Is the West complicit in the Rohingya crisis?

Britain and other Western countries have provided support to the Burmese military despite repeated reports of ethnic cleansing. Steve Shaw reports.

Over 370,000 people have fled Burma’s Rakhine State, in the west of the country, since 25 August. They cross the border to Bangladesh with accounts of atrocities, torture and death, after what appears to be the latest and most horrific case of the Rohingya minority’s persecution by the country’s military.

It is not known how many have been killed, and as many as 10,000 homes may have been destroyed. Entire villages have been torched, food and water supplies cut off and aid agencies shut out.

Yet despite the reports of human rights abuses, the British government spent £300,000 last year alone training the Burmese military.

The EU, US, Germany, Austria and Israel have all also extended cooperation with the military, despite its actions.

At the time of writing, Burma’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to condemn the violence – she has tried to shift all blame to the Rohingya, even at times blaming insurgents. In an April interview with the BBC she said ‘I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what’s happening.’

Yet many of her supporters continue to stand by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, claiming she is absolved of responsibility because the country’s constitution does not give her power over the actions of the military.

One of the biggest of those supporters is the British government.

When speaking of the recent events, foreign secretary Boris Johnson complimented Suu Kyi’s ‘remarkable qualities’ and ability to unite her country, and downplayed the atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya, saying it affects ‘both Muslims and other communities’. He finished by assuring Suu Kyi that she has Britain’s full support.

Part of that full support is British tax money being used to train the same military that is burning entire villages to the ground, killing and raping innocent civilians.

Not only that, but 67 per cent of that spending came from Britain’s overseas development budget.

A government spokesperson told New Internationalist this is not combat training; instead, educational courses are focused on ‘governance, accountability, ethics, human rights and international law’.

They also reiterated the foreign secretary’s response to the crisis, saying: ‘The violence and prejudice that afflicts both Muslims and other communities in Rakhine must stop. Aung Sang Suu Kyi and all in Burma will have our full support on this.’

But when asked whether the government may consider ending the training in light of recent atrocities, the spokesperson called Britain’s training programmes for Burma ‘long term’.

And, speaking at an arms fair today, Defence Minister Michael Fallon again refused to commit to ending the training.

The violence is Burma’s disproportionate response to a clash between Rohingya militants, part of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, and security forces on 25 August, which left 12 members of the security forces and 16 insurgents dead.

The military is sweeping through Rohingya-majority townships and appear to be using a notorious strategy known in the country as ‘Four Cuts’, intended to starve minority insurgencies of food, funds, intelligence and recruits.

This strategy was developed by Dictator General Ne Win in the early 1960s, who is said to have been inspired by a policy used in China during World War II by Japan, and known as the ‘Three Alls’ – the ‘alls’ meaning kill all, burn all, loot all.

Tirana Hassan, Director for Crisis Response at Amnesty International wrote in a statement: ‘Burma’s authorities have put tens of thousands of people at risk and shown a callous disregard for human life.’

And the crisis has unfolded under the newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD), which is led by Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights icon, State Counsellor Aung Sang Suu Kyi – the country’s de facto leader.

The NLD was elected in 2015 and their victory was lauded as a triumph for democracy, an end to oppressive military rule, and Suu Kyi was seen as a symbol of hope.

The international community was so eager to embrace this new government that within a year sanctions intended to help bring about reform and equal rights for ethnic groups were lifted by the Obama administration. This was done despite objections from some human rights groups and Suu Kyi’s record of silence on issues relating to the Muslim Rohingya, a group that has been persecuted for decades.

Burma's government regards the Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Although many Rohingya families have lived in Burma for generations, they are denied citizenship under the 1982 Burmese citizenship law, and have been denied basic human rights for decades.

But the training scheme might not be as ethical or effective as the British government want people to believe. Director of Burma Campaign UK Mark Farmaner said, ‘When the British government started the training, they lied to minority political and civil society leaders in Burma telling them the training was about human rights.

‘In fact, only one hour of the 60 hour course was on human rights.

‘The course they offered the military is one normally given to countries after a democratic transition with the military under civilian control. This hasn’t happened in Burma and the military have no intention of coming under civilians’ control.

‘There is a big difference between critical engagement trying to promote human rights and democracy, and offering free training to a military which is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. We want engagement, but the right kind, not virtually uncritical friendship. Soft engagement despite their actions is what encourages worst human rights violations. It sends a message they can act with impunity.’

He added that when the training scheme began it was about ‘buying favour’ with the military and military-backed government in an effort to win business contracts, and while the official line is that it is about professionalising the army, the government has admitted it has never evaluated its effectiveness.

Shadow Foreign Office minister Liz McInnes also condemned this training in Parliament on 5 September, saying the Ministry of Defence had ‘demonstrated shockingly poor judgement’ in spending the money training Myanmar’s army.

McInnes also accused the government of selling ‘weapons’ worth more than half a million pounds to the Burmese government over the past three years, although neither New Internationalist nor the Burma campaign have been able to confirm this. If this is true it could mean the British government has violated an EU arms embargo that has been in place since 1996, which covers arms, munitions and military equipment.

New Internationalist contacted Britain’s Department for International Trade for comment, but they did not confirm or deny whether the accuracy of the MP’s comments.

The British government has a record of selling arms to countries with poor human rights records, including to many of the countries on its own list of human rights abusers.

Britain is not the only country showing support to the Burmese military; Israel’s Haaretz newspaper recently reported that the state has numerous arms deals with Burma and has supplied tanks, boats and other weapons, while European countries as well as the US have discussed cooperation or provided support.

In November 2016, the man widely accused of being responsible for the current atrocities, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of Burma’s military, met with the Chairman of the European Military Council to discuss relations between Burma and the EU, training and cooperation.

The EU meeting took place at the same time as a previous military crackdown on the Rohingya, which caused 75,000 people to flee the country amid reports of mass rape, killings, and the torching of villages.

Then in April this year, Min Aung Hlaing spent a week in Germany and Austria where he was given sightseeing tours, tours of arms companies, meetings with senior military officials and a complimentary flight in a light aircraft. Austria also offered to provide military training.

These special visits could anticipate the lifting of the EU arms embargo on Myanmar, which was put in place alongside other sanctions in 1991, and is due to expire in April 2018 – despite the evidence of war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in June removed Burma from a list of countries that use child soldiers, despite the UN having verified cases of recruitment by the military and ethnic groups. This means the country has now been pulled from a key list of states that are prohibited from arms sales.

Farmaner says meaningful change is unlikely to happen when countries such as Britain, the US and those within the EU are providing a ‘green light’ for it to continue by chasing business deals and arms contracts.

‘I don’t know a single taxpayer who is happy when they find out their taxes are being spent training an army which rapes women and shoots children.’

‘If, at a time when the military are increasing human rights violations which break international law, they are being offered free training, of course the message they get is a green light to carry on their abuses.’