Two days after the Interna-tional Court of Justice (ICJ) approved emergency “provisional measures” asking Myanmar to stop persecution of the Rohingya in all forms— including killing, raping, and destroying homes and villages—two Rohingya women died in Rakhine State when the Myanmar army shelled a village. One of them was pregnant.
While many celebrated the ICJ’s order of provisional measures, some—especially those who have witnessed the ineffectiveness of the ICJ’s repeated “provisional measures” to protect Bosnian Muslims in 1993—had been cynical about the ultimate outcome of such a measure. Their scepticism is yet to be proven wrong.
Despite the ICJ’s order, Myanmar—it seems—remains defiant with its genocidal intent against the Rohingya. And Myanmar has good reason for its intransigence.
First of all, while the ICJ’s order is binding, it is not enforceable; and in the face of Myanmar’s non-compliance, The Gambia (the country that brought the case against Myanmar at the ICJ) at best can approach the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for it to decide whether it will use its powers to force Myanmar to comply with the ICJ’s order. And here lies the advantage of Myanmar.
China and Russia—two of Myanmar’s major allies—are two of the five permanent members of the UNSC, which also includes the United States, France and the United Kingdom. Both these countries have in the past resisted the United Nations’ attempts to address the Rohingya issue. To refresh the memory: in March 2017, China and Russia blocked a UN Security Council statement that would have “noted with concern renewed fighting in some parts of the country and stressed the importance of humanitarian access to all effected areas”, as reported by news agency Reuters.
With deep economic and military ties with China and Russia, it is no wonder that Myanmar is safe and strong in the knowledge that the UNSC will not be able to induce it to comply with the ICJ’s verdict in the months and years to come.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar earlier this month and the signing of 33 memorandums of understanding (MOUs), agreements, exchange letters and protocols send a strong signal to Bangladesh and to the wider world about its strategic ties with the country. According to Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration data, in 2019 China was the second biggest foreign investor in Myanmar, accounting for 25.21 percent of investment in the country; Singapore was the biggest, making up 26.86 percent of the foreign direct investment Myanmar received in the same year.
On the occasion of Xi’s visit, a joint statement in Chinese state media said that China “firmly supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity in the international arena” and hopes for it to advance “peace, stability and development in Rakhine State.” Even if one does not read too much into these two lines, it would be difficult to misread China’s stance on the Rohingya issue.
During the visit, China and Myanmar also signed an agreement for the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) deep seaport project, a major town in the volatile Rakhine State that is at the centre of the Rohingya genocide.
China is not the only actor investing in Rakhine. The World Bank in 2019 came under heavy fire from international human rights bodies and non-government organisations (NGO) for its proposed USD 100 million development project in the conflict-riven Rakhine State titled, “Rakhine Recovery and Development Support Project”.
In a letter to the World Bank dated April 9, 2019, obtained by Reuters, more than a dozen Myanmar-based NGOs said, “It is difficult to imagine how meaningful recovery and development are possible in Rakhine without addressing the underlying human rights issues that currently impact every aspect of life for communities.” Despite World Bank’s assurance that, “The project is being carefully prepared so that it does not reinforce or perpetuate movement restrictions or other forms of segregation, and that it creates new openings for social cohesion and positive exchanges between communities,” how it is going to make sure of this remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military ties with Russia have only strengthened over the years. In January 2018, Russia agreed to sell six Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets to Myanmar costing at least USD 204 million. The deal was announced during the official visit of Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu to Myanmar in January 2018.
As late as August 2019, Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing paid a visit to Russia and during his stay, he visited the Irkutsk Aviation Plant Corporation that is assembling the six Sukhoi Su-30SM multi-role advanced fighter jets for Myanmar. Photos of him sitting in a cockpit next to a test pilot made quite a show of his trip to the plant.
Of course, warplanes are not enough; military personnel require training as well. Here too Russia comes to their aid –more than 600 members of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) were studying at higher military educational institutions in Russia in January 2018, as suggested by Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Lieutenant-General Alexander Fomin.
Apart from these economic transactions, around 60 foreign companies from around the world have ties with businesses controlled by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and the Myanmar Economic Corporation—two military-governed businesses in Myanmar. It is these two conglomerates that dominate the economic and commercial landscape of the country. To address this, the UN fact-finding mission in 2019 urged imposing targeted financial sanctions on companies linked with Myanmar’s military and suggested that foreign companies doing business with Tatmadaw-controlled corporations could be complicit in international crimes.
During the Rakhine State Investment Fair in 2019, Suu Kyi said, “Myanmar has opened up its economy to the world. We have been constantly adjusting our policies, rules and regulations to be in line with international best practices and to make the investment climate more favourable, predictable, facilitative and friendly. We want to establish a welcoming economic environment for all.” Unfortunately, it seems the welcoming environment is not inclusive of the Rohingya.
Given the scenario, it is not surprising that the world, including international bodies like the UN, has miserably failed to address, let alone stop, the genocide unleashed by Myanmar against the helpless Rohingya. Thousands of adults and children have been killed; millions forced to flee; and an unaccountable number of women and girls have been systemically sexually violated, impregnated and exposed to various sexually transmitted diseases by the Myanmar military. And the world watched the spectre unfold before their very eyes like an audience at a macabre movie screening.
While the world is busy exploring potential economic tie-ups with Myanmar, thanks to its vast untapped resources and strategic geopolitical importance, it is the Rohingya and Bangladesh that are bearing the brunt of Myanmar’s economic possibilities. While the ICJ’s verdict is a welcome move, without political will to hold Myanmar to account it will not yield any positive outcome for the Rohingya. Expecting much from it would be a folly. The 1995 Srebrenica massacre should serve as a reality check.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem