Burma (also called Myanmar) has been in the news frequently since the formation of the first civilian government since 1962 in March 2011.
The EU has since moved from a policy of restrictive sanctions to a more open policy, aimed at encouraging a legitimate, stable government and bringing Burma in from the cold, reducing its isolation in the international community. The US has also opened up diplomatic channels with the regime, appointing its first ambassador to the country since 1990 earlier this year. On the whole, it makes sense to welcome the new government in recognition of its departure from decades of authoritarian rule.
Recognition of far less than perfect regimes often has the unfortunate effect of sanctioning actions they take under the protective umbrella of state sovereignty. Even so, international relations are less than perfect. While human rights norms exert increasing influence on governments, it is important to be realistic about the continuing importance of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it protects peoples from the intervention of outside forces. Burma no doubt has the right to determine its own future. On the other hand, it has exclusionary effects. It can, for example, give states effective licence to exclude unwanted minorities. The Rohingya, resident in Western Burma’s Arakan state, are often said to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Belatedly, their plight has received attention in the national media here. While the decision of the new government to continue to exclude the resident Rohingya population from the protections of citizenship must be considered an affront to human rights, the best hope for their re-inclusion in Burmese politics and society comes from continuing international dialogue with the regime.
There are two things that the international community can meaningfully do. The first is to continue to exert public and diplomatic pressure on the government. Indeed, groups including the UN and the US-based Human Rights Watch have recently warned the government of Burma not to attempt the mass deportation of Rohingya, which it is suspected of trying to engineer by force or terror, or by stealth, for example by blocking food aid from reaching starving families. This kind of pressure will only be meaningful if two conditions are met.
The first condition necessary for the meaningful reintegration of the Rohingya is that any attempt must have a solid base in domestic politics. Although we can but hope that the fledgling democracy provides for a democratic solution, we should – after a raft of failed interventions – acknowledge that solutions imposed from the outside rarely, in the absence of local commitment to human rights, fulfil their supposed promise. Indeed, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has learnt that encouraging refugees and stateless persons to trust in promises of citizenship made by the very governments that breach international human rights can lead to disastrous results. Between 1992 and 1993, the agency engaged in what many labelled a ‘forced’ repatriation. This mistake was made in part because the agency lacked a field presence in Arakan. At the time of writing, Arakan remains closed to UNHCR and to other aid groups.
The second condition necessary for a solution to the situation of the Rohingya is essentially the requirement to openly acknowledge the extent to which state sovereignty continues to make human rights violations possible. On that basis then, the international community must – at the same time as hoping for a local solution – accept that refugees are likely unless and until such a solution is achieved. International pressure on the new government to take responsibility for the Rohingya must therefore stop short of preventing those who wish to leave the country from doing so. The international community should therefore commit to supporting Burma’s neighbours, and especially Bangladesh, in hosting refugees from Burma.
On the whole, then, the move to recognise Burma’s new government has been a smart one. Relationships between states are inherently political, entailing a complex web of rights and responsibilities. The rest of the world must continue to engage with the government, accepting at the same time the responsibilities that arise from renewed diplomatic relations.
Dr Kelly Staples, Lecturer in International Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester.