While Rohingya Muslims Are Ethnically Cleansed, Obama Quietly Lifts Sanctions on Burma
While the world remains distracted by President Elect Donald Trump’s deranged antics, President Barack Obama has quietly lifted a set of sanctions of the Myanmar government last month. The move represents a major step towards the normalization of relations with a regime openly involved in destroying one of the most marginalized groups in the world.
Over the past four years, the Burmese government, in cahoots with xenophobic Buddhist nationalist movements, has committed severe atrocities against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, displacing thousands and claiming the lives of dozens of innocent civilians. In the recent spat of violence, human rights groups have accused the Burmese army of having “conducted a campaign of rape, killings and arson” against the Rohingya.
Regarded as a courageous champion democracy and human rights by Western elites, Burmese State Counselor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi banned the use of the term Rohingya last year in a clear attempt to appease anti-Muslim elements in the country.
The Obama administration announced on December 2 the lifting of a ban that previously withheld American aid to the Buddhist majority country (receiving close to no coverage in mainstream press), justifying the move by asserting the country had made “substantial improvement in improving human rights”. The claim is perplexing considering the ongoing violent onslaught against the Rohingya people.
The American business lobby is also desperate to see trade sanction removed wherever possible. According to John Goyer, director for Southeast Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce told the Financial Times that with free and fair elections taking place and an allegedly “free media”, trade sanctions were no longer applicable.
“These were all benchmarks that the United States identified as key to moving the relationship forward,” he told the Times in May. “Those benchmarks have been met, and in our view, it is time to normalize the relationship”
Since diplomatic relations with Burma and the US resumed in 2012 after Burma’s first successful democratic election in 2011 after decades of military rule, Obama’s government has regularly collaborated with the Burmese government to boost corporate business ties between the two countries. This included the recent formation of the US-Myanmar partnership, a multi-sector corporate trade agreement announced in September this year when Suu Kyi was on her visit to the US.
According to a media note put out by the US State Department on November 15, an American delegation that arrived in Burma in to hash out the details of the initiative made no mention of the Rohingya but simply alluded to “exchanging views” on place around “Rakhine state issues”. The meeting took place at the height of the conflict, around the time the Burmese state suspended aid to Rohingya refugees provided by the UN.
Obama’s economic outreach to Burma is part of his pivot to Asia, a move encapsulated by the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) (Burma is not a member of the TPP), an ambitious trade agreement that under the incoming administration is as good as dead. Obama insistence on the TPP is a push against China’s assertiveness and posturing in East Asia as they consolidate their influence in the region.
Charles Rivkin, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs in an interview told the LA Times in August that Burma’s strategic location made it an ideal country to bolster trade relations with “its geography is going to be, by 2025, within 5 hours of half of the world’s consumer”. “It's a $63-billion economy, but it really could be the crossroads between Southeast Asia and South Asia. And so is it open for investment? The answer is yes” he told the Times.
Meanwhile, human rights advocates witnessing the Rohingya crisis are unlikely to be enthused by Obama’s pro-corporate, pro-business overtures to Burma.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) head John McKissick at Cox Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh recently called the purge by the Burmese government an ‘ethnic cleansing’ in progress, and that security forces were "killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river" .
An investigation by the UN was recently called when after allegations of grave crimes committed by the Burmese forces unleashing a deadly crackdown on the Rohingya - after an attack on three security posts took place on October 9, allegedly by Rohingya “terrorists”.
Collective punishment under the watch of Aung San Suu Kyi
The UN’s own work providing aid to the Rohingya has been hindered by the Burmese government over the past two months since the hostilities began, as the Aung San Suu Kyi-led administration suspended relief to some 160,000 people displaced in recent years by the ongoing conflict.
“We appeal for calm and for humanitarian access to assess and meet the needs of thousands of people who have reportedly been displaced from their homes by the ongoing security operation,” said Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR spokesperson last month. “The affected population is believed to be in urgent need of food, shelter and medical care”.
Thousands of Rohingya have fled the violence prone region, with as many as 21,000 people escaping into neighboring Bangladesh in recent months. Though some camps have been setup to accommodate the incoming Rohingya, the Bangladesh army pushed back on the incoming Rohingya. According to Amnesty’s South Asia director Champa Patel, “The Rohingya are being squeezed by the callous actions of both the Burmese [Myanmar] and Bangladesh authorities”.
