By: Logan O’Hara
Described often as the “World’s most persecuted minority”, the Rohingya people have long been on the receiving end of intense oppression. Their plight has recently come to the mainstream media’s attention, but, like so many other World issues, with little in the way of proper explanation. I write this essay with the hope of filling that informational gap that may exist for our readers, as well as dig deeper into the issue than the neoliberal, corporate media is willing to.
In the East Asian country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, an ethnic minority known as the Rohingya have fled their country in droves in response to human rights violations at the hands of Myanmar’s military. The actions taken by Myanmar’s government have been described by the United Nations top human rights official Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein as an “ethnic cleansing.” By UN estimates, over 400,000 Rohingyas have decided to try and escape the horrors.
Myanmar’s State Councilor, Aung San Suu Kyi, has come under fire for remaining silent on the human rights abuses done by her military, causing many to call for her to forfeit her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize (as if she was somehow the first human rights violator to win the award). She built her reputation internationally as a strong opponent of the authoritarian junta formerly in power and a champion of the people. Now, however, her reputation is in ruins, and with it the reputation of the Myanmar government as a whole.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority who make up most, although not all, of Myanmar’s Muslim population, and have lived in the predominantly Buddhist country for centuries. They make up around 2% of Myanmar’s 50 million person population. They speak their own language, simply called Rohingya. It is unique to them and not spoken by other people within Myanmar.
The Rohingya are not counted among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups within Myanmar by the Myanmar government. This is because the Rohingya, while usually thought of as being a part of Myanmar, have actually been denied citizenship since 1982, rendering them effectively stateless.
While there do exist exceptions, the Rohingya by and large live in the coastal state of Rakhine. Rakhine is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, filled with tent cities that often lack access to basic necessities like clean water. The Rohingya who live in Rakhine must obtain express government permission to leave the state, turning it, in reality, from a state, and into an open-air prison.
How and Why are they Oppressed?
After wrestling control of their country away from the clutches of the British empire in 1948, the new Myanmar government set out a list of what ethnic groups were considered automatic citizens of Myanmar. While not on that list, it was possible for Rohingyan people to apply for “identity cards” or even citizenship on an individual basis.
However, this was undone in 1982, when a new citizenship law went into effect, rendering the citizenship of Rohingyan peoples null and void and preventing Rohingyas from applying in the future. The 1982 law created three tiers of citizenship. Papers proving that a person or their family lived in Myanmar prior to the 1948 revolution were required to obtain even basic level citizenship, papers that Rohingyas were often denied access to even if they existed (for many, those papers did not).
Because of their newfound lack of citizenship, Rohingyan status in the nation immediately fell, typically limiting access to things as basic as a passport, rudimentary health care, or even legally recognized marriage. The limitations their denial of citizenship has placed upon them has only grown.
The Rohingyas began to abandon Myanmar in the 70s, in response to government crackdowns on their villages. These people fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where most who flee still go to today.
The modern crisis’ tipping point came in 2016 when nine Myanmar border patrol officers were killed. In response, Myanmar’s government began funneling soldiers into the Rakhine state. The government placed blame for the killings onto an unnamed group of Rohingyan fighters. The troops sent into Rakhine then began patrolling and policing Rohingyan villages, bordering on occupation. These occupying soldiers were accused of committing horrific acts of violence and rape, as well as accused of ransacking villages on multiple occasions.
Many Myanmarian military and police outposts were attacked in late August of this year, prompting the Myanmar’s government to occupy Rohingyan villages once again. Many of the Rohingyan people, as well as activists, claim that the Myanmarian military has slaughtered unarmed Rohingyan people, including children, as well as burned their villages to the ground.
Those who attempt to escape are usually turned back by the border patrols. Despite not being citizens of Myanmar, Rohingyas who attempt to leave the country and forced to return or imprisoned, reinforcing the view that they live in an open-air prison.
How has the Government Responded to these Accusations?
Myanmar’s government denies this, naturally, and has prevented human rights inspectors from investigating further. However, satellite photography confirms that many Rohingyan villages have in fact been burned and pillaged, leading credence to the Rohingyan narrative as a whole.
