Mar 17, 2013

Myanmar - Doublespeak on Myanmar's Rohingya

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''Transparency is the most important word,'' Myanmar Ministry of Energy official Aung Kyaw Htoo pledged on March 4 during a press conference in the former capital of Yangon. His assurance was aimed at wooing foreign companies to bid on 25 off-shore oil blocs.

Oil, gas and other resources in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, promise to reap huge profits for Western companies and the Myanmar government now led by President Thein Sein. Like other Myanmar officials, Kyaw Htoo has grown adept at iterating the key phrases and buzzwords that please Western media, donors and governments. But the regime's actions still speak louder than words in how it deals with various minority groups, including the persecuted Rohingya.

A governance whitewash has been underway for some time now in Myanmar. Perceptions of the former ruling military junta as an oppressive regime with a disconcerting human rights record have shifted favorably on its closely aligned quasi-civilian regime, which has been widely credited with managing a budding democracy. Reality, however, is much removed from the new regime's official newspeak.

While the regime speaks of recognizing ''international standards'' in its energy sector, international human rights standards have been completely ignored in its handling of the suffering and humiliation of the Rohingya people. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are ''virtually friendless'' in the face of a relentless ethnic cleansing campaign that threatens their very existence in Myanmar. The UN has referred to the Rohingya as the world's ''most persecuted'' people.

On February 26, fishermen discovered a rickety wooden boat floating nearly 25 kilometers off the coast of Indonesia's northern province of Aceh. The Associated Press reported there were 121 people on board including children who were extremely weak, dehydrated and nearly starved. They were Rohingya refugees who preferred to take their chances at sea rather than stay in Myanmar.

Their plight is hardly an isolated event. Such deadly journeys, each with their own traumatic twist, have been reported with growing frequency in the regional media. Another large rescue took place off the coast of India's eastern Andaman archipelago, where 108 Rohingyas in dismal condition were rescued on February 28, the Andaman Sheekha website reported.

A week earlier, another group of Rohingya refugees were not so lucky. New York-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday called on the Thai government to investigate an incident in which two people were reportedly killed after a group of refugees were forced onto a boat and sent back to sea from Phang Nga province in southwest Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported. "Our government has a policy to take care of the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds, so they won't be pushed back," Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatara told journalists on Monday. "We will investigate this," she said of the alleged deaths in Phang Nga, according to the report.

Driven by systematic persecution of the Rohingya inside Myanmar, the mounting incidents have so far been a mere irritant to the country's still highly touted democratic opening, a transformation that has been widely hailed as a success story by Western media, companies and political elites. Western governments have heaped rewards on the new regime, including a suspension of previous punitive economic and financial sanctions imposed over the junta's abysmal rights record, for its supposed newfound respect for rights and democracy.

Most Rohingya Muslims are native to the previous state of Rohang (originally a kingdom of its own), now officially known as Rakhine, in Myanmar's coastal southwest. Over the years, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the original inhabitants of Rakhine were joined by migrant or forced labor from Bengal and India, many of whom permanently settled there. For decades thereafter, tensions brewed between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in the region.

Eventually, the Rakhine majority backed by a mostly Buddhist military junta prevailed over the Rohingya minority who lacked any serious regional or international backers. The Rohingya, currently estimated at nearly 800,000 in Rakhine State, have since lived between the nightmare of lacking legal citizenship status and the occasional ethnic purge.

The worst of such violence in recent years took place between June and October last year when Rakhines clashed violently with Rohingyas. The first clashes were sparked by the alleged rape of a Rakhine girl by Rohingyas. While Rakhines paid a heavy price in the subsequent clashes, the isolated and effectively defenseless Rohingyas suffered from the greater death and destruction.

Voice of America recently cited a moderate estimate of the communal violence, claiming hundreds of Rohingya Muslims had been killed, nearly 115,000 displaced and thousands of their homes burnt. Many Rohingyas who have fled the violence have perished at sea or disappeared. UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, reported that nearly 13,000 Rohingya refugees attempted to leave Myanmar on smugglers' boats in the Bay of Bengal in 2012 and that at least 500 drowned.

While Western countries led by the United States jockey for position to exploit Myanmar's natural riches, they remain muted about the state-sanctioned human rights abuses underway in Rakhine State. While Rohingya ''boat people'' were floating or sinking in various regional waters, Thein Sein met with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in Oslo on February 26 in what was billed by both countries' media as a ''landmark'' visit.

Stoltenberg unambiguously characterized the situation in Rakhine State as an internal Myanmar affair. In regards to the controversy over Rohingyas being denied Myanmar citizenship, Norway's leader said, ''We have encouraged dialogue, but we will not demand that [Myanmar's] government give citizenship to the Rohingyas.''

To reward Thein Sein for his supposedly bold democratic reforms, Stoltenberg followed other countries now competing for Myanmar's riches by waving off debts his government owed to Norway. None of those forgiven funds are expected to be earmarked for resolving the mounting humanitarian crisis of Myanmar's Rohingya. But it's clearly high time that more voices spoke out against Western government's engagement with Myanmar and in support of the Rohingyas' basic human rights.

Ramzy Baroud 

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