Western countries and the UN they control have sacrificed safety of ethnic group to vast business opportunities in Myanmar
A month ago on June 6, the United Nations signed an agreement with the Myanmar government for the repatriation of some 700,000 Rohingya refugees now living in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This ethnic minority was forcibly displaced from their homeland in Myanmar’s Rakhine state between August and December last year, when the country’s armed forces unleashed a reign of terror killing and raping hundreds of men and women and burning down village after village under the guise of counter-insurgency operations against a small armed group. To be clear, Rohingya insurgency is far smaller in scale and sophistication than the ethnic rebellions in Myanmar’s other regions. Yet the government undertook this massive terror campaign primarily to drive almost the entire ethnic group from the land of their birth and across the border.
The UN has not made the terms of the agreement public. It didn’t hold any consultation with the representative organisations before signing the deal. On June 27, Yanghee Lee, rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told the UN Human Rights Council: “It is disconcerting that the MoU remains not publicly available and there has not been transparency about its terms.”
There is in fact no provision in the agreement that would oblige Myanmar government to ensure security and dignity of the Rohingya after they return to Myanmar. There is nothing in the agreement about accountability for the horrific crimes committed against them by Myanmar’s generals and other members of the armed forces.
This is not the first time that the international community has decided to “betray” the Rohingya. A slow-burning genocide of the Rohingya has been smouldering for decades. But the West, which effectively controls the UN, was not really concerned. Yes, there was a steady outflow of refugees. But this was limited to the region of South and Southeast Asia. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan refugees, the Rohingya were not swarming across the borders of the European countries. Europe was not threatened by a Rohingya influx.
The West imposed sanctions on Myanmar in pursuit of the lofty ideals of “democracy”. It did not however demand an end to the systematic ill-treatment of the Rohingya and other minority communities of Myanmar. There can be no democracy without all citizens being able to participate equally in the governance of the country. This is the foundation of liberal democracy which the West boasts of having established. Yet, no Western leader had thought of including the restoration of equal rights to citizenship for all people of Myanmar in the agenda for negotiations for lifting the sanctions.
French President Emmanuel Macron did accuse Myanmar’s government of committing genocide against the Rohingya. Yet, France’s business community, including its oil and gas giant Total, continues to do business in Myanmar. The EU talked about imposing sanctions, but the truth is that there are about 300 EU investors who have pumped US$6 billion into Myanmar. These firms are spread across most sectors, including healthcare, energy, construction, automotive industries and digital innovation. Two military conglomerates and their cronies have almost total control over Myanmar’s business interests, even after the so-called “democratic reforms”. It is these generals who are mainly responsible for spreading anti-Muslim hatred and whipping up mass hysteria among the Buddhist majority in the country.
The Myanmar Times on June 28 reported that the “EU is exercising more caution when making investment decisions involving Myanmar … due to recent instability at the country’s borders, including the ongoing refugee problems in Rakhine”. Nevertheless, Myanmar remains an important trade partner for the EU, which is seeking to expand its footprint there.
The European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham-Myanmar), which is funded by the EU, was launched in Yangon in December 2014, when the Myanmar army was busy killing Rohingya men, raping their women and putting them in concentration camps. EuroCham-Myanmar promotes the business interests of European companies in Myanmar. Switzerland, Sweden and Norway are equally involved. While the Swiss are selling passenger aircraft, Sweden’s Volvo is selling cars and commercial vehicles and Germany’s Mercedes-Benz and BMW are providing luxury vehicles to Myanmar’s generals and the rich. Norway’s Telenor owns the biggest telecom network in Myanmar. Thanks to the efforts of Norway’s ambassador, Telenor was able to beat the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean companies in securing the contract from the Myanmar military. Statsoil, a Norwegian oil exploration giant, has a stake in the natural gas exploration off the coast of Rakhine. In fact, Norway’s gigantic Pension Fund had led the opening of the floodgate of investments in Myanmar after the so-called “democratic reforms”, which have since been proven to be a charade.
There is also a host of American companies – about 130 – doing business in Myanmar. The list includes Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, Ford, Pepsi, KFC and others engaged in diverse areas like oil and gas, insurance and information technology. About two weeks before the Myanmar army began its massacre of Rohingya in Rakhine, Aung Naing Oo, director general at the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration and secretary of Myanmar Investment Commission, said, “We are in active discussions with Amcham Myanmar [American Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar] to facilitate trade and investment with the United States. We do hope the entry of US insurance companies in the near future, which will lead to millions of dollars surge in our list of FDI [foreign direct investment].” (The Nation, Bangkok, August 8, 2017)
Under the neo-liberal system, where promoting the interests of business has become the primary responsibility of governments, state policy is being increasingly driven by the lure of “30 pieces of silver”. As long as the West continues to control the United Nations, with Russia and China aiding and abetting them, there is little chance that the UN will be able to live up to its charter.
In recent months, the human rights situation in Kachin and northern Shan States has worsened. Mass atrocity crimes continue to be reported. Over 120,000 Kachin and Shan civilians have been displaced since 2011. Thousands of people in Kachin state are trapped in conflict zones while access to humanitarian aid remains blocked in many conflict-affected areas. There is no mention in the UNHCR-UNDP-Myanmar agreement of the estimated 120,000 Rohingya who are still languishing in concentration-camp-like situations inside Myanmar. Whatever may be said of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh refugee camps, there is no doubt that they feel safe there. The question is how safe they will be once they are forced to go back under this agreement.
Tapan Bose is a writer, documentary filmmaker and member of the Free Rohingya Coalition.