Why is most of Asia looking away from Myanmar?
The latest resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly condemning rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups in Myanmar was the third such resolution on the subject. It was approved by 134 votes in favour and nine against while 28 nations abstained. A vote so close to the hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over a petition seeking interim measures to prevent further killings and abuses with genocidal intent demands closer scrutiny to understand global community's attitude towards the Rohingya crisis.
China and Russia's opposition to any international condemnation of Myanmar was not unexpected as both of them in the past had supported so-called security operations against alleged insurgency. Had these two veto-wielding nations allowed the UN Security Council to find a way forward to resolve the crisis or at the least refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC), victims of those atrocities carried out by Myanmar security forces would have gotten some hope for justice. Apparently, there's too little Bangladesh can do to win them over.
The other seven nations who voted against the resolution were Belarus, Cambodia, Peoples Democratic Republic of Lao, Philippines, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. Records show that these nations too have consistently sided with Myanmar. All these countries for decades have been criticised for their human rights records. Among them, Cambodia has bitter experience of dealing with genocide. It had cooperated fully with international jurists and experts to hold some of the perpetrators to justice. But, the current authoritarian regime's appalling human rights records in the domestic front and reliance on China for military and economic aid explain its inability to support international actions against Myanmar.
Nations which abstained in the vote were even more surprising—India, Japan, Bhutan, Burundi, Cameron, CAR, DPRK, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Kenya, Lesotho, Mongolia, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Palau, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Serbia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad & Tobago, Tanzania, Venezuela and Zambia. Among those abstentions, names of Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka along with India—all members of the South Asian club, Saarc—raise serious questions about our relations with our closest neighbours.
Another notable factor is the high number of Asian nations that either opposed the resolution or abstained from voting. Can these abstentions in a vote condemning gross violations of international law and obligations be called anything other than abetting such heinous crimes? If anyone makes a map of genocide abettors, it will certainly put Asia to shame.
The resolution approved by the General Assembly condemned human rights abuses against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims and other minorities, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape and deaths in detention. It called for an immediate cessation of fighting and hostilities. It also expressed alarm at an independent international fact-finding mission's finding "of gross human rights violations and abuses suffered by Rohingya Muslims and other minorities" by the security forces, which the mission said "undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law." These gravest crimes according to the UN fact-finding mission were committed with a "genocidal intent" and the immediate past UN Human Rights Commissioner described it as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
During the ICJ hearing, one of the top Bangladeshi diplomats told me that his team's tireless efforts have paid off and the world is now taking the issue of the Rohingya's sufferings seriously. It is true that Bangladesh has made valuable contribution in bringing in Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), Canada and Netherlands behind the legal recourse taken by The Gambia. But, success in one front does not compensate losing support among the neighbours in South and Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka's inertia against supporting international actions against genocide can be explained with its troubled past in dealing with Tamil insurgency for which it has been facing tremendous international pressure. But so-called neutrality of countries like Nepal, Bhutan and many others in Asia must be a reason for concern.
In order to mount a more effective campaign against Myanmar, Bangladesh needs more help from within the region. But it seems that accepting mediatory role by China might have wider consequences as too many of our Asian neighbours will prefer to allow more time to the regional heavyweight to play its role. There's no denying that China considers Myanmar of much greater strategic value than Bangladesh. Its mediatory role, therefore, may not be of much help for creating a conducive environment for Rohingya repatriation. And early signs suggest that the Chinese mediation is not sufficient to convince Rohingya refugees to trust Myanmar authority's promise of safe return without guaranteeing their citizenship.
Certainly, repatriation of more than one million refugees should be our top priority. But it is increasingly becoming clear that unless the international community takes a firm stand against the regime that committed such heinous crimes against its own people and ensures that justice is served, no meaningful negotiation for repatriation of the persecuted Rohingyas is possible.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.