owned conglomerates and their subsidiaries involved in industries from construction and pharmaceuticals to manufacturing, insurance, tourism and banking. “Cutting off the money supply has to be a top priority,” Sidoti told me. “We’re not asking companies to withdraw from Myanmar — on the contrary, we are recommending increased engagement with the private sector and total disengagement from military-owned firms.”

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on the two principal military conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Economic Corp.. However, other countries and key bodies like the European Union have yet to do so.

Empty Mantras Won’t Protect Myanmar’s People

Then there’s the need for a global arms embargo. At least 14 foreign firms from seven nations have supplied fighter jets, armored combat vehicles, warships, missiles and missile launchers to Myanmar since 2016, the mission’s final report released in 2019 noted. Much of this weaponry was used in the so-called “clearance operations” against the Rohingya and some may be deployed now. Sidoti says bullet cartridges from European arms companies have been found on the streets, despite EU restrictions. 

Sidoti has no doubt the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is relevant. “The atrocities in Myanmar didn’t start on Feb. 1 — the military has been a brutal, repressive, corrupt force for six decades now and what we have here is a long-running crisis in regional and international security,” he says.

China has been reluctant to label the takeover a coup, although it did agree to a Security Council statement calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees. Beijing is also Myanmar’s largest trading partner, owning major oil and gas pipelines there, along with significant investments in the “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.” 

As Thant Myint-U, author of “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century,” noted in a tweet earlier this week, Beijing had cultivated close ties with Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, as well as the army and non-state armed groups. “Unlike Western governments, China has many levers to play,” he said.

So does Singapore, Myanmar’s largest foreign investor, although Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has talked down the prospect of sanctions. But while global companies from Japan to Thailand are minimizing operations in the country, there’s not much indication their actions are starting to bite.

Like other military-dominated economies in Egypt and Pakistan, the ability to access alternative sources of revenue outside the official defense budget allows Myanmar’s generals to operate without civilian oversight. It’s only coordinated economic isolation — and a comprehensive arms embargo — that will force Min Aung Hlaing’s hand. Maybe then Democracy 2.0 in Myanmar will stand a chance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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