In Myanmar, the echo of empty words

opinion November 22, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

As the Asia-Europe Meeting opens, there is only pessimism that foreign pressure might halt the assault on the Rohingya

The foreign ministers of Eastern and Western countries are gathered in Nay Pyi Taw this week for the latest Asia-Europe Meeting. It’s an interesting location, given the horror unfolding not far to the west, in Rakhine state. We should be able to hope that there is at least no excuse for the ministers not to address the “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” – as a United Nations official has called it – being pursued by host Myanmar. But then, hopes are often dashed.

Still further west, across the border in Bangladesh, more than 600,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic community find themselves living the hellish lives of stateless refugees, safe for now from systematic persecution by the Myanmar government and military but wholly uncertain of what the future might hold. In the disease-infested makeshift camps, their living condition are miserable, but it’s better than being raped, shot at point blank or hacked to death by Burmese death-squads and security forces.

In her welcoming speech on Monday to the assembled foreign ministers, Myanmar’s de factor leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the former heroine of human rights, uttered not a word about the Rohingya. That was expected – she couldn’t very well plead that the mass killings are beyond her control since the army is too. As true as that may be, though, Suu Kyi was elected to lead the country and, where necessary, change its policies. If she is unable to do so, she should quit her post. Instead, she offers excuses, most recently contriving a rationale in which Rohingya “terrorism” was the reason for their mass eviction.

Although she did not mention the Rohingya in her opening address, Suu Kyi raised points that assuredly reflect the majority public view in her country – that the Muslim Rohingya are illegal immigrants and, since some of them have now taken up arms, Islamist terrorists as well. The Rohingya, established in Myanmar for many generations, have few rights there because the then-government of Burma revoked their citizenship in 1982. A militant group has lately formed solely in defence against the army’s brutality.

But Suu Kyi no doubt feels fortified to continue making such surreal claims by the leeway gifted her last week by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Now China has extended a three-stage plan mooted by Myanmar and Bangladesh to end the refugee crisis, beginning with a cessation of hostilities and leading to talks. Beijing is no champion of humanist principles, so its support feels vacant, but we are hearing just as little of substance from the Europeans. The foreign ministers of Germany, Sweden and the European Union made a stop in Cox’s Bazaar on their way to the Myanmar capital, surveyed the scene, and affirmed their support for Bangladesh as it struggles to deal with a humanitarian nightmare.

The Myanmar government and generals are hearing the same echo of empty words. They know they needn’t fret about cries to stop the slaughter emanating from any other foreign groups or agencies. They see that they can proceed with confidence in their handling of the Rohingya – and as slowly and half-heartedly as they like. Asia-Europe Meeting delegates may protest, but any hope raised seems sure to be dashed.