With the international community developing deeper economic interests in Myanmar, the Rohingya’s struggle is only going to become tougher.
The metaphorical stick has been holstered and foreign direct investment (FDI) in Myanmar is exploding. According to a report by the Oxford Business Group, FDI this financial year is likely to more than double that of last year’s to US$3.5 billion. And the latest carrot fed to the regime was in the form of a $US2 billion injection from the World Bank to help improve access to energy and healthcare.
But the country’s ‘opening up’ and the easing and removal of sanctions haven’t coincided with an improved human rights record. The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, a systematically subjected to a smorgasbord of human rights abuses designed to intimidate, displace and kill. And the violence is backed and propagated by the government whose Buddhist nationalist rhetoric demonises all Muslims as violent, defective criminals.
Since Myanmar has been welcomed back into the ‘community of nations’ the Rohingya have been subjected to daily racism and persecution; it’s worth reflecting on some of the worst atrocities carried out by Buddhist vigilantes and security forces, drunk on the regimes lies and safe in the knowledge that they’ll not be prosecuted.
The Rohingya have faced discrimination for decades, but tensions escalated in May 2012 when reports circulated that a young Buddhist woman had been raped and killed by three Muslim men. In early June a group of Buddhist men retaliated by stopping a bus and killing ten Muslim’s onboard while security forces watched on. This led to widespread riots in which 40 people were killed and entire villages were razed. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), over 100,000 Rohingya were displaced and had access to aid, shelter and medical assistance blocked by the government. In their report titled “’The Government Could Have Stopped This’: Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Violence in Burma’s Arakan State’, HRW detailed the government’s culpability in the riots.
In many ways the violence and persecution of the Rohingya is a test case for the Burmese government: the international community has set guidelines for dealing with sectarian conflicts; certain standards must be met; human rights are to be respected and state-sanction violence has to be a thing of the past. This is the line one hears parroted from the United States and the European Union anyway. And by any of these measures the Burmese government has failed. But this didn’t stop the United States and the European Union commending its newest hope in Asia for its handling of the 2012 riots. The US embassy’s charge d’afaires in Myanmar, Michael Thurston, made this extraordinary claim to Reuters that misrepresented the Burmese government as some kind of humanitarian exemplar: “This is something we would not have seen in the past. The government is trying to help everybody who needs it whether that is Rakhine Buddhists or Muslims.”
These comments augured the West’s complicity in the violence against the Rohingya, which since then has become a daily struggle for those trapped in the displacement camps. The United States and her allies may preach a doctrine of universal human rights, but her response to the riots demonstrate just how subjective that doctrine can be. Time and again, the rhetoric of humanitarianism and the actions that follow serve simply to further the interests of the powerful by exploiting the weak.
The situation in the Arakan State has been getting progressively worse since the riots, largely because the government continues to promote Buddhist nationalism; implicit in this message is that security forces and villagers can murder, rape, maim and torture Muslims with impunity. And Thein Sein’s regime, aware that the rise in FDI offers them a certain amount of protection, has become more brazen in their marginalisation of the Rohingya; often acting in violation of international law and even audaciously challenging the UN and NGOs. Their rap sheet includes: imposing a draconian two-child policy and marriage restrictions on the Rohingya; expelling Médecins Sans Frontières and denying healthcare to the sick; withholding aid; refusing to investigate the death of 48 Muslims and accusing the United Nations of fabricating the reports; standing by while villagers attacked the offices of NGOs, which led to their evacuation and, just last month, refusing to recognise the Rohingya in the census, despite earlier assurances to the UN that they would.
This is just a précis and fails to convey the fear that many Rohingya Muslims have to live with everyday; they are forced to live in camps like prisoners, guarded by the security forces that have carried out attacks against them and surrounded by villagers who’ve murdered their friends and family. Many have lost their homes and everything they own; many have tried to flee, only to be told they’re not wanted. In some cases, the tales of those who flee are just as tragic as those who are forced to stay. Reuters has reported that many Rohingya refugees who flee to Thailand find themselves imprisoned in jungle gulags by human traffickers who extort money from them or, if they can’t pay, sell them into labour or prostitution.
