The Muslim Rohingya people of Myanmar have long undergone systematic discrimination in a country with a bleak human rights record. However, the latest pogrom of violence and ethnic cleansing against the minority group has crossed even traditional bounds of cruelty.
The campaign against the extremely poor and defenceless Rohingyas at the hands of the Buddhist Rakhine majority, and with the tacit or direct support of the government, arrived at a particularly uncomfortable time for western countries. To offset uncontested Chinese economic influence in Myanmar, the US and its allies decided to change course. On July 11, the White House removed most of the sanctions it had imposed on the once-isolated country. It also lifted restrictions on direct US investments in Myanmar.
The successive friendly gestures towards a country that was, until recently, ruled by notorious military juntas, has been justified on the basis of Myanmar’s audacious leap towards democracy. The democratic reforms were exemplified by Aung San Suu Kyi’s winning of a parliamentary seat and by her arrival in Oslo to receive the Noble Peace Prize, which she was awarded more than 20 years ago. While some in the media duly hailed these events, noting the virtues and effectiveness of US sanctions, others candidly spoke of the underlying reasons for Western turnabout regarding Myanmar.
Myanmar is a deeply impoverished country, but its untapped wealth is unimaginable — especially when compared to its neighbouring countries and the alarming rate at which they are depleting their natural resources. China was a major beneficiary of Myanmar’s riches, oblivious to US sanctions and peculiar alliances. This is no longer the case. The US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, has been on a mission to mend old alliances and establish new ones. A few gestures celebrating democratic reforms are enough to busy the media while large corporations plot their moves. It is telling that on the very day of easing of US sanctions, Britain also joined the scramble for Myanmar.
‘The Race to Myanmar’ was actually the title of a June 13 article in the ‘Wall Street Journal’, and the Bloomberg Business Week ran a feature about the ‘Race for Rangoon’ on July 3. “The gold rush for Myanmar has begun,” wrote Alex Spillius in the ‘Guardian’, noting that the UK and US are leading the pack of investors through the opening of a trade office in Myanmar. “Its aim is to forge links with one of the last unexploited markets in Asia, a country blessed by ample resources of hydro-carbons, minerals, gems and timber, not to mention a cheap labour force, which — thanks to years of isolation and sanctions — is near-virgin territory for foreign investors.”
But of course there is that pesky problem of ethnic cleansing of a minority group. By UN estimates, 800,000 Rohingyas currently live in Myanmar. They are undergoing a massive pogrom aimed at ridding the country of the ‘Kalar’ — a racist slur applied to dark-skinned people from the Indian subcontinent. “The Rohingyas … face some of the worst discrimination in the world,” reported Reuters on July 4, citing rights groups. UK-based Equal Rights Trust indicated that the killing is not merely due to ethnic clashes, but actually involves active government participation. “From June 16 onwards, the military became more actively involved in committing acts of violence and other human rights abuses against the Rohingya, including killings and mass-scale arrests of Rohingya men and boys in North Rakhine State.” The massive campaign was supposedly a response to the raping and killing of a Rakhine woman on May 28, allegedly by three Rohingya men. The collective punishment of an entire ethnic group, however, indicates a level of ingrained racism that dates back many years.
Not only does the targeting of the country’s minorities continue with little remorse, but the pogrom received a boost from the country’s president Thein Sein, who told the UN that the Rohingyas could choose between one of two options: “refugee camps or deportation.” According to ABC Australia, Thein Sein offered to send the Rohingyas away “if any third country would accept them.” Just days after providing a political discourse for genocide, Thein Sein met Hillary Clinton in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to discuss business opportunities between his country and the US.
While the deadly targeting of the Rohingya people has evoked little international action — no emergency Security Council sessions have taken place so far — it also provided a rare, although disturbing moment of unity between various sectors of Myanmarese society. The pro-democracy groups and individuals that dazzled western media when they resisted the four-decade military rule of the junta are either vulgarly racist or remain tight-lipped about the devastating war on the Rohingyas. Writing in the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on July 8, Hanna Hindstrom reported that one pro-democracy group stated on Twitter that “[t]he so-called Rohingya are liars,” while another social media user said, “We must kill all the kalar”. Apart from expressing concerns, the National League for Democracy in Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s political party, has done very little,
Scouring major Arab and Muslim media regarding the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, I found very little worth noting. On July 13, the Aljazeera Arabic website broke the silence, but only to publish an article summarising a ‘New York Times’ op-ed by Moshahida Sultana Ritu titled ‘Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar’.
Official Muslim action has also been embarrassingly lacking. Bashful statements finally culminated in a letter sent to Suu Kyi by the head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu urged “newly elected lawmakers to convince the government to accept ‘an international inquiry into the recent violence,’” according to AFP — a strange request considering the economic leverage of Myanmar’s Muslim neighbours. They could easily apply direct pressure on the government to bring the pogrom to a halt. It is important to note that Muslim-majority countries like Bangladesh have shut its borders on Rohingya refugees.
Expectedly, with little or no efforts to end the massacres, the ethnic cleansing continues unabated. On July 12, Radio Free Europe reported on recent horrors: “Burmese helicopter set fire to three boats carrying nearly 50 Muslim Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in western Myanmar in an attack that is believed to have killed everyone on board.”
The tragic attitude of simply looking the other way must immediately change if human rights matter in the least.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.