The Myanmar military's latest campaign against the Rohingyas began after the attack on multiple police posts in Rakhine on August 25, 2017. The country's military leadership, with the support of radical Buddhist elements, is perpetrating an “ethnic cleansing” campaign killing, raping, maiming, and setting ablaze one Rohingya village after another. Nearly 600,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed into Bangladesh within a span of two months. The world has not witnessed such a large exodus of people in such a short period since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. As a result of this brutal campaign, the majority of Rohingyas are now residing in Bangladesh.
The situation has been further aggravated by the fact that host Bangladesh is itself a poor country, with a high population density, and that the country's southeast region is not the most geographically accessible area, with hilly terrains and lack of proper infrastructure. All these factors have culminated in a crisis that has potentially high political, economic, and social costs for Bangladesh. Despite that, it has continued to keep its borders open for the Rohingyas and has been doing as much as possible to meet their basic needs.
Of late, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have been negotiating the repatriation of the Rohingyas, although it is not clear yet whether the negotiations will bear any fruit. However, mere repatriation, without addressing the causes that led to the persecution in the first place, will not guarantee the rights and safety of the returnees. After repatriation, it is quite likely that the Rohingyas will continue to suffer because of the deep-seated hatred and hostility that has been sown into the Burmese society by the radical Buddhist elements.
Additionally, most of their homes have been decimated; hence, for the Rohingyas, repatriation at this stage would mean being transferred from one camp (in Bangladesh) to another (in Myanmar). Therefore, the best possible way to ensure a lasting peace and reconciliation would be to establish a UN Interim Administration in the Rakhine.
A UN Interim Administration supported by a UN Peacekeeping Force could be established with a specific mandate to: a) maintain peace and security, b) support humanitarian efforts, and c) oversee the implementation of the recommendations made by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in its Final Report (Kofi Annan Report). Implementation of the Kofi Annan Report is vital to ensure that there is a possibility of lasting peace in Rakhine. The Report's recommendations deal with issues of citizenship, freedom of movement, humanitarian access, access to media, health, education, security, and justice for the Rohingyas. In time, a permanent UN Observer Mission could be established to monitor the maintenance of peace and security in the long run.
Such a mechanism is not without precedent in history. UN peacekeeping missions and interim administrations are established through UN Security Council Resolutions by the exercise of powers enunciated in Chapter VII of the UN Charter. There are numerous instances of the establishment of UN Interim Administrations to maintain security and oversee the transition to peace. UN Interim Administrations in East Timor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo are some well-known examples. Such interventions are generally supported by a Peacekeeping Force and the Interim Administration is headed by a Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), who is endowed with legislative and executive authority, including the administration of justice so as to be able to implement the mandate.
Of course, Myanmar could unilaterally set up “safe zones” which could be monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations or some other international bodies. But such a move by the Myanmar government seems quite improbable, meaning the onus now is on the UN to exercise its Chapter VII powers.
That said, there are concerns that Russia and/or China may veto such a motion in the Security Council. This is where international politics and diplomacy come into play. Bangladesh and the supporters of such measures must allay the geopolitical concerns of Russia and China. Russia would most likely not veto such a measure as long as China does not, since Russian geopolitical interests in the region are quite different from that of China. However, China is quite unlikely to support the measure since it fears losing its foothold in Myanmar to its geopolitical rival India. India has been supporting the Myanmar government from the beginning and has steered away from condemning the military's actions in Rakhine, hoping that it would be able to counter China's influence in Myanmar.
But India is also facing increasing pressure from its northeastern states over the influx of refugees; its civil society and the general public have been also quite critical of its position. Now, if both India and China publicly take the same stance on the issue of UN intervention, then neither would risk losing much ground in regional geopolitics to the other. In the Security Council, it is not necessary for China and/or Russia to actively support the measure. A Security Council resolution to intervene would be passed even if they abstain or do not participate in the voting, which has been the case on numerous occasions in the past. This would, in turn, maintain the current geopolitical balance while providing the Rohingyas a much-needed respite from the persecution.
The world stood by and allowed such atrocities to take place in the past—in Bosnia and Rwanda. It cannot allow the same thing to happen again.
Farhaan Uddin Ahmed is a researcher of international law and legal theory, and lecturer at the School of Law, BRAC University.