Rakhine or another Srebrenica?

UN has called for a de-escalation of the situation, reestablishment of law and order, protection of civilians


Dr Shaista Tabassum September 23, 2017
The writer is chairperson of the International Relations Department at the University of Karachi

The world community has finally come into action following the UN Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The situation is becoming graver by the day. More than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have already fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.

This resolution from the most authoritative body of the United Nations was long awaited despite some of the worst reported violence in Myanmar in a decade. The present Security Council resolution is strong since it has covered all pertinent challenges. It has called for a de-escalation of the situation, reestablishment of law and order, protection of civilians and a resolution of the refugee problem. Before the UN reached any consensus, many prominent international non-governmental organisations have been complaining about the blatant violation of fundamental legal rights of the people. These include the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and 16 major non-governmental aid organisations, among them Oxfam and Save the Children, have complained that the Myanmar government has restricted access to the conflict areas. No humanitarian assistance could reach the victims of genocide until they crossed the borders into Bangladesh.

This delay in moral and political support has raised many questions. Even though the UN had started to discuss the issue as early as November 2016 and concerns were shown, those attempts were blocked by China and Russia. The international community had not taken serious notice of the issue until this month.

Although violence broke out in northern Rakhine state on 25th August, when militants attacked government forces. In response, security forces supported by the Buddhist militia launched a “clearance operation” that left at least 1,000 people dead and forced more than 300,000 to flee their homes. Several rights groups had earlier said that the Myanmar military’s response was “clearly disproportionate” to insurgent attacks. It was very clear from the beginning that Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority was aimed at ethnic cleansing of Muslims. Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Mahmood Ali, said unofficial sources put the death toll at about 3,000. More than 310,000 people had fled to Bangladesh by 11th September.

In this context one cannot help but recall the memories of war in Bosnia and the response of the international community which ultimately led to the military operation by Nato. It is a sad story of 1995 when the US and other countries failed to stop the ethnic cleansing, the concentration camps, and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Bosnia — the majority of whom were Muslims. Before August 1995 many earlier attempts to get involved in Bosnia were half-hearted in execution and thus ended in failure. The situation became serious in April 1993, when Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde in eastern Bosnia were declared three of six UN “safe areas”. The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) deployed troops and the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) attacks were temporarily stopped. But the town remained isolated and only a few humanitarian convoys reached it in the following two years. Then in March 1994, the US-brokered agreement ended the Muslim-Croat war and created a Muslim-Croat federation. But the year 1995 proved a decisive year for Bosnia’s future. In March, Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic ordered that Srebrenica and Zepa be entirely cut off and aid convoys be stopped from reaching the towns. After four months on 9th July 1995 Karadzic issued a new order to conquer Srebrenica, a small village near the eastern border with Serbia, swollen with some 60,000 Muslim refugees. Despite the UN flag flying over the enclave, the Bosnian Serb assault in July 1995 met no UN resistance either on the ground or from the air.

Within 10 days, tens of thousands of Muslim refugees streamed into the Muslim-controlled city of Tuzla. Missing from the stream of refugees were more than 8,000 men of all ages, who had been executed in cold blood — mass murder on a scale not witnessed in Europe since the end of World War II. The UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague indicted Karadzic and Mladic for genocide for the siege of Sarajevo. Finally in August, Nato started air strikes against Bosnian Serb troops. The international community could not reach consensus on the deployment of Nato forces, the delay in decision-making proved costly as it allowed the Serbian authorities to carry out the mass killing of Bosnians.

What is happening in Myanmar is alarming. Several aid agencies have already warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in overstretched border camps, where water, food rations and medical supplies are fast running out. Although the UN Security Council has expressed concern but all of its actions are subject to the approval of five permanent members. Any difference on any unimportant issue may linger on the final decision for peacekeeping mission to come in action. The Buddhist establishment is already very conscious of the international pressure gradually developing against the military operation and wants to conclude the genocide as quickly as possible. In case of delays Rakhine state might well become another Srebrenica.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2017.

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