“Fleeing collective punishment in Burma, they are being pushed back by the Bangladesh authorities” Champa added. “Trapped between these cruel fates, their desperate need for food, water and medical care is not being addressed.”
Despite UNHCR’s pledge to help the Bangladeshi government to accommodate the fleeing Rohingya, the response has been less than compassionate. Bangladesh’s reluctance likely arises from their previous dealings with the Rohingya where over 200,000 Rohingya entered the country in 1978 fleeing the repressive policies of the then Burmese government. In 2012, Bangladesh Prime Minister adamantly said the Rohingya issue was not the Bangladesh government’s responsibility due to the country being overpopulated itself.
While the Burmese government is justifying its actions in the alleged pursuit of Islamic militants, this claim is suspect at best.
“There is absolutely no credibility in the claim made by Aung San Suu Kyi government,” Maung Zarni told me. Zami is a longtime critic of the Burmese government and an advisor to the Center for the Study of Extremism in Cambridge, UK. According to Zarni, men “armed with only sticks, swords and homemade guns, attacking 3 armed border guard posts” did not amount to terrorism by any definition.
However, he cautioned against “possible future terrorist attacks” that maybe imminent as the situation becomes “fully visible to the Islamic world, as well as the larger international community of world citizens”.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) asserts the government has consistently denied independent analysts and journalists access to the affected areas. According to Brad Adams of HRW, “A government with nothing to hide should have no problem granting access to journalists and human rights investigators”.
However, the Burmese government's harping on about Islamist terrorism are hardly surprising and wholly predictable. In the post 9/11 era, states (such as China, India and Israel) at odds with their Muslim minority populations often invoke the Islamophobic Muslim terrorism threat to mask their own oppressive overtures against Muslims.
While atrocities against the Rohingya carry on endlessly, world powers remain largely preoccupied, as the civil war in Syria and the election of Trump dominate the headlines.
As for Burma’s de facto leader Suu Kyi, her position on the situation in Rakhine only seems to harden as the situation worsens.
“Show me a country that does not have human rights issues” she said at press conference in October. In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, the anchor pointedly asked her about the Rohingya but she refused to use the group’s name in her response and instead equated the Rohingya’s suffering with that of Rakhine Buddhists. Though Rakhine Buddhists have certainly suffered in the violence that has ensued, the devastation faced by the Rohingya is unprecedented, especially since the group is officially an illegal entity in the country.
Furthermore, in the same interview she seemed to be providing cover to the xenophobic sentiment directed towards the Rohingya by asserting the alleged demographic threat many Buddhists in Rakhine fear from the presence of the Rohingya – a statement eerily similar to the rhetoric of the Israeli government about Palestinians.
Anti-Rohingya forces hail Trump
The coronation of Trump as the next president is almost unlikely to make any positive headway into resolving the issue. Trump has not made any known mention of the conflict previously - yet many anti-Rohingya forces are hailing his election.
“Public security is the most important consideration/Donald Trump is the real leader/People love him so much/Nationalism is the priority,” wrote Ashwin Wirathu, a prominent monk and leader of the xenophobic Buddhist nationalist group 969 on his Facebook account. “May US citizens be free from jihad. May the world be free of bloodshed” he added. Wirathu has also stated that the real estate billionaire was “similar to me”.
A representative for Myanmar President Htin Kyaw said he thought relations between the two countries would improve with Trump in the White House.
“I believe that the relationship between the USA and Burma can only get better under President Trump,” said President Office’s Deputy-director Zaw Htay, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma.
Despite the international community’s lack of concern, human rights organizations and researchers continue raise the alarm over a situation that some say is on the brink of a genocide.
“Dehumanization through rampant hate speech, the denial of citizenship, and restrictions on freedom of movement…put this population at grave risk of additional mass atrocities and even genocide” said researchers in a paper published in 2015 on the conflict by the Simon-Skojdt Center For The Prevention of Genocide at the U.S Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. The report claimed that all the signs of genocide were present and an immediate need to address the issue was essential.
Now nearly two years onwards, the reports most freighting predictions are looking increasingly plausible.