by Burkely Hermann, World War 4 Report
“It’s not ethnic cleansing. The world needs to understand that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well.”
No high-ranking US State Department official spoke these words. It was Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, in an interview with BBC, dismissing credible claims of the genocide of Burma’s Muslim Rohingya people, put forward by Genocide Watch, Foreign Policy in Focus, UN Dispatch, Der Spiegel writer Jürgen Kremb, the Kassandra Project, Ramzy Baroud of the Pakistani publication The Nation, and many others. Suu Kyi continued, saying that she condemns “any movement that is based on hatred and extremism,” that “the reaction of Buddhists is also based on fear,” that the government should deal with these extremists so it isn’t her responsibility, and finally that “Burma now needs real change…a democratic society.” These comments are deeply disturbing coming from someone given the Nobel prize in 1991 for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Some have even asked if she should be stripped of her Peace Prize for statements such as this one.
The struggle of the two stateless peoples in Burma—the Rohingya and Shan—and broader geopolitical issues such as the race for dirty energy tie into one central question: is Burma really open for the business of exploitation and genocide?
The situation for these two stateless groups of people is dire. For the over two million stateless persons in Burma, no official recognition means “they have limited or no access to education, employment and healthcare, and their right to travel, marriage, reproduction and communication is severely restricted,” according to a study by India’s Gateway House.
The Rohingya, who number over 3.6 million spread across Southeast Asia, have faced discrimination for years, with the “Rohingya conflict” beginning in 1947, and continuing to the present. While denying the Rohingya citizenship in Burma, regime after regime has also cracked down on any initiative to make the state where they live, Arakan, sovereign and independent. Authorities have kept a stranglehold on their lives with campaigns like Operation King Dragon in 1978—which had an official intention of checking the status of undocumented immigrants living in the country. In the past two years there has been a renewed state terror campaign against the Rohingya, who are still called “Bengalis” by the government. This has created the atmosphere for the supposedly spontaneous Buddhist attacks on Rohingya villages over the past year, which has now left 100,000 displaced.
The Shan, mostly in the country’s northern Shan State, number around 4 million. Numerous sources including IRIN News, and the International Observatory on Statelessness, consider the Shan to be a stateless—among the 808,075 stateless people in Burma listed in a database of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. Whether the Shan are part of the conflict in their mountainous region or not, they are indefinitely conscripted into the Burmese Army; the Burmese military raids their villages and there is restriction of movement according to independent journalist Preethi Nallu writing for Al Jazeera. Since their independence was declared in 2005 by exiled leaders, the move has been rejected by other ethnic minorities in the country along with the opposition party led by Suu Kyi, the National League of Democracy. All of this is in violation of the 1947 Panglong Agreement which stated that all ethnic groups will have “equal right and status,” that there will be “full autonomy for the Shan and other ethnic states… financial autonomy vested in the Federated Shan State shall be maintained [allowing] citizens of the Frontier Areas [to] enjoy rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries and…the right to secede from the Federation at any time after the attainment of Independence [in 1948].”
Then, there are reports that American missionaries have sterilized 20,000 people in Shan state. All of this causes many young Shan males to flee to Thailand, where they may find low-paid construction jobs. Since 2011, in Shan and Kachin states there has been “limited to no humanitarian access for these displaced communities which are primarily composed of women, children, and the elderly,” as noted by the Open Society Foundation.
These horrible conditions are tied into a resource that makes the world go round: oil, the black gold. It seems Burma is buying into what Daniel Plainview says in the movie, There will be Blood: “…I assure you ladies and gentlemen, that if we do find oil here, and I think there’s a very good chance that we will, this community of yours will not only survive, it will flourish.”
That is exactly the pitch international capital is making to the government of Burma. As World War 4 Report wrote in a March 2013 analysis of the Rohingya crisis: “Much of the violence has been in the port of Sittwe, which is to be the starting point for the new Shwe pipeline project due to open later this year. The Shwe pipeline will allow oil from the Persian Gulf states and Africa to be pumped to China… Potentially lucrative oil and gas blocs which have previously been off limits due to sanctions are also at stake in Arakan…[with possible future] bids from majors such as Chevron, Total and ConocoPhillips.”