Additionally, Myanmar’s leader, Suu Kyi, has accused the media of misrepresenting the facts, coming just short of using US president Donald Trump’s famous “fake news” phrase. She has claimed that a “huge iceberg of misinformation” has been created to sow divisions in Myanmarian society and aid terrorists. She, however, has somewhat softened her position, acknowledging that human rights violations have occurred, but drumming them up to just a handful of isolated incidents of no real consequence in comparison to the supposed actions of the “terrorists”.
Are there Terrorists?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: the Rohingyan people, despite their experiences of constant oppression for decades now, have all but uniformly refused violent action. However, the 2016 border patrol killings marked the recognition of a militant group in the area, the ARSA. However, their numbers are small and support for their actions virtually non-existent, making Suu Kyi’s claims of the great threat they pose almost completely unbelievable.
What Does this Mean for Myanmar?
It means two things, likely.
Firstly, the crisis erodes the faith put in the Myanmarian democracy. After years of military dictatorship, Myanmar transitioned from military junta control and towards democracy. While this has been praised by western media and the sort, the reality is that Myanmar’s democracy is incredibly limited, even within the already limited framework of liberal democracy. For example, the military, who used to run the government entirely, is automatically given 1/4th control over Myanmar’s Congress, which gives them veto power against constitutional reforms.
Secondly, and as a consequence of this eroded confidence, investment in Myanmar is almost certain to shore up, as it has already begun to in response to the 2016 accusations. This puts a serious damper on Myanmar’s development and may have the unintended consequence of actually forcing the Myanmarian military into taking more extreme measures in order to ensure a financial future for the country.
The Hidden Politics at Play
As always with these sorts of things, there is a hidden agenda at work here. With human rights violations that are, quite frankly, much worse occurring at the hands of the Saudi military in Yemen right now, Rwanda’s continuing slaughter of the people of the Congo (not to mention absolute disregard for even liberal democracy), and the over 400 people killed last month in Raqqa by the US military, it’s hard to imagine that the crisis in Myanmar is the only human rights violation worth paying attention to.
In fact, in 2013 Human Rights Watch called what was happening in Myanmar an example of ethnic cleansing. This was long before the modern repression starting in 2016. What makes the plight of the Rohingyas worth paying attention to now when it was ignored just a few years prior, or even really since 1948?
The Myanmar crisis is as textbook an ethnic cleansing as they come, right down to the motives. Those motives were, of course, natural resources. As is the fashion of the 20th and 21st century, the resources of choice were oil and natural gasses.
In 2004, a huge natural gas field was discovered in the Bay of Bengal, right off the Myanmarian coast. In 2008, the China National Petroleum Corporation won rights to the fields and named them after Myanmar’s then leader, General Than Shwe. In 2009, construction began on two large pipelines stemming from China to, you guessed it, Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The gas pipeline was completed in 2014, and it now carries over 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China each and every year. The oil pipeline, however, has proven more difficult, being still incomplete here in 2017. The completion of the oil pipeline is of great importance to the Chinese, as it would cut the transportation time to Myanmarian oil by up to 30%.
In addition to this, the pipelines would bring China much needed security of its oil imports. Currently, 80% of China’s imported oil comes through the straits of Malacca, as well as areas of the South China Sea in territorial dispute. This route could easily be blocked by the US Navy’s 6th fleet, deployed in the area. Were tensions to rise between the two nations, the United States would almost certainly use the 6th fleet in this way, which could cripple China’s productive capabilities, not to mention all the other issues it would bring.
So, where do the Rohingyas fit in with all of this? Protests against the pipelines have occurred almost without cease after construction began on them in 2009. The protests have easily been at their most intense in the Rakhine state, where the Rohingya live. Rakhine state citizens have complained of the pollution brought on by the project both to the China National Petroleum Corporation and to the Myanmar government, both of whom, you might have guessed, have been less than sympathetic towards their cries.
The Myanmar government is a major investor in the pipelin , and is set to receive $7 million from the Chinese government annually in right-of-way fees. However, until both pipelines are completed, the Chinese government refuses to pay. Myanmar has experience with protesters in the past, as they were forced to delay a Chinese dam project in Myanmar’s Kachin state back in 2011. With what is, to the Myanmarian government, at least, major money on the line, the pressure is on to finish the pipelines as quickly as possible, while the public resists the project at every turn. The two group’s interests are in sharp conflict and it would seem that this is an issue where there is little way to compromise even if the parties involved wanted to. However, one group here has significantly more power than the other group, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that human rights are no barrier when money is involved.
