Guest Column | Getting Under the Skin of Myanmar’s Dictators

Any measured stock take of international human rights promotion from the United Nations would have to arrive at a lamentably low rate of success, if progress is measured by ending atrocity crimes and uplifting fundamental rights for everyone. There don’t seem to be many places where peace is breaking out and respect for universal rights is ascendant.

It is often assumed that the Myanmar military has a thick skin towards international criticism of its appalling human rights record. For war criminals, they often appear wounded by international criticism and feel the need to respond with affronted rebuttals, despite usually a brace of well documented evidence.

These public rebuffs are evident in the State Administration Council’s (SAC) aggression towards the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its relatively mild criticism in a joint communiqué following the recent Foreign Ministers Meeting in Jakarta.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) released a statement that claimed “Myanmar, being a responsible member state, faithfully engaged in the Joint (C)ommuniqué’s drafting process. It was found that Myanmar’s inputs, concerns and voice are not reflected in the final Joint Communiqué. Therefore, Myanmar reiterates its disappointment regarding the unfair and one-sided facts about Myanmar and categorically rejects and dissociates itself from that paragraph.” There were actually five paragraphs on Myanmar, but it was likely the one that contained this criticism that formed the umbrage: “[ASEAN] strongly condemned the continued acts of violence, including air strikes, artillery shelling, and destruction of public facilities and urged all parties involved to take concrete action to immediately halt indiscriminate violence.”

The spectacle of successive Myanmar military regimes’ obsessing for supposed inaccuracy and systematic denial of charges of human rights violations is routine. It’s as if some form of Praetorian entitlement is at play, that any criticism of the military must be denied, denounced and dismissed. It frequently dissolves into absurdity.

UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews gives a press conference during the 51st Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sept. 22, 2022. / AFP

The Permanent Mission of the Republic of Myanmar in Geneva, controlled by the SAC, is the primary interlocutor of umbrage over reporting to the HRC, a beleaguered outpost of unconvincing refutation and alternative-reality generation. If one were so inclined, and no foul if not, the mission is a treasure trove compendium (in English) of complete refusal to confront reality.

The mission has been busy of late condemning the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which has released a detailed report on SAC obstructions of humanitarian assistance throughout Myanmar since the February 2021 coup d’etat. The official “observations” include technical denials of specific paragraphs contained within the UN report. In the wake of clearly evident official obstructions of aid following Cyclone Mocha in Rakhine State, the mission cast relations with the UN as divisive; “It is regrettable to note that the United Nations agencies in Myanmar have been put under pressure from the UN System which is excessively influenced by certain donor countries. Many UN agencies have been barred from meaningfully engaging and cooperating with the Government and it poses tremendous challenges in Myanmar’s cooperation with the United Nations.”

The SAC’s current foreigner bête noire is the current UN Special Rapporteur (SR) for the situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, American activist and former congressman Tom Andrews. There is no doubt Andrews is enthralled with the sound of his own voice, and his self-promotion is long-standing. But in the absence of a credible UN leadership role on Myanmar, and the paucity of support for Special Envoys of the Secretary General, Andrews has been the focal point of international denunciation of the SAC, and they clearly loathe him as a meddlesome irritant. South Korean lawyer Yanghee Lee had a similar effect on the military, the nationalist organization Ma Ba Tha and ousted Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from Lee’s time as Special Rapporteur and with her current involvement with the Special Advisory Council-Myanmar (SAC-M).

Andrews has released reports of very high quality, including “Conference Paper” thematic reports that go beyond the routine update to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, including a February report on international arms transfers and one in June on widespread abuses against children in Myanmar since the coup. The arms transfer report in particular made important contributions to the potential for strengthening sanctions. Andrews obviously touches some raw nerves, as the recent official Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release response to his report to the HRC illustrated.

“It is disturbing to see that the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has made his presentation with the purpose to isolate Myanmar… He further calls on the member states to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s state-owned enterprises which greatly contribute to public services. It simply means to hurt the people and violates the right to development of Myanmar.”

It isn’t Western sanctions that increase burdens on people, but the World Food Program (WFP) did cut rations to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh again in March, in a widely criticized move as foreign aid donations reduce. As Andrews forcefully stated at a UN press conference recently, “Kids, Rohingya children, cannot eat resolutions.” They can’t eat Special Rapporteur reports either, but the point was well made.