An article on Hermann View linked the plight of the Rohingya to Burma’s vast mineral resources—which the military had already kicked people off their land for. Obama had allowed US companies to invest in the country, including in the gas and oil sector dominated by the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise or MOGE. Seemingly, the genocide was sparked first by “an oil rush in the country; secondly, twenty offshore auctions of oil and gas fields and thirdly, big companies flocking to tap oil & gas fields. This is complimented by the fact that US companies are becoming more invested in the country as we speak.”
Hermann View also notes that Chuck Hagel was on the board of directors of Chevron before he became Defense Secretary. The US-ASEAN Business Council is working to promote “economic development” in Burma, with a special focus on “energy resources.”
Additionally, China’s state-owned oil company has signed a deal for “sale and transport of the Shwe gas” that will have “adverse impacts” on the local people” thanks to the construction of a pipeline, according to Earth Rights International.
In an article that dug into the “oil angle” of the Rohingya genocide, UK-based human rights activist Jamila Hanan said that Chinese companies are “trying to clear out the Rohingya to make way for the money.” The new oil pipeline would reduce China’s dependence on Malacca Straits choke point, while the 2,800-kilometer gas pipeline could cover 22% of Chinese gas imports. The gas pipeline was inaugurated in July this year, BBC reports, highlighting “strong bilateral ties” between Burma and China. Hanan calls the cleansing of the Rohingya a “petroleum-induced genocide.”
At the same time, a senior political scientist of the Rand Corporation, closely linked to the US military establishment, finds that “the Obama administration has staked significant political capital on the wager that Myanmar’s promise may finally bear fruit… [T]he rate of change in Myanmar over the last two years has been nothing short of remarkable.”
But, who benefits from this “change”? Not most people in the country. A recent BBC article notes that while “the economy of Burma…has got an overwhelmingly positive response from investors…[and there is more] availability of mobile phones… the majority of Burmese have yet to feel any material benefits from the reforms… [S]ome traditional businesses have suffered due to the influx of foreign goods [and] some…say they are being pressured by authorities to give up their land.”
The European Union and Burma are teaming up to “promote political and social development” and have a “comprehensive program to help promote economic development,” including a Task Force that will focus on “reform of state administrative institutions, ensuring transparency and accountability in extractive industries, and assistance to promote trade and private sector development…” Human rights activists say this is being improperly prioritized above issues such as “the theft of land and property without compensation wherever there are business developments,” says a report in Irrawady.
The US Chamber of Commerce is setting up a Myanmar Business Chapter which Irrawady calls “another signal that businesses from the United States are showing a greater interest” in Burma. It will be fully announced at an event that will be “co-hosted by the US Embassy in Burma, with backing from Chevron, the US energy giant that has operated in Burma since acquiring Unocal.” The 25 member companies include “a mix of big brands, small and medium enterprises and Burmese businesses partnering with American companies [with] American investors in these sectors include Coca-Cola, GE, Pepsi and Cisco.”
A page on the website of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand that has a directory of all their corporate members in Burma includes PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, Monsanto, Cargill, Boeing, Veolia Water, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Google, TimeWarner, and many others.
All of this seems to signal that the US supports the Burmese regime. This pleases the Washington Post’s Max Fisher, who says there has been a “major positive change” in US relations with Burma, that “foreign investment flows into the country and its political system opens…. Burma now appears to be throwing its lot in with the West and particularly the United States.”
Despite this, the US is still blacklisting Burma for military aid. Voice of America noted that Burma remained one of five countries thusly blocked, along with Syria, Rwanda, Sudan and the Central African Republic, Rwanda and Sudan. This could change; the US has already waived requirements prohibiting aid going to countries with child soldiers. AP reports “the Obama administration wants to restart U.S. defense training for Myanmar…assistance [that] would be nonlethal.”
And outside of military aid, ties are indeed deepening. In February, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that “the US Treasury Department eased sanctions on four Myanmar banks, allowing them to do business with US companies… U.S. officials said that increased access to Myanmar banks by US companies would help promote social and economic development and serve as a model for responsible investing in the country.” The Treasury Department has also issued an order allowing US citizens to deal with banks that are run by former military junta figures, Reuters reports.
At the same time, President Obama declared a “national emergency” in regard to Burma that “prohibits the importation into the United States of any jadeite or rubies mined or extracted from Burma and any articles of jewelry containing jadeite or rubies mined or extracted from Burma,” but seemingly allows other articles that are “a product of Burma” into the country.
