Sanctions could worsen Rakhine crisis, warns think tank

Any move to impose sanctions on Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis would be unlikely to produce positive change and could exacerbate the situation, a think tank has warned.

It was important to recognise that Myanmar’s political direction over the crisis has been set and would be extremely difficult to change, the International Crisis Group warned in report issued on December 7.

“The strength of the national consensus is hard to overstate: the government, military and almost the entire population of the country are united on this issue as on no other in its modern history. This will make it extraordinarily difficult to move official policy,” the ICG said.

“Any imposition of sanctions thus requires careful deliberation: they can help send a welcome signal that might deter others around the world contemplating similar actions, but they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar and, depending on what precisely is done, could make the situation worse,” it said.

The 19-page report, “Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis enters a dangerous new phase”, provides new background to the August 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in northern Rakhine State, covers the subsequent “catastrophic” military operation, assesses challenges and discusses the government and international response.

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“In addition to unimaginable human suffering, the crisis has transformed Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations and will have a huge impact on the regional security landscape,” the report said.

“The crisis will define Myanmar in the eyes of much of the world for years to come, with hugely negative consequences across the board on trade, investment, tourism. The country has squandered its considerable reserves of global goodwill just when it needed them most, as it was emerging from decades of isolation from the West,” it said.

“State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in particular has been widely criticised for failing to use her moral authority and domestic legitimacy to shift anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar and the government’s current course.”

Meanwhile, the exodus of refugees to Bangladesh was continuing and would likely “soon reach its tragic end-point: the almost complete depopulation of Rohingya from northern Rakhine State”, it said.

As well as cautioning against imposing sanctions, the ICG said another important consideration as the crisis entered a “new, fraught and uncertain phase” was repatriation.

There needed to be continued insistence on the right of refugees to return in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner, the Brussels-based think tank said.

“Fundamentally, neither the government nor security forces possess the political will to create conditions for voluntary return and implement a credible and effective process to that end,” it said.

The “grim reality” was that most Rohingya in Bangladesh would not be going home any time soon.

 “This presents the enormous humanitarian challenge of sustaining lives and dignity in the largest refugee camp in the world,” the ICG said, adding that it also posed grave political and security risks that needed to be addressed. They included potential cross-border attacks by ARSA and possible transnational terrorism.

In advice to “policymakers”, the ICG urges that any response should have a limited potential impact on the Myanmar people, “who should not pay the price for the actions of a military that is constitutionally outside of democratic control”.

It says policymakers should resist the urge to disengage from Myanmar, maintain development assistance and non-military engagement, work carefully to minimise the collateral effect of any targeted sanctions and engage with the military and government before imposing sanctions.

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