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Q&A: Why the UN must take a stronger stance in Myanmar

“The humanitarian community is responsible for the systems of abuse that they support and prolong”

AFP Don't use Munir Uz Zaman/AFP
Rohingya community demonstrate before the visit of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Kutupalong refugee camp for the Rohingya community in Bangladesh's southeastern border district of Cox's Bazar on July 2, 2018.

If the international community doesn’t confront Myanmar about grave human rights violations, it risks repeating the same mistakes that helped sideline the aid sector as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees were pushed out of the country last year.

This is the view of Liam Mahony, an expert on civilian protection in humanitarian settings who authored two reports for UN agencies in Myanmar, in 2015 and 2017. IRIN spoke at length with Mahony about his thinking on the UN’s strategy, aid sector “complicity”, and why he believes aid groups must be willing to walk away from the table.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and its development arm, UNDP, signed a controversial agreement in May that could see the UN working more closely with the government over any eventual return to Myanmar of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.

In conjunction with some NGOs, donors, and a coalition of Western diplomats, the UN has produced a “strategic framework” to guide international engagement with the government in the wake of the Rohingya crisis. An April version of the plan, seen by IRIN, calls on aid agencies to “speak out” on human rights and humanitarian access while still offering support to the government.

The Rohingya are a largely stateless minority primarily located in western Rakhine State, where they have long been denied citizenship, freedom of movement, and other basic rights. Some 125,000 Rohingya still live in government-enforced camps where they are dependent on aid groups for food and shelter.

☰ Read more: The debate over the future of aid in Rakhine

There are differing opinions on how to engage with the government following last year’s Rohingya exodus.

Humanitarian officials who spoke to IRIN said they welcomed aspects of Mahony’s recommendations, but added that the proposals are complicated by the realities they face on the ground.

“Some say being outspoken is important, but there’s [disagreement] over what [the] message will be and what that means, including consequences,” a senior humanitarian source told IRIN.

Another stated that most NGOs working in Rakhine would continue to be silent due to fear of retaliation from the government.

“Silence is normal to some extent... Using [the word] Rohingya and talking about genocide publicly is a ticket to no access,” the official said.

Most controversially, Mahony argues that donors and aid groups should end all support – including food aid and shelter – to displacement camps in central Rakhine State, until Myanmar grants freedom of movement and other basic rights to the Rohingya.

Roughly 125,000 people are confined to these camps, which rights groups have described as “open-air prisons”.

A third official working for a humanitarian agency said that if aid groups stopped all support for the camps “the consequences would be catastrophic” because the move would leave the Rohingya entirely dependent on the government for food and shelter.

All three officials asked not to be named as the issue is considered sensitive for their organisations.

The UN’s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, Knut Ostby, said Mahony’s report “raises many points, some of which merit further reflection.” However, he disputed the charge that the UN had not engaged in sufficient public advocacy.

“The UN has… been a vocal advocate on the world stage for resolving the Rakhine crisis,” Ostby said. “There is still a long way to go, however, and much needs to be done in order to create conditions for voluntary, safe, and dignified return of the Rohingya refugees, as well as security and prosperity for all communities in Rakhine State."

More than 900,000 Rohingya now live across the border in Bangladesh, including earlier generations of refugees. Myanmar’s government has repeatedly rejected charges of ethnic cleansing following last year’s crackdown; the military says it was responding to a series of attacks on border posts by a small group of Rohingya fighters. MSF estimates that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed.


Both Mahony’s reports on Myanmar warned of the unfolding crisis in Rakhine, but neither was publicly released or distributed widely internally. Both claimed the UN and the humanitarian community were compromising their principles in the face of state intimidation and needed to make their advocacy more robust.

Mahony believes the UN and aid groups are “complicit in ethnic cleansing” due to self-censorship and capitulation to government pressure in the lead-up to last year’s Rohingya purge, in which more than 700,000 refugees were driven from their homes in Rakhine State.

