Towards the end of last year, President Obama announced through an e-mail the decision to lift sanctions against Myanmar. The reason cited for this generosity was the ‘substantial improvement’ achieved by Burma in its human rights portfolio.
This came as a surprise to the rest of the world which is witnessing the worst human rights abuses being carried out by the Burmese army against minority Muslims, the Rohingyas.
Obama had vowed to lift US sanctions during a visit by Aung San Suu Kyi in September last year. Nobel peace prize winner, Suu Kyi was a darling of the West who won the general elections in 2015. She has been severely criticised for remaining silent on the Rakhine state riots of 2012, and recently, for showing indifference towards the genocide of minority Rohingya Muslims. The Obama administration hailed Suu Kyi’s visit to the United States as a great diplomatic breakthrough and an attestation of the fact that the USwas successful in engaging countries it had been ignoring for a long time.
However, the quiet manner in which the White House announced the lifting of sanctions in December made it clear that the continued oppression of the Rohingyas and Suu Kyi’s tacit acceptance of their genocide, had somewhat blunted Obama administration’s enthusiasm. According to the United Nations, the human rights violations carried out against Rohingya Muslims could fall into the category of ‘crimes against humanity’.
Described by human rights organisations and the international media as the one most persecuted minority groups in the world, the Rohingyas are indigenous to the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. The government, however, maintains that the Rohingya population mostly consists of illegal immigrants who landed in Rakhine after Burma gained independence in 1948. They were rendered stateless after the Burmese nationality law came into effect in 1982 stripping them of Burmese citizenship.
The Rohingyas received international attention in the aftermath of the Rakhine state riots of 2012, and the military crackdown of 2016.The United Nations has evidence that ultra-nationalist Buddhists are involved in deliberate religious incitement against the Rohingyas. The UN also found out that the Burmese security forces are involved in arbitrary arrests, summary executions, illegal detention and torture against the unarmed and defenceless Rohingya community.
Though the plight of the Rohingyas has racial and religious undercurrents, it is also feared that the Burmese army may have been reaping financial benefits from the systematic persecution of the Rohingyas, and their subsequent flight from the Rakhine state. The army is grabbing the lands of the fleeing population and using it for its own agri-business.
This is why the Burmese army has unleashed a campaign of terror against the Rohingyas. They are murdered, raped and economically restricted so that they would leave their lands and flee Myanmar. More than a hundred thousand Rohingyas fled during the 2012 riots with national Buddhists. The army did nothing to stop the riots. In fact, by most account, it took an active part in them. Against this background, the Obama administration chose to lift sanctions against Myanmar rather than taking Suu Kyi to task over a series of the most horrible human rights violations being committed in her country.
On several occasions in the past, Burma has given written statements that the Rohingyas are Burmese citizens. Having rebuffed its own written declarations, Myanmar now stands with those countries that have violated international laws and lost all credibility.
The Rohingyas of Burma are a stateless and unrepresented people. They are subjected to the worst atrocities at the hands of Buddhist nationalists and the army of their own country. There is a risk that the population may become an incessant terrorist threat sometime in the future.
In such a scenario, the state will subject the entire community to more repression, and a new bloody cycle of violence will commence.
The international community, under the aegis of the United Nations, has a collective duty to support the Rohingyas. This would mean putting in place tough economic sanctions against Myanmar rather than lifting the ones already in place.
The writer is investment banker and a freelance writer