In her pointedly hard-hearted statement on September 19, 2017, about the ethnic cleansing perpetrated on its Rohingya population, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi stated that her country is not “afraid of international scrutiny.” What Suu Kyi, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace whom we all revered and supported in the past, means is that she does not care what the world thinks, because she has powerful international allies on her side.
Here is the background to an immense humanitarian crisis that is taking place right now, but which is largely outside of most people’s perception. Of 52 million people in Myanmar, about 4%, or 1.1 million are (or were) Muslim Rohingya, the rest being Buddhist. The Rohingya have lived in the Rakhine State of Myanmar for centuries, since the 14th Century to be exact, but have been treated as aliens and enemies since the military took power in 1962. Since then, widespread killings by the military have driven out nearly half a million Rohingya into Bangladesh, in many cases with Buddhist monks leading the attacks against the Muslims. In August of this year, 12 policemen were killed at several police outposts by a poorly organized resistance group of Rohingya men. Using this as an excuse, the Myanmar military retaliated with unprecedented violence that has forced half a million Rohingya across the border into neighboring Bangladesh. Eyewitness accounts and satellite photographs provide evidence of widespread arson. Refugees tell harrowing tales of slaughter of adults and children. The United Nations has deemed this selective arson, rape and murder, that frightened the Rohingya into running for their lives, an act of ethnic cleansing.
The media is focusing, not surprisingly, on the tragic expulsion of the million Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, and their desperate food, health and shelter conditions. But what is not getting equal coverage is the reason behind this ethnic cleansing. Simply put, Myanmar is awash in oil and offshore gas resources. China and South Korea are collaborating with the Myanmar government on oil and gas projects with potential earnings of billions of dollars. In 2009, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) began constructing two 1200 km pipelines to transfer oil and gas to China. Other nations are also scrambling for a share in the booty. As part of its inter-border Transit Plan, India has financed and constructed a deep sea-port in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State; Japan and certain EU nations have put out feelers and, as we know, President Obama made two trips to Myanmar in 2012 and 2014, to further economic ties.
For the Rohingya people this has been a disaster as the CNPC infrastructure traverses their home in the Rakhine land. Over the years, fallout has included coerced land sales at unfair prices, land grabs, displacement and ethnic tension. There’s very little room for protest as the Myanmar government has promulgated laws to criminalize peaceful assembly and procession. Under these circumstances helpless villagers like the Rohingyas didn’t stand a chance. Much has been made of the fact that the Rohingyas are Muslims and this expulsion is necessary because of religious tensions. I believe this is a red herring. Any population that occupied this resource rich land would have been at hazard of being ousted, with other local groups taking steps to safeguard the resources for themselves.
At a time when world governments are reciting toothless condemnations of this modern day holocaust, deep appreciation must go to the Government of Bangladesh, which could have easily fortified its borders and refused entry to these hurting souls, but, exceptionally, it didn’t. Instead it is struggling to share its resources with this huge influx of traumatized people who have been ripped away from their homes and their lives, as they knew them.
Aung San Suu Kiy feels assured that her powerful international allies, with their national self-interest at stake, will not criticize her government, nor seek any redress in the UN Security Council. The hope for a resolution lies therefore in the hands of the people of the world who, whatever their governments are saying, have responded with genuine horror and support for the plight of the Rohingya people. Let us make our voices loud in demanding that our governments take a stand and represent us with morality and compassion at the fore.
Hayat Imam is an Analyst on Peace and Militarism