By Farah Bogani, STAND Canada Blog Writer
Since 2011, the government of Myanmar has been undergoing political reform culminating in the November 2015 victory of Nobel Peace Prize recipient and ‘champion of human rights and democracy’: Aung San Suu Kyi. Her victory has been hailed as a turning point from repression to democracy even as persecution of the Rohingya has continued quietly in the background. The lack of outright international condemnation and strong commitment to action regarding the Rohingya is alarming, and it is due to heightened economic interests.
Economic, individual, and trade sanctions have been gradually lifted since the introduction of political reform in Myanmar with Canada lifting sanctions in April 2012, the EU lifting sanctions in April 2013, and more recently, the US lifting sanctions in December 2016 (although they have been slowly doing so since 2012) amidst claims of ‘substantial progress in human rights’. While most arms embargos remain in place, the lifted sanctions open up Myanmar’s untapped potential. The resource-rich nation poses lots of opportunities for countries to benefit economically through trade and investments in rubber, jade, rubies, timber, teak, oil, and gas. It also neighbours Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, and Thailand — countries that have seen rapid economic growth and possess large potential markets for foreign countries to get involved in, making Myanmar an ideal regional trading hub. Furthermore, overseas companies will be able to take advantage of new business partners, a large working-age population, and low cost of labour. While all these changes will help lead Myanmar to economic prosperity, they come at the expense of human rights. Many human rights organizations have decried the loss of leverage against a military that abuses innocent civilians and an incoming government that appears to be looking the other way.
For the international community to actively invest in and trade with Myanmar is to tacitly condone efforts in ethnic cleansing and genocidal policies. International leaders have been distracted by claims of democratic reform and economic benefits, even as the government obscures the reality of the Rohingya. Recently, the government has dismissed photos of the ‘Rohingya Alan Kurdi’: a toddler named Mohammed Shohayet found face-down on a river bank after having drowned in an attempt to escape to Bangladesh. The government has shown a dangerous trend towards propaganda, warning of “fake news” being circulated about the Rohingya even as they ignore how the Rohingya have been stripped of their citizenship and rendered stateless; thrown into internment camps; subjected to physical abuse, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and murder; referred to by state media in genocidal terms such as ‘detestable human fleas’ who are ‘loathe for their stench and for sucking our [the Myanmar people’s] blood’; and forced to flee across borders even though surrounding states such as Bangladesh have policies to turn back refugees.
Most recently in October 2016, the military began a supposedly lawful counter-insurgency operation in the northwestern State of Rakhine in response to a group of Rohingya fighters who are considered responsible for fatal attacks on police border posts. However, the crackdown has been extreme; approximately 65,000 Rohingya have been forced to cross into Bangladesh from Myanmar and there have been reports of the military committing arson, murder, rape, and unlawful detention. Even within Myanmar’s own borders, the policy of ethnic cleansing has provided the military financial incentive to seize Rohingya land for their own agri-business deals with private firms. The situation is made even worse by Myanmar blocking humanitarian aid and assistance since the crackdown, leaving the Rohingya without food, shelter, and medicine. While states have issued statements for the resumption of aid, action to actually do so remains non-existent.
As Myanmar pursues new economic opportunities, countries looking to trade and invest should not ignore the implications of doing so. Their economic support not only backs a military that has been enriched by years of repressive rule and still retains an alarming degree of power today, but also legitimizes a government that has made no move to stop the Rohingya genocide. Unless the international community makes an effort for deeper engagement, and uses their renewed relations and economic ties to outright condemn and hold the Myanmar government responsible, the Rohingya risk becoming another chapter in a long global history of ‘never again’s.
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