In their rebuttal to his interactive session on July 5, the Mission’s response said, “The Special Rapporteur has been given ill-suited mandate by the EU and western sponsors to produce limitless conference room papers with attempts to discredit the Government.” Well, they’re not limitless, but there have been a few of them. If the SAC is discomforted with these reports the best thing is to keep producing them. It may seem like death by a thousand paper cuts, but any accumulative action to atrophy the military machine is worthwhile. And reflect on that bruised little note of frustration on “limitless”: someone at the Geneva Mission is irked at having to systematically check Andrews’ prolix reports. Make them longer and more technical then: irk away.

It’s one compulsion of a small bureaucratic mind to lean back on the rule book, especially in ham-fisted fashion, but it’s a time-honored tradition during military rule in Myanmar. The same response churlishly charged Andrews with breaching the Code of Conduct for Special Procedures Mandate-holders which states in Section 3(f): “Neither seek nor accept instructions from any Government, individual, governmental or non-governmental organization or pressure group whatsoever.” This is rich coming from a client state of Russia.

The official denials also continue the fiction of genuine progress on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, which descended into farce when UN boats were compelled to transport SAC officials on a preparatory mission to Cox’s Bazar back in March. Yet the responses continue to deny the existence of the Rohingya: “Myanmar does not recognize the invented term ‘Rohingya’ as it has never existed in legal and historical records of the country. The people of Myanmar cannot accept the term ‘Rohingya’ with the wider political agenda to claim ethnicity and territorial status.”

The Mission also contends that calls to repeal or amend the starkly racist 1982 Citizenship Law amount to interference in the internal affairs of Myanmar, and also insists that claims of 1.1 million in Bangladesh camps are “inaccurately inflated.” Denying the existence of the Rohingya and how many were forced out of Rakhine State repeatedly—both existence denied and violently expelled—and then refusing to amend the legal underpinnings of statelessness of the Rohingya and thousands of other people in Myanmar are all signs repatriation in safety and dignity is unlikely.

The Special Rapporteur and OHCHR reporting are prominent parts of an international structure of accountability, which also includes the long-term work of the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar (IIMM) to compile case-files for possible future prosecution, the ongoing case to determine potential breaches of the Genocide Convention in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the long-term investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the crime of forced deportation of Rohingya to Bangladesh. Adding to the complex of condemnation are international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) such as Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).

It’s unclear how much criticism by the UN and international human rights groups actively intrudes on the guilty psyches of the generals. It’s impossible to determine how much the official responses are driven by genuine feelings of professional frustration at the charges of abuses, to what level there is a Stanley Cohen-type “state of denial” from professional diplomats in MOFA who genuinely consider it a technical exercise of specific yet blanket rejection, how much is authoritarian bluster, and to what level officials are having fun in denying serious charges of war crimes. Whilst the state media and MOFA occasionally denounce INGOs, they are evidently fixated on the UN, which could suggest the regime takes their membership of the world body (and ASEAN to some extent) as important: but insists membership should come criticism-free.

The National League for Democracy administration didn’t make any real effort to reform the system of denial, certainly not after the mass violence against the Rohingya sparked in October 2016. Whilst the special rapporteurs have had mixed success over the past 30 years, the diplomatic umbrage they spark from successive military regimes is worth the effort; even if they are rarely responsible for stopping abuses, they build on cataloguing evidence of abuses. They won’t be body blows, knockout punches, or surgical strikes or any other other clichéd exaggeration of their effect.

The reporting will rankle, wound, irritate, exasperate, frustrate, annoy, and grate but not fundamentally undermine the superstructure of military rule. But if corrosion, rust and rot are long-term objectives then reporting works, and if it has the psychological effect of nails on a chalkboard, or better yet, bamboo under fingernails, then it serves an important function. It’s tempting to goad, jeer, sneer, and taunt, but a careful professional compilation of crimes anchored in international humanitarian law that will reverberate inside that military—because regardless of what some speculators peddle, everyone inside knows what a culture of murder and sadism exists at every level—will be in the long run cumulatively effective.

There has been much commentary since the coup that massacres and massive air strikes are evidence of regime “desperation” and data points of imminent military collapse. This is sadly wishful thinking: the sit-tat is simply willing to use any form of ultra-violence at its disposal to stay in power. They have been aloof from calls for domestic and international accountability for decades, and are possibly depending on the international community to extend immunity the way they did in 2011. But if efforts to routinely remind the perpetrators of their crimes simply prick a conscience, they’re worthwhile.