The easing and lifting of sanctions on Burma has little to do with human rights or democracy; rather, it’s to do with the fact that the Burmese regime is – to borrow a cliché used by smug politicians and economists who seem to think the phrase has only positive implications – ‘open for business’ (the page scowls at me even as I type it). One of the favourite myths of the neo-liberal ideologues in the West is that the surest way for developing nations to transform their economies is to do away with the strictures of protectionism. What they neglect to say is that almost all of the world’s largest economies, including Great Britain and the United States, got where they are today through policies that go against the neo-liberalism they now champion. And these powers work in alliance with the three big international economic organisations to peddle this myth: the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
It’s a fallacy that these nations and organisations are benign; the only reason the sanctions against Myanmar have been lifted and investors allowed into the country is because the government agreed to the neo-liberal agenda dictated by the powers that be. For them, Burma – a country that is so far behind much of the developed world because of years of political mismanagement and sanctions imposed on them – presents an enormous opportunity.
Myanmar desperately needs investment in health, energy, housing, telecommunications and other large-scale projects. There’s also been an influx of tourists, not to mention potential export markets for rice and wood. But perhaps most alluring is the large oil and gas reserves that have, until now, gone largely untapped. As these resources become increasingly important, countries like Myanmar will become even more important in satisfying the developed world’s energy demands. And with China on the rise and America in decline, Myanmar inadvertently finds herself enjoying a level of geopolitical significance she’s never before known; for if the US continued to try and keep Burma isolated, China and India would have inevitably moved in more aggressively and potentially left nothing for the global hegemon to pilfer.
So where does this leave the Rohingya? From what we’ve already seen, and from what we know from history, their slaughter is likely to continue with international sanction. The hypocrisy of the West means that the Rohingya are more likely to get support from the international community if the regime interferes in a way that would be financially detrimental to the ‘great’ powers. And this is certainly not out of the realms of possibility; the World Bank has warned that it will withdraw its US$2 billion aid package if it sees any sign of government corruption. Many of the top brass that were in power during the military junta’s rule still hold senior posts within the government; these are the people who were so incompetent and corrupt that they dragged a country that was one of the richest in South East Asia to the point of ruin in less than a decade.
But it doesn’t say much for the West that, when putting crimes in order of gravity, ripping us off slots in above ethnic cleansing. The more likely outcome is that the West will continue to deny the seriousness of the situation so we can protect our investments.
The word ‘genocide’ has become so politicised and degraded that it’s now too often employed as propaganda ploy. Nevertheless, governments and the UN have certain obligations if they deem the crimes being committed against the Rohingya constitute genocide. Now, whether they do or not is outside the scope of this essay, but it ought to be noted that HRW have referred to the violence as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and Genocide Watch have expressed serious concerns at the current state of affairs. But surely if the semantics even warrant analysis the violence has already gone too far?
But the West has a shameful record on the question of genocide, and we’ve repeatedly applied it and denied it to best serve our interests. The twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide has just been commemorated, a tragedy that took the lives of up to 1,000,000 people. One may well remember the State Department’s refusal to call the Tutsi slaughter by its rightful name; the footage of spokesperson, Christine Shelley, writhing to explain how many ‘acts of genocide’ constitute ‘genocide’ should be a reminder of just how slippery the world’s policeman can be when their own interests are at stake.
After losing eighteen soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993 the Clinton administration feared what losing more US troops would do for his popularity. So when violence broke out in Rwanda in 1994 the US President had one eye trained on his approval ratings; the problem he faced was that the Genocide Convention demands intervention. Hence the administration’s refusal to use the g-word.
This doesn’t bode well for the Rohingya; the level of hatred and suspicion of them within Myanmar is higher than ever and, for this reason, if they’re to receive any kind of relief it will have to come from other countries and international organisations. But instead of using Myanmar’s recent economic improvements as leverage, the international community (led inevitably by the US) has shown time and again that they’ll sooner protect their assets than human lives. It may again take the form of denying genocide, but the reality is that it if it gets that far it will already be too late. The world is already failing the Rohingya.