The head of the U.N. investigation into Myanmar’s alleged mass killing of Rohingya Muslims, Marzuki Darusman, requested an extension last month. Darusman says he is still waiting on Myanmar’s permission to enter the country, and believes that the deadline of March 2018 will not allow for a thorough inquiry. While he is primarily looking into the escalating situation in northern Rakhine, his goal is to assess the history of Myanmar’s religious tension and violence since 2011. His work began in August when attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents triggered a military response. As of September, more than 410,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh. It has been estimated that around 15,000 people make the journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh every day. At the current rate of escalation, the crisis in Myanmar may well be the worst humanitarian catastrophe since the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Andrew Gilmour, the U.N. Assistant Secretary General, told the U.N. Security Council that Myanmar was the “most acute human rights crisis in the world”.
The United Nations has been at the forefront of the global response, delivering aid and making robust statements condemning the Myanmarese government. However, in the past, the U.N. Country Team in Myanmar has been accused of blocking travel of human rights activists to areas with Rohingya populations. They have also been accused of attempting to shut down public advocacy on the subject, as well as isolating their own staff who tried to warn that ethnic cleansing might be on the way. One such staff member is aid worker Caroline Vandenabeele. Vandenabeele worked in Rwanda in 1993-1994 and says she noticed worrying similarities between the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide and events in Myanmar. She claims to have been frozen out of her job for voicing such warnings to higher-ups.
The Rohingya discrimination is well-documented by U.N. officials in the Northern Rakhine state. The Rohingya have faced an ever-growing list of discriminatory policies and state sanctioned human rights violations, including revoked citizenship and refusal to grant citizenship to children, restricted movement, prevention of access to education and healthcare, limiting the number of children in Rohingya families to two, and law forbidding Rohingya individuals to gather in groups, preventing occasions such as weddings. Using international legal and historical standards, the conditions in Myanmar bear a strong resemblance to the beginnings of a genocide. According to records, flare-ups in conflict have been common since 2012. Additionally, social media in Myanmar has been used to spread hateful and now obviously dangerous rhetoric regarding the Rohingya. The use of social media is comparable to how radios were used in Rwanda to incite mob violence, except social media is much faster and thus has the potential to be even more violent. According to human rights advocate Matthew Smith, the conditions seemed right for a mass atrocity to occur.
Human rights advocates have made allegations that U.N. officials have been ignoring the warning signs of ethnic cleansing. Part of the blame should be placed on the soft approach taken to avoid inflaming existing tensions, as Myanmar has a history of reacting poorly to intervention from the U.N. Others have said that efforts were too focused on investment and development alone to be an effective force against racial tensions in the area. Some cite the complications inherent to a government transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democracy as a reason for the lack of intervention and oversight on the U.N.’s part. This lack of intervention has been under critique before. In late 2016, Liam Mahony, a consultant of the U.N. high commissioner, described the U.N.’s efforts to prevent ethnic abuse in Myanmar as being deeply ineffective.
Still others, such as Michael Shaikh, a U.N. human rights officer who was based in Myanmar from 2013-2014, have said that the U.N.’s approach to Myanmar was an active denial of the issues occurring there. Myanmar’s own U.N ambassador insisted in September that there is no “ethnic cleansing” in the country, despite accusations of the Rohingya genocide coming from the Bangladesh prime minister, the U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, and a number of Islamic countries. According to Charles Petrie, the former U.N. representative in Myanmar, “it has always been a question of when rather than if” the genocide of the Rohingya would occur. Petrie has emerged as a prominent critic of the handling of the situation in Myanmar.
With the situation continuing to escalate, the U.N. needs to take a more active stand should it wish to prevent another atrocity.