Less impactful are OHCHR and SR reports on their own colleagues in the UN system, where human rights reporting is often rewarded with muted contempt. Regardless of their stated commitment to human rights, many UN agencies see their promotion as obstruction, and do all they can to avoid interaction with human rights colleagues. SRs are routinely distained, particularly in Myanmar where successive rapporteurs faced stonewalling by many (but crucially not all) in the UN Country Team and Resident Coordinator office (UNCT and UNRC). For those agencies with “protection” mandates such as the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they are usually interpreted as protection from outside interference and the safety of budgets rather than actually helping other people.

When this analyst visited one previous SR at UN headquarters on Natmauk Road in Yangon some years ago, the rapporteur looked in frustration at a large poster of smiling happy people with the logo “One UN” and inquired which ‘one’?!? The SR had been frustrated by Country Team dissension over Rakhine State, where UN dysfunction was on full view even as mass atrocities continued. Things haven’t changed much in the 30 years of rapporteur efforts in Myanmar.

Half of the UN member states are in open warfare against the Human Rights Council: this is after all a world body where its two largest donors to counter-terrorism work are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two of the largest donors to international terrorism. Contradictions suffocate the UN. Some clarity and principle based around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is always a good tool to taunt rising right-wing populism around the world, and in trying to find a resolution to Myanmar’s horror-show. Technical UN agencies involved in humanitarian and development work continue their high-level engagement in Naypyitaw, regardless of how effective their entreaties are at ensuring access to affected populations and unfettered operational space: a central criticism of the OHCHR report that raised the ire of the SAC Mission in Geneva. In this case, it’s really only the SR and HRC reflecting the reality in Myanmar, not the operational agencies themselves.

Diplomats want to downgrade any human rights promotion, and see them as obstacles to elite settlements. Hush-hush interventions are perceived, with scant evidence, as being more effective. They are aided in these machinations by mercenary academic speculators and consultants who, if the price is right, will convince you that junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has the heart of a Hari Krishna. Distain for what is often sneeringly called “megaphone diplomacy” is widespread (who actually uses a megaphone?). These are all ancillary reasons to maintain the production of critical reports from rapporteurs and OHCHR. They are obviously needling the multiple actors who need to be reminded of the savagery of the SAC as they craft shifty deal-making.

But if international human rights activists want to send the regime into multiple conniptions they should make efforts to bolster domestic Myanmar human rights groups, such as the Karen Human Rights Group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and women’s rights groups and think-tanks. The Myanmar military is always more afraid of its own people than international justice. Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen may be confident in clinging onto power in the near term. But there must also be a nagging thought that their future could entail being dragged out of a drainage ditch on the outskirts of Pyinmina by soldiers of the Karenni National Defense Force (KNDF). As alluring as that image may be, another probability is that senior members of the SAC are toppled and face domestic justice, something they likely fear more than the ICJ and ICC.

Perhaps this is where Andrews, OHCHR and the IIMM could direct some more of their energy, in urging international donors to increase support for the Myanmar human rights movement and the media. Almost all UN human rights reports rely on a range of Myanmar researchers, civil society groups, multiple think-tanks and untold reliance on the media; as do INGOs who rarely give credit.

But the Myanmar media, especially, is being gutted by major Western donors. Depleting an interlocking civil society complex will reduce the amount of information available to international effort, and actively undermine the ability of Myanmar groups to report on contemporary events and compile information for future domestic justice initiatives. Failing to bolster, with core, long-term financial and genuine technical assistance, the Myanmar media will only serve the interests of overpaid foreign research outfits and by extension the SAC. It will also dilute the sources of information for UN human rights reporting.

Myanmar people young and old, rural or urban, and rich and poor (well, the rich prefer the military mostly) also know well the indisputable weakness that cuts across all dictators regardless of culture and ideology: they all hate being laughed at. So inject as much humor into exploiting the abundant absurdity of their thoroughly unconvincing defenses when confronted with their catalogue of crimes against humanity.

The litany of responses have their lighter sides, including this finale from the recent rebuttal of the OHCHR humanitarian restrictions report: “Due to time constraints, Myanmar could not make its comments on the remaining paragraphs. This does not mean that Myanmar agrees with these paragraphs; rather, it simply means that there was insufficient time to provide feedback.” Take that, world.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues in Myanmar.

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