In an independently released report, he says the aid sector must dramatically change how it deals with Myanmar’s government, which has bristled against international criticism and placed severe restrictions on working in Rakhine. Mahony recommends speaking out more forcefully, insisting on the use of the word “Rohingya” in public messaging, and placing strict conditions on aid and development funds.

Here’s the full Q&A (some parts were edited for length and clarity):

IRIN: What made you want to publicise this report now, after having provided private analysis to the UN in Myanmar twice before?

Liam Mahony: The hard questions in this report demand a broader discussion among all the international players active in Myanmar: all UN agencies, [international] NGOs, donors, and diplomats. The original reason for the two UN studies was to spark this debate and change policies. But their decision not to disseminate the results undermined any possibilities of the work having any impact. Both the original papers criticised the rampant self-censorship in the UN, and then they were censored! A public study was therefore essential to get more people working towards a better approach.

IRIN: Why do you believe the international community is complicit in the abuse of the Rohingya? What role does the UN play in this?

Mahony: The UN, the [international] NGOs, and the donor community have all been complicit in three key ways. First, they have observed widespread human rights abuses for years throughout Rakhine State, and have avoided any public reporting on these abuses. They do this because they fear retaliation, but their silence is a key element of Myanmar’s strategy to reduce pressure on itself. Secondly, they all complied with a government demand for several years to eliminate the word "Rohingya" from their vocabulary inside Myanmar, and this contributed to the erasing of the identity of a people. Thirdly, they have now, for six years, paid for the maintenance of detention camps for the Rohingya in central Rakhine State, thus supporting and prolonging a government policy of apartheid and detention. The leadership of the UN Country Team in Myanmar took the lead in all three of these approaches.

IRIN: One of your key recommendations is to stop all funding and programme support in Rakhine State until the government restores full freedom of movement and other rights for the Rohingya. Why do you believe this will make a difference?

Mahony: Money counts. When it comes to political costs for the military’s ethnic cleansing, we have seen little more than words thus far. The government elite – military and civilian – must suffer some negative financial consequences to their actions. They respond to money. One of the key motivations for the military to allow democratic transition in Myanmar in the first place was to open up the floodgates to Western funding and investment. Until there are real sanctions and money starts being taken off the table, they will respond to words only with more words and smokescreens.

It is also a sad reality that humanitarian institutions and the UN tend to follow money, and argue themselves into believing it is OK to sustain large budgets even when their operations are dubious. It is unlikely that the UN or [international] NGOs will take any firm stance on their own about pulling out of the detention camps unless the donors take the money away. Similarly, they are likely to move in and support new detention camps for future returnees as long as the donors put the money on the table.

IRIN: Withdrawing support for the existing camps in central Rakhine State would involve ending food aid and other basic services. There are aid officials who believe this would be “catastrophic”, making matters worse for Rohingya still in Myanmar. Essentially, would this not be deciding to accept more suffering and deaths in the short term, in the hopes of improving human rights for the Rohingya over the longer term?

Mahony: My paper acknowledges that there is a risk of transitional suffering, but the humanitarians have to stop exaggerating this risk in order to sustain their operational status quo. The point of pulling out of the camps is to force the government to either resolve the cause of the suffering – which is deliberate imprisonment, and not a humanitarian disaster – or accept the onus of providing services that any government is responsible to provide for those it imprisons. There is an exaggerated assumption in the humanitarian community that if they reduce support, the government will let the whole Rohingya population gruesomely starve in full view of the world, which is extremely unlikely.

The humanitarian community understandably feels responsible for each needy person in front of them, but they are also responsible for the systems of abuse that they support and prolong. It is a difficult decision, but it needs to be taken. In the long run, they have hurt far more people for a much longer time by avoiding this reality.

IRIN: If the UN and aid groups take a more outspoken stance, some NGO officials fear Myanmar could retaliate by kicking them out of the country – such as when authorities forced Médecins Sans Frontières to suspend operations in 2014. Wouldn’t expulsion be counter-productive?

