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Dilemma of The Plight of The Rohingya

December 27, 2019

Over two and a half years ago, The Elephant Story published a piece on the plight of the Rohingya. A subsequent article placed the blame on General Min Aun Hlaing for an unknown number of deaths and relocation of more than 700,000 of the ethnic minority Islam Rohingya people from the Rakhine state of northwest of Myanmar to Bangladesh. The general led the campaign to eradicate and suppress these people. Only a few days ago, the heretofore widely accredited “saint,” Aung San Suu Kyi, who was once named in the British parliament as “conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity” appeared at the Hague to defend her country from the accusations of genocide against the Rohingya. For the past several years, she has obviously turned a blind eye to the actions of the military.

In reality, she is only a figurehead leader of Myanmar due to the constitution crafted by the reigning military. However, it is sad when she has to succumb to the wishes of the corrupt, despotic military when she had been so outspoken in the past which led to her imprisonment and sacrifice of her family. In fact, the author happened to be in Rangoon when she was released to a “house arrest” status and stood by her fence to speak to her followers as shown below. Her recognition in the western world peaked in 1991 when she received the Nobel Peace Prize by defying Myanmar’s ruling junta to champion democracy.

Therefore, she has been pummeled in the press and court of “public opinion” but it appears that she has little option other than “staying in the system” and exerting whatever influence she can from her weakened position. At least she is no longer confined to the boundary of the red fence as she was prior to her National League for Democracy party winning the election in 2015. Sadly, that election did not represent the break from the past everyone anticipated. Some fifteen years ago, the son of a senior member of the governing military dictatorship told the author that the military was making cosmetic concessions out of fear that they would be denounced as war criminals because of their suppression of the Burmese people and their wealth stashed in offshore bank accounts would be confiscated.

Historically, Myanmar’s colonel rulers strengthened their own government by supporting the Christian Karen people and other non-Buddhist minorities. Therefore, the more modern Burmese military justified their existence by building strength to contain the number of groups of separatists that were originally brought together to form the Union of Burma under the leadership of General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, following World War II. The outside world had blithefully assumed everything would sort out and initially ignored the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

Nonetheless, a UN fact-finding mission found that military forces had resulted in a conservative estimate of 10,000 Rohingya deaths and destruction of some 400 villages. The recommendation was that Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the army, and five other generals be indicted on charges of genocide. After three days of hearings, the International Court of Justice authorized the prosecutor to proceed with investigations into alleged crimes against Rohingya people from Myanmar as there was a basis to believe that systematic acts of violence may have been committed that would qualify as crimes against humanity. Former supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi did an about-face and spoke of her hypocrisy. 

Accordingly, the question remains what can be done to punish the guilty parties and provide a measure of relief to the Rohingya people. Recently, Khine Khine Nwe published an article in the Nikkei Asia Review entitled Misplaced Call for Myanmar Sanctions Threaten Wrong People. Coverage of the atrocities suffered by the Rohingya has not presented any clear solutions to solve the issues. Broad calls for European Union sanctions on textile exports from a host of modest factories employing some 300,000 workers in Myanmar would cause a huge adverse economic impact on this emerging part of the economy as illustrated in the garment factory shown below.

Rather than slamming the door on these people, the international community should seek to improve the welfare and entrench the rights of all of the country’s people through engagement and partnership. If the European Union succumbs to calls for sanctions that would terminate privileged terms for garment imports from Myanmar, the inevitable result would be company closures and massive job losses. Such punitive actions would cause great disruption to any future of the country evolving into a more democratic, tolerant and equitable society.

Despair with a loss of hope could likely lead to the inevitable appeal of the rampant drug trade in Myanmar. We were recently in an area on the border with Myanmar where a hill tribe village was located on a road leading to the top of the mountain where we stayed. The entire village had virtually succumbed to the “yaa baa” or “crazy medicine” trade and consumption to create a village of zombies. Moreover, this part of the world has traditionally been the opium/heroin center of the world. The image below was intentionally unclear to depict the lives these addicts live.

Khine Khine Nwe, as secretary-general of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, makes an impassioned plea that progress in human rights must be based on pragmatic and principled partnerships as opposed to broad sanctions, threats, boycotts and divestment which will only worsen Myanmar’s problems. Drugs and human trafficking represent a desperate alternative to the loss of gainful employment that offered an opportunity for a better future. Maybe the focus should be on the offshore bank accounts of the Myanmar military.

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