In May, Obama met with President Thein Sein of Burma at the White House, hailing him as implementing “political and economic reform” and remarking that “as a consequence of these changes in policy inside of Myanmar, the United States has been able to relax sanctions that had been placed on Myanmar… [T]his has also allowed…the prospect of increasing trade and investment in Myanmar… [T]he United States will make every effort to assist you on what I know is a long, and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct path to follow.”
Months earlier, in November 2012, Obama had been the first US president to visit Burma, praising reform and telling an audience at the University of Yangoon that the US cares about oppressed minorities like the Rohingya, while emphasizing: “[P]reliminary cease-fires have been reached with ethnic armies, and new laws allow for a more open economy… sanctions have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunity for its people, and serve as an engine of growth for the world….” He said “reforms must ensure that the people of this nation can have that most fundamental of possessions—the right to own the title to the land on which you live and on which you work.” Nonetheless, he assured that “America is lifting our ban on companies doing business here, and your government has….taken steps to open up your economy… I was proud to reestablish our USAID mission in this country, which is our lead development agency…” He even said that Burma’s “natural resources…must be protected against exploitation” (but not extraction, presumably). He concluded: “The United States of America is a Pacific nation, and we see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our West…this is where we believe we will find enormous growth…. I want to send a message across Asia: We don’t need to be defined by the prisons of the past. We need to look forward to the future.”
Bertil Lintner writes in Asia Times that “Myanmar has emerged as the frontline of the Obama administration’s ”pivot” towards Asia” and the new “China containment policy,” noting that “naval cooperation [with Burma] would undoubtedly put the US on a collision course with China.”
Special US partner Britain also has deepening ties with Burma. On the site of the Democratic Voice of Burma, funded in part by the US-backed National Endowment for Democracy (as noted by ProPublica), it is noted that “the British government has defended its plans to offer military training to the Burmese army… The British government has repeatedly insisted that it will only focus on human rights and democratic accountability. But a prospectus of the course available online lists modules on the art and science of war, border security and challenges to state sovereignty, while making no mention of human rights mechanisms… The US and Australia have also offered military training to Burma as part of their diplomatic re-engagement with the former pariah state.”
Finally, Burma is gaining a key role by leading the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN. Rappler writes tha “the country also known as Burma steps into the global stage as it symbolically accepts chairmanship of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations for 2014. The honor is part of international recognition of political and economic reforms after 50 years of brutal military rule.”
This means that Burma will be heading an organization that was founded on anti-communist principles during the Cold War. ASEAN’s founding Bangkok Declaration anticipates among member nations “greater utilization of their agriculture and industries, the expansion of their trade… the improvement of their transportation and communications facilities and the raising of the living standards of their peoples.”
This deeply connects to the Obama administration’s stated goal. The administrations boasts it “has actively supported…in developing countries and emerging markets, entrepreneurship…as the key to unlocking economic potential and lifting people out of poverty… In 2013, the United States Government led a high-tech delegation to Burma to explore joint opportunities to bring affordable access to the Internet and improve workforce training programs… In Burma, the United States Government is bringing together Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business with Hewlett Packard to establish an Entrepreneurship Center of Excellence at Yangon Institute of Economics.”
It seems abundantly clear that Burma is open for the business of exploitation—and the ongoing genocide of stateless peoples is closely linked to this. Activists and artists are fighting to bring this connection to the world’s attention—as in the mashup Rohingya Now by DJ Burkels. The first of the Nuremberg Principles states that: “Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible, and therefore liable to punishment.”
Amid all the celebration of Burma’s opening, we need to at least start a conversation about this.
Burkely Hermann blogs for Interesting Blogger: Reporting to Benefit the Commoner.
Photos of camps for displaced Rohingya in Rakhine (Arakan) state by Evangelos Petratos EU/ECHO January 2013, via Flickr.
From our Daily Report:
Blood jade empire as Burma warlords diversify
World War 4 Report, Sept. 29, 2013
Burma: new Shan state opium eradication plan
World War 4 Report, July 1, 2013
Buddhist pogroms in Burma, Sri Lanka
World War 4 Report, March 29, 2013
Burma: pipeline plans behind Rohingya cleansing?
World War 4 Report, March 19, 2013
World War 4 Report, December 2011
Special to World War 4 Report, Nov. 1, 2013
Reprinting Permissible with attribution