Mahony: I think expulsions at this juncture are highly unlikely. Myanmar got away with a temporary expulsion of MSF in 2014 when the outside world was paying very little attention. Now, they are under a microscope, and expelling any UN agency or even a reputable [international] NGO would require a massive amount of damage control. It would be perceived as further evidence of guilt and fear of people seeing and saying the truth.

Nevertheless, the risk of expulsions is not quantifiable, and international institutions consistently overestimate it and use it as an excuse for passivity. Therefore, I do argue that this is a risk that must be taken. I do not believe the impact of an expulsion would be counter-productive if it is played correctly. On the contrary, if the international community responds in solidarity with any expelled leader or institution, the repercussions of an expulsion should be so negative for Myanmar that the government will be under even greater pressure than before, which would open up additional space for action rather than reducing it.

IRIN: The UN and parts of the international community in Myanmar are developing a “strategic framework” – essentially a blueprint for how the international community goes about working in Rakhine State. The document calls for “constructive but principled engagement” and for aid agencies to “speak out… on issues such as human rights, the rule of law and humanitarian access”. Do you think the plans outlined will end the structural problems you identify in your report and end “complicity”?

Mahony: The UN's new strategic framework contains many of the right words and phrases, but it is unfortunately a long list of options without an explicit sequence, and this will allow each institution to cherry-pick only the least challenging of the items on the list. This framework could only have a positive long-term impact for the Rohingya if it clearly committed the UN to persistently standing up for freedom of movement, citizenship, and other rights for the Rohingya as a condition for UN collaboration on other elements of development. The UN has not yet shown much willingness to take such a firm approach, and it needs to be pushed.

IRIN: UNHCR says any future returns of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar will be voluntary. But previous generations of Rohingya have been forced back from Bangladesh. At the same time, there are at least 71 aid or development agencies who have projects in Rakhine State, although most of these have been suspended or severely restricted. With so many different voices and opinions in the aid sector, how do you get everybody on the same page to take a unified stand, when the government may well pick and choose who it wants to work with?

Mahony: There are different organisations that are probably having this discussion now: “What are we going to do when there’s a repatriation? Maybe Myanmar will set up a whole bunch of new camps like in central Rakhine. How do we not do it?” And I would expect that some organisations will say no – they will not go in and repeat the error. But other organisations will use the same argument as usual, which is to say, “People need help. We’ll help.”

For the organisations that choose not to assist the government in any non-voluntary repatriation: they need to make the most of that decision. They need to stand up, publicise it, demand the government be held accountable, and make sure people understand why they’re not participating. For the other organisations that are not willing to make that decision: ideally, they’d stand up for the ones who won’t go in. In other words you would have some organisations who should say, if they do go in: “We’re going to help these people, but we also understand that there are great risks of supporting abusive government policies, and we completely support the decision of these other organisations that are refusing to do this.”

IRIN: The UN has kept the full text of the repatriation agreement with Myanmar a secret, because Myanmar has not yet agreed to release it publicly – although draft copies have been widely circulated online. Critics say the agreement appears to make no mention of human rights, and does not guarantee full rights, citizenship, or freedom of movement to returning Rohingya. Is this a case of the UN having to make significant compromises in order to engage with the government?

Mahony: This is part of the fundamental negotiating argument that I make in my paper, which is that you cannot negotiate with any strength if you are not willing to walk away from the table – and the UN has never, ever been willing to walk away from the table in this long process with the Myanmar government. They have to be willing to say: “No, we will not accompany this process if you are going to do it this way”. But they don’t say no, they just keep saying: “Oh well, we’ll keep trying to change your opinion”. They don’t walk away from the table. It leaves them with no bargaining power.

(TOP PHOTO: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh demonstrate before a visit by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to Kutupalong refugee camp on 2 July 2018. CREDIT: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)


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