I touched on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army earlier a bit, but they are deserving of much more attention. The ARSA is led by a man by the name of Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni. Born in Pakistan, Junjuni worked as a Wahhabi imam in Saudi Arabia before coming to Myanmar. He and his group, the ARSA, are backed largely by the Saudi’s, and in fact is overseen by a council of 20 members seated in Mecca.
The ARSA is responsible for both the 2016 border patrol attacks and the attacks on military bases and police stations earlier this year in August. They have also targeted innocent Buddhist citizens of Myanmar, which has led to many hardline anti-Rohingya positions springing up elsewhere where they did not used to exist.
Despite their ties to the Saudis and the crimes committed by them, the Western media has embraced the ARSA with open arms. They’ve claimed that they’re a naturally arising freedom fighter group to be loved and supported for their heroic stand against injustice, instead of condemning them for the terrorists they are. It makes no difference to the Western media that Rohingyan Muslim communities have spoken out strongly against the ARSA’s actions, the truth is just an afterthought to them. It’s almost too easy to compare the ARSA to Syrian “rebels”.
So, why do the Saudi’s care? Why should they bother with supporting a tiny group in a country so many miles away? It’s simple: the longer the pipelines take to build, the longer the Saudi’s can sell China oil. A full blown crisis, like the one currently unfolding, has the potential to stop the project in its entirety, a perfect outcome for Saudi Arabia. It’s worth mentioning that the conflict has also been profitable for Israel, who, despite the human rights violations, has continued to sell the Myanmarian government arms, as if Israel has no clue what they were to be used for.
Saudi Arabia might also be supporting the ARSA on behalf of the United States, who maybe stands to lose more than anyone else by the pipeline’s completion. If the pipeline is canceled, the US will still be able to block China’s oil imports in the event of a war, a major tactical advantage. While war with China seems unlikely, the North Korean nuclear crisis now unfolding and China’s new imperialism in Africa, the US may still look to use this threat in diplomacy. As shown with the THAAD missile defense system a few months back, even the slightest military advantage the US has over China can have massive repercussions. The value of keeping China’s oil hostage is worth 20 THAADs to the US.
Despite the strong media backlash from US sources, the United States government itself has been hesitant to get involved. The United States has expressed concern over “undermining the Asian country’s democratic leader.” The US has not let “undermining” democratic leaders stop them before, they’re currently preparing for possible invasion of the far more democratic Venezuela, so there clearly is something else at play.
This is likely because the US has a strong history of supporting the Myanmar government. A 2003 report from the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that the military junta then in power “cannot survive in Burma [Myanmar] without the help of the United States and the international community.” The US gave just shy of $400 million between 2012-2014 to the new Myanmarian democracy in an attempt to “cultivate ‘democratic institutions’” and spur economic growth.
In Myanmar’s first real election in 2015, the United States Agency for International Development was the single largest donor. It paid for the creation of Myanmar’s voter database and for all technology used in the election. After all was said and done, USAID spent more than $18 million on the election.
Thanks to this funding, Myanmar became far more open to US investment, where previously it strongly favored South Korean and Chinese interests over the United States’. Additionally, the US had placed sanctions against Myanmar, preventing its companies from investing there. US oil, however, was allowed to circumvent the sanctions, as the US worried that not allowing them to invest would make the US “lose out to foreign competitors.”
While Kyi has been far more open to US investment than her predecessors, the United States is still disappointed in her. While her rule has opened Myanmar to US influence, she has strengthened ties with China, so that, regardless of if she’s more friendly to the US, she’s allowed Myanmar to, truly, go further against US interests.
In the words of Min Zin, executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy in Myanmar: “As the United States recedes, Aung San Suu Kyi is relying more and more on China in Myanmar and on the international stage.”
Myanmar strengthening ties to China isn’t exactly a unique policy in the area. Other countries like the Philippines have taken strong strides in breaking away from Western influence and have begun buddying up to Chinese leaders.
