As Violence Against the Oppressed Rohingya Grows, Trump and Corporate America Look the Other Way

A policy toward Myanmar that started under the Obama years continues into the Trump administration.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar waiting for food aid in Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Photo Credit: Hafiz Johari / Shutterstock.com

Since August 25, it has been reported that an estimated 400,000 Rohingya have fled the region of Rakhine in Burma after a vicious cycle of violence. The crackdown comes in light of the attacks on Burmese security forces and checkpoints by alleged Arakan militants. The Burmese government has justified its relentless slash-and-burn crackdown on the Rohingya in the name of fighting terrorism from spreading across the region of Rakhine.

According to the United Nations, the Rohingya is one of the most persecuted groups in the world, with close to no civil or political rights. The Rohingya’s plight first came to prominence in June 2012 when violence between Burmese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine region left dozens of people dead and thousands of Rohingya homeless and fleeing their homes into neighboring Bangladesh.

Since then, bursts of violence against the Rohingya have been a common occurrence with this latest wave of attacks arguably being the most catastrophic. Over 1,000 people are reported to have been killed by the military and police forces. Harrowing satellite images show some 200 Rohingya villages burnt to the ground since the crisis began.

While outrage across the world is overwhelmingly unanimous, the Trump White House has chosen to stay rather lethargic in its reaction to the tragedy engulfing the Rohingya. In a statement, the White House condemned the violence but fell short of denouncing the Burmese military or its de facto civilian leader, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aside from relatively strongly worded messages from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence, who both called on the Burmese military to cease the violent attacks against the Rohingya, Trump has tiptoed around the issue. His dismissive attitude was demonstrated at the U.N when he briefly met with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who raised the issue of the Rohyingya but walked away concluding that help from the U.S. president was unlikely to come.

While Trump’s apathetic behavior is concerning, the legacy of America’s dismal response to the crisis in Rakhine goes back to the previous administration of Barack Obama, whose friendly political and economic gestures toward Suu Kyi set the tone for American policy on the Rohingya.   

Over the course of two decades, relations between the Burmese state and successive White House administrations gradually soured due to the military junta’s absolute control over Burmese affairs. Suu Kyi, who opposed the junta’s status quo, was placed under house arrest for 15 years for her struggles to democratize the country. She became a global human rights icon as a result, especially in the West, where she was hailed by figures from Bono to Hillary Clinton as a courageous freedom fighter.

With rising demand in her country to do away with military dictatorship, and support from U.S and U.K. governments, Burma held its first elections in 2011, making Suu Kyi the leader of the opposition. The Obama White House took credit for the results, with former Secretary of State Clinton calling the historic move a personal achievement.

However, with her handling of the Rohingya, few now see Suu Kyi as worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, and some are demanding she be stripped of the honor. As the violence against the Rohingya escalates, Suu Kyi has gone out of her way to defend the Burmese government’s actions, refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing on its part.

Her prejudices have been on prominent display since at least 2015, when she banned any Rohingya from running for office on her party’s platform. Shortly after coming to power, she banned the term "Rohingya" from being used by the government, claiming its use would promote unnecessary social divisions.

Suu Kyi’s support for the military’s actions revealed the continued influence of the former junta regime and military officers over the country’s affairs, especially around the Rohingya issue. The 2008 constitution drafted by the military guarantees the armed forces 25% of seats in parliament as well as the privilege to appoint major cabinet posts like defense and border affairs. But the political space between Suu Kyi and the generals has always been overestimated in the West.

According to Burmese dissident and academic Maung Zarni, there is little difference between Suu Kyi and her military colleagues.  

“Both the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi sing from the same Buddhist nationalist hymn book and their vision of Burma does not have much space for Muslims, and no space for Rohingyas,” Zarni recently told the Dhaka Tribune.

'Her stance is nothing less than 100% genocidal'

The Obama administration did its best to avoid directly criticizing Suu Kyi, increasing cooperation with the previous and current governments by bolstering bilateral economic and trade ties.

In October 2016, the U.S government removed a large set of economic sanctions after the Burmese government terminated a national state of emergency that had been in place since 1997.

The following month, a high-profile delegation led by members of the U.S State Department visited Burma as part of the U.S- Myanmar partnership to bolster business prospects in the country. The move was also seen as a rebuke to China and part of larger geopolitical campaign to ramp up the U.S presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Yet around the same time, violence broke out in Rakhine, with an attack on a military checkpoint by alleged Rohingya militants that prompted a massive military crackdown on the Rohingya, once again forcing thousands to flee their homes.

