August 2017

Action on the Rohingya issue needs to be louder than empty words since Muslim and non-Muslim governments won’t help.

The world has turned a blind eye away from the plight of the Rohingyas.

By Siddiq Bazarwala

If the Rohingyas are not getting killed in repeated bouts of sectarian violence with local Buddhists mobs armed with metal bars, sticks and machetes, they are risking their lives on rickety boats run by criminal gangs of human traffickers across the Andaman Sea in desperate bids to flee persecution and poverty.

Alternatively, they are risking just as much by illegally crossing into Bangladesh where they are just as much un-welcomed and forever considered unregistered refugees. For those turning back, they face the danger of landmines planted by the Myanmar military along the barbed-wire fence at the border or the horror of burned down villages.

After spending nearly 15 years under house arrest, Aung Sung Su Kyi however clearly understands Myanmar more than anyone else.

Suu Kyi, who the Norwegian Nobel Committee called “an important symbol in the struggle against oppression”, is often branded by supporters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Ma Ba Tha, an ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement as either “too sympathetic to international interests” or accused of being “pro-Muslim”.

Ma Ba Tha meanwhile is no longer a loose collection of monks linked to the two anti-Rohingya pogroms in 2012 described by Human Rights Watch as “crimes against humanity” in which state agencies simply stood by but is today, an organised political force with growing political clout considering how Buddhists account for 88 percent of Myanmar’s population. A few years ago, a package of four discriminatory “race protection bills” drafted by Ma Ba Tha, was signed into law consolidating further restrictions of the rights of women and religious minorities, specifically Muslims in Myanmar.

As a result and to avoid publicly confronting hardliners in USDP who are keen on taking back power from the hands of the people and Ma Ba Tha, Su Kyi has not only shied away from speaking up for the Rohingyas (who have been in present-day Burma since 1799) but as a former prisoner of conscience herself, has warned foreign media not to “exaggerate” their plight. Her office has even gone as far as to imply the UN and other international aid agencies are helping what the government called “extremist Bengali terrorists”.

This in response to clear statements by none other than the United Nations that the Rohingya Muslims are “the world’s most persecuted minority”, demonstrating how the much celebrated democracy icon is today simply a cynical politician who is putting party political interests ahead of principles.

In the end, the unfolding crisis cannot be solved with hashtags, gifs and tweets. Letters to Consul Generals who report to none other than Su Kyi, the country’s foreign minister will collect dust and nothing more.

However many people signing an online petition asking the Nobel committee to rescind the prize awarded to Su Kyi in 1991 for her democratic activism and actually having the prize rescinded will also serve little.

Nor will solidarity marches or the throwing of petrol bombs at Myanmar’s embassies by mobs in Muslim-majority countries ever achieve anything either.

Repeated donor conventions by Muslim and non-Muslim countries to discuss the plight of Rohingyas in Myanmar will lead to nothing more than wooden statements often vapourising into oblivion.

As an example, half a million unregistered refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh are herded into makeshift camps that are nearly on par with what they left behind in Rakhine, minus the death threat. To resolve or rather absolve themselves off the issue, Bangladesh much to the horror of civil rights groups has proposed to relocate them to Thengar Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, prone to flooding especially during the monsoon season.

Meanwhile, the offering by Turkey to lend financial support for Bangladesh provided it opens its doors to Rohingyas is albeit a temporary solution but considering how Turkey itself has received billions from EU to help stem the flow of Syrian refugees and has yet not found a permanent solution to its own enlarged refugee crisis begs the question as to how this myopic financial incentive is likely to help either.

Following years of delay, a 771-kilometre oil pipeline went into operation in April 2017 and today carries up to 200,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Middle East into China’s Yunnan Province via Burma’s Rakhine state.

Therefore Saudi Arabia too, is not likely to do more than issue empty statements and supply humanitarian aid in order to protect the physical security of the pipeline.

Ideally, the enormity of the crimes being committed should be tabled by the international community with the Security Council at the United Nations, pressured into calling for political, military and economic sanctions against clearly, one of the world’s most repressive regimes. But China, Russia and India will block any attempt towards it

What more can be done to help, an exhausted question arises.

In the West, Asia and elsewhere therefore, an asset freeze and visa ban against military personnel should firmly be in place, instead of rolling out the red carpet for the Tatmadaw or military personnel from Myanmar. This includes U.S Treasury Department assigning the country’s senior military leadership on its Specially Designated Nationals List, barring access to U.S. financial institutions.

With the ongoing EU arms embargo on Myanmar, sanctions should also be extended to state-owned enterprises, especially those controlled by the country’s military such as Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), among others.

The sanctions should range from expansion on existing arms embargoes, military sales, assistance and training as well as scrutinising arms exports into Myanmar by the re-routing of shipments using murky companies and complicated paper trail via China, the country’s largest military supplier.

As part of the 10-country ASEAN grouping, all financial institutions from across ASEAN including a key financial center for the region, Singapore should withhold all funding particularly in the oil, gas, power, telecom and manufacturing sectors let alone or at the very least, unwind its balance sheet exposure to Myanmar. Relevant consultancies ranging from infrastructure to telecoms should also be barred from providing their services to Myanmar until it ceases its human rights abuses.

Considering how the oil, gas, power, telecom and manufacturing sectors account for 80 percent of the country’s annual FDI stock, the threat for sanctions in these critical industries should at least be tabled until the Myanmar government pledges to genuinely revoke all discriminatory laws and policies aimed towards minorities.

Aid workers, NGOs, journalists and diplomats let alone UN investigators should also not be denied visas into Myanmar or access to any part of Rakhine to investigate abuse and allowed to speak to any refugees without prior screening by Myanmar’s military personnel.

Put simply, unless the government of Myanmar adopts a major change in its policy towards the Rohingyas, support and finance from the international community needs to be conditional. In fact, the recommendations of the UN-backed Kofi Annan’s commission must be implemented immediately and in full, without using the report findings as a cover to delay suppressive policies against the Rohingyas.

Given the obvious lack of political will to act by all Muslim and non-Muslim countries vested in emerging market Myanmar, empty words expressing token condemnation and lazily calling for restraint will not change the status quo, in effect clearing the path for Myanmar to carry out its genocidal intents, unless ordinary Muslims and non-Muslims rise up and act themselves.