Loss of face, loss of faith

Charges of genocide in the wake of the Rohingya crisis are seriously damaging investment in Myanmar and trust in its once lauded leader, writes Richard Cockett

It has been a disastrous few months for Myanmar and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her critics had warned that if she did not address the Rohingya crisis in western Rakhine state, then progress elsewhere in the country might stall, or even regress. Sure enough, as the Rohingya crisis escalates, so there are plenty of signs that the country’s vaunted ‘reform’ process is unravelling. Myanmar’s future is now precariously balanced and its leader has never been so politically isolated.

The latest round of bad news started on August 24 with the report of a fact-finding mission to Myanmar from the UN’s Human Rights Council. This concluded that what has happened to the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state amounts to genocide. Or to give the council’s exact wording, ‘The crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were permitted, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other context.’ Furthermore, it specifically named six army officers, including the commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, who might be prosecuted for genocide – although there could almost certainly be more.

The Myanmar government went through its usual denials. But this UN report won’t be as easy to brush off as previous ones that argued much the same thing, by groups such as Amnesty International or the London-based International State Crime Initiative. The report recommended a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague. Myanmar is not a member of the court, but it turns out that does not afford the country much protection. On September 6 the ICC ruled that it could prosecute Myanmar for alleged crimes against humanity against the Rohingya people, by virtue of the fact that although the initial acts of violence were carried out in Myanmar, the crime could not have been completed until those fleeing reached Bangladesh – which is a signatory to the Rome statutes that set up the ICC.

On September 6 the ICC ruled that it could prosecute Myanmar for alleged crimes against humanity

It is a novel argument. But it does openup the real possibility of charges eventually being bought against the six named military officers, and indeed any others who turn up during the course of the ICC’s investigations, which have now begun.

This puts Myanmar squarely on a collision course with the signatories to the ICC, including many Western countries that previously backed the country’s reform programme. Just on a technical level of engagement, it could make it much harder for these countries, such as Britain, to invest in and co-operate with a country led by ICC indictees.

The UN report will also have done irreparable damage to Ms Suu Kyi herself.  It accepts that she had little direct control over the army, which committed the atrocities in Rakhine state, but adds baldly that by siding so clearly with the generals,‘the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes’. Her reputation already badly tarnished, Ms Suu Kyi’s reaction to the report certainly will not helpher. She has unrepentantly stuck to her line, saying; ‘There are of course ways in which we, with hindsight, might think that the situation could have been handled better. But we believe that for the sake of long-term stability and security we have to be fair to all sides… we cannot pick and choose who should be protected by the rule of law.’ At least her growing legion of critics can agree with her on this – certainly, the Rohingya, like anybody else, should have been protected by the law.

As well as the ICC gunning for the government, perhaps the civilian as well as the military bits of it, Ms Suu Kyi has further alienated her erstwhile supporters by refusing to intervene in the case of two jailed reporters. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe, who both worked for Reuters news agency, have been sentenced to jail terms for supposedly endangering national security in their reporting of the Rohingya crimes. They claim, however, that documents were planted on them by the police. Many independent observers in Myanmar think that the charges are entirely fabricated.  The newly appointed UN human-rights chief Michelle Bachelet has said the jailing of the pair ‘sends a message to all journalists in Myanmar that they cannot operate fearlessly, but must rather make a choice to either self-censor or risk prosecution’. But despite many pleas to allow these journalists a pardon, Ms Suu Kyi has adamantly refused to budge from her assertion that they were indeed breaking the law. Many have been flabbergasted by her intransigence, her belligerence almost, just at the moment when she needs all the friends she can get.

Big Western countries that invested heavily in her message of change and hope after her release from house arrest in 2010 are losing faith. The Canadian parliament, for one, has just voted unanimously to endorse the UN report on the genocide and support prosecutions, if they are brought. Britain’s newish foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Myanmar last week to tell Ms Suu Kyi that there must be justice for the Rohingya, and offered more help for the victims in the squalid refugee camps over the border in Bangladesh. Ms Suu Kyi can still rely on China, of course, which has big economic interests in not only Myanmar as a whole, but Rakhine state in particular. But it can’t be good for her personally or the country that her stock has now fallen so low.

ABUSE OF RIGHTS: jailed Reuters reporters Kyaw Soe (l) and Wa Lone
ABUSE OF RIGHTS: jailed Reuters reporters Kyaw Soe (l) and Wa Lone

One palpable sign of this is that the rush of foreign investment after 2012, when the country first started opening up, already seems to be drying up. Myanmar secured less foreign investment for a second straight year in the 12 months ending in March. Foreign spending accepted by the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration fell 14 per cent to about $5.7 billion. Some sectors that were down, such as transport and communication, experienced a lot of inflows in previous years, so a slowdown might be expected. But the electric power sector, vital for getting the country back on its feet, saw a 55 per cent drop, while hotels and tourism declined 56 per cent. The latter could be a particularly ominous sign, as Myanmar had hoped to be as attractive a destination as Thailand, which gets almost 20million visitors, thereby creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

The rush of foreign investment since Myanmar first started opening up seems to be drying up

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the murderous treatment of the Rohingya is deterring tourists, just as there is no doubt that the Rohingya crisis is making companies more cautious about coming into the country. If economic sanctions are reimposed, for example, that might make life very difficult for multinationals already operatingthere. Nor has the nationwide peace process, Ms Suu Kyi’s signature domestic initiative, met with any success. Thus several parts of the country remain as off-limits to foreign investment, or merely tourism, as they were before.

As long as the civilian and military authorities refuse to acknowledge that there is anything remotely amiss in Rakhine state, let alone refuse to help war crimes investigators, Myanmar’s international situation will deteriorate further. Some manufacturers have come to the country to set up shop, taking advantage of its low wages. But the region offers plenty of alternatives, and with the cloud of the ICC hanging over Myanmar, those alternatives will become all the more alluring.

It is not a situation that anyone could have imagined for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate just two years into her presidency. But here she is. Everything is linked in Myanmar: investment to the rule of law, tourism to the terrible treatment of the Rohingya, prejudice against other ethnic minorities to prejudice against the Rohingya. Time is rapidly running out for Ms Suu Kyi to change the dynamic of her failing government.


Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist

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