Meanwhile, the increasing presence of American companies in Myanmar has provoked a backlash from human rights advocates that accuse the U.S businesses of complicity in the tragedies facing the Rohingya. One of the biggest American corporate players in the country, Chevron, announced in 2015 its plans for exploration of the Rakhine Basin; an untapped site seen as part of the numerous potential Myanmar offers in terms of natural resources, especially oil. The move has been incredibly unpopular in light of the onslaught on the Rohingya.   

At a shareholders meeting in May this year, a first-time proposal was put forth that pushed Chevron to end its ties with the Burmese government. The resolution was voted for by 6% of shareholders, twice the number needed to file a proposal for a second consecutive year.

The company’s response so far has been rather dismissive. “To date, Chevron has not taken any steps to address our concerns,” Simon Billenness, executive director of International Campaign for the Rohingya told AlterNet.

On August 31, investors with approximately $30 billion of assets under management wrote Chevron again in the light of the Burmese army's new offensive against Rohingya communities in Burma. So far, Billenness says he has not any response to this recent letter.

Any move to pressure the U.S government to pressure the giant corporation—which donated $500,000 on Trump’s inauguration—to reevaluate its work in Burma is very likely to fail. Moreover, Trump’s hostile rhetoric about Muslims both at home and abroad strongly suggest that the president is unlikely to undo the Obama era policy of looking the other way.

The Trump administration has banned immigrants and refugees, albeit partially, from 6 Muslim countries, part of a campaign promise in which he proposed to ban all immigration from Muslim majority nations.

Last week Human Rights Watch reported that last August only 913 refugees were admitted compared to 13,255 in August 2016. The demographics of those has also shifted with only 24% Muslims admitted compared to 46% last year. Such numbers only spell dread for the Rohingya, who already face an uphill task escaping the state-perpetrated violence of the Burmese government.

“Rohingya have been denied citizenship and are stateless in Myanmar because of the 1982 Citizenship Act that denied their citizenship” said Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the UNHCR representative in Canada.

“In addition to denial of citizenship, Rohingya face discriminatory laws and practices such as restriction on freedom of movement, forced labour, and arbitrary taxation. Unless their situation is improved in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya will continue to flee to other countries in the region and beyond.”

Beuze added that globally, “the number of resettlement places is currently very low: less than 8% of the refugees globally identified as in need of resettlement will be given this solution this year.”

With Trump taking a hardline position against refugees, the idea of the U.S. providing sanctuary to Rohingya seems like a distant fantasy.

An outpouring of popular solidarity

Perhaps the only promising aspect of an otherwise calamitous tragedy has been the worldwide recognition of the persecution facing the Rohingya, a people whose appeals for protection and justice made few headlines in the past. Protests across the world from Canada to Indonesia show that solidarity with the Rohingya is growing.

“Last year at this time most people didn't even know who the Rohingya were or that there was even a crisis,” said Ahmed Ramadan, spokesperson of the Burma Task Force in Canada, a North American civil rights group advocating for the rights of the Rohingya people.

Ramadan believes the group’s persistent work to bring information and analysis to government officials and city councillors has succeeded in bringing the increased level of attention he believes the situation requires. He described how this month, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland attended a Rohingya solidarity rally organized by the BTF in Toronto, calling it an “unprecedented move.”

In the U.S, Ramadan pointed to protests in Chicago and Boston, as well as many organizations now joining the BTF in coordinating efforts, including the Council of American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America.

“It was extremely disappointing not to see any media coverage for such a horrible crisis,” Anwar S. Arakani, a Rohingya and long-time activist now living in Canada, told AlterNet. “Even though there were some occasional coverage, momentum died down soon.”

However, Arakani feels that the recent wave of violence against the Rohingya has been hard to ignore. He credits a surge of attention on social media for the increasing awareness of the issue.

Yet he strongly asserts that “we also must do everything possible to keep the momentum alive,” a reasonable demand considering how the Rohingya have often been sidelined in favor of cynical corporate resource grabs and geopolitical machinations.

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance writer and researcher who has previously written for Mic News, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, and others. He is a founding member of the consulting group 416LABS. He can be reached on Twitter at @UsaidMuneeb16.

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