It’s more than a little curious that the two Southeast Asian countries who have taken the largest strides towards alliance with China also happen to be the two countries in the region to be dealing with Islamic terror threats. Thanks to ISIS recently popping up in the Philippines, something the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has explicitly blamed on the United States, and the birth of the ARSA in Myanmar, the United States has had an excuse to increase its military presence in both countries. Their real purpose for troop deployment in both countries is obvious.
At the end of the day, the US and her allies are playing both sides of the conflict. The United States’ close ally, Saudi Arabia, is funding the anti-government ARSA terrorists, while simultaneously offering Myanmar military support and financial investment. Essentially, the US wants to force Suu Kyi’s hand and have her fall into the US sphere of influence. She needs to complete the pipelines to make money, and to do so she must take care of the protestors. The US and the Saudis seemingly baited Kyi with the ARSA, giving her a reason to crackdown on the protestors, using the “threat” of the ARSA internationally and the hatred of the Rohingya internally as justification. Once she did, however, US media quickly exposed the atrocities taken by her government, and took steps to undermine her story that the ARSA was a legitimate threat. Unless the US is willing to support her claims that the ARSA is a real threat, her actions will be, rightfully, vilified by the world, bringing the legitimacy of her leadership into serious question.
This leaves Kyi with a few options. One, she can continue her policy of ethnic cleansing in order to make way for the pipelines and cement her relations with China. However, by doing so, she runs serious risk of having China be her only ally. Countries opposed to her human rights abuses could place sanctions on Myanmar, leaving China as their only viable trade partner and demolishing the future of investment in Myanmar that Kyi and her government were relying on. On top of this, despite the ARSA’s foreign roots, if the Myanmar government continues its ethnic cleansing, support for the ARSA could grow.
On the other hand, Kyi could claim ignorance of the atrocities, and side with the Americans. If this were to happen, the US would almost certainly brand the ARSA terrorists and provide strong military support to the Myanmar government. Any civilian losses in the fight against the ARSA would be marginalized as simply necessary, if unfortunate, casualties of war, just like the hundreds of thousands who have died in every US intervention.
This second option is what is in the best interest of Myanmar as a whole, and is the outcome that the US is hoping for, and as such is what I fully expect to see happen. By gaining Myanmar as an ally, even if this alliance was acquired via blackmail, is of the utmost importance to the US.
As previously mentioned, preventing the completion of oil pipelines to China would mean that sea routes would still be the most efficient method of oil transportation from Myanmar to China, leaving this oil supply vulnerable to US blockade. However, US interest in Myanmar extends far beyond preventing oil pipelines. The US is following a foreign policy strategy often known as the China containment strategy. This strategy calls for creating closer ties to governments surrounding China and building military bases in the region. As some will remember from a few months back, when tensions between India and China heated up, the United States covertly, but strongly, backed India. The THAAD missile defense program built in South Korea is a high profile part of this tactic. The expansion of military presence in the Philippines and in Myanmar too are part of this strategy.
This is, in my opinion, the true reason for the unfolding Myanmar crisis. Suu Kyi played into the US’ hand and has set herself up for becoming a US puppet state. And, thanks to the nature of the crisis at hand, the world will welcome US imperialism with joyous applause.
The reasons for US involvement in Myanmar are numerous, but they can be summarized, as always, as imperialist. The US seeks to control Myanmar’s oil resources and prevent China from accessing them. They are hoping to set up further military bases and turn Myanmar into a reliable anti-China ally in the US’ grand strategy of containment. As with unfolding international issues in Russia and Venezuela, Saudi Arabia does the real dirty work, allowing the US to not be directly tied to anything that actually happens in Myanmar, even if it is all done for the US’ benefit. Soon, Myanmar will have to choose a master: China or the United States.
Humanitarian goals are ultimately secondary for the United States. Just like in Iraq, humanitarianism is, at the end of the day, a justification for US action, not the motivating force behind it. The Rohingya are being used, and once the US accomplishes its goals, they will be forgotten. Their oppression will continue and no one will care. The only long term solution to the Myanmar crisis, and to prevent others like it, is to abandon profit motive as the driving force of society.