A key UN body has ruled that genocide was committed recently by the Burmese military. The atrocities, widely reported at the time, were against the Rohingya people, an ethnic group of Muslims living in Rakhine province, on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Despite there being two million Muslims living in Britain, which has close historic ties to both Myanmar and Bangladesh, the widespread outrage within the British Muslim community and beyond has not affected politicians, who have been largely inactive on the issue of the Rohingya genocide.
It is good to remember that we are talking about Myanmar, a country which was until 1948 a British colony, Burma. During the Second World War, the Muslim Rohingya sided with the British against the Japanese.
It is a country in which we took great interest when it was a pale-skinned Buddhist woman called Aung San Suu Kyi demanding basic human rights, with a palatable Oxford University professor of a husband by her side. Yet while she was given her voice through years of Western sponsorship – including a Nobel Peace Prize – she has used her political platform as de facto Prime Minister only to cast doubts on the stories of the persecuted Rohingya. During her first public appearance after the UN report came out, she stayed silent on the genocide allegation, choosing instead to deliver a talk about the importance of literature in Burmese society.
Meanwhile, unfortunate Muslim Rohingya have been chased in their hundreds of thousands by baby-burning rapists and murderous thugs masquerading as professional soldiers from the Burmese army. Buddhist monks in Rakhine and elsewhere, whose leaders have expressed solidarity with the infamous UK-based Islamophobe Tommy Robinson, have incited the killers. They tell their congregants to believe the same kind of scaremongering about Muslims that other anti-Islam bigots express in Europe: “They read a violent book, the Qu’ran; the Muslims are outbreeding us, and soon we [i.e. Buddhists] will be outnumbered in our own country; their mosques are where they are planning terrorist attacks.” I met one of these quasi-literate religious leaders last year; he was a man who was unnervingly polite in tone, yet he spoke about Muslims as if they were cockroaches.
I also met a UN official by chance in a Yangon hotel lobby; he was on his way to the airport. “I’m done,” said the now ex-UN official, “Rakhine is about to blow up and nobody is doing anything about it.” We had walked through streets with burnt out mosques and empty markets, recovering from the last round of violence. We made it inside a refugee camp and found a microcosm of an entire people desperate, tired and confused, cut off from the world. They knew what was coming.
On our return, I co-wrote an article examining the UN’s preparedness for an attempted genocide. Sources inside aid organisations had claimed that the UN leadership was dithering to the point of negligence, with a comfortably appointed senior management who were enjoying the perks of UN life without taking their life-and-death responsibilities seriously enough. In short, as they had in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the UN was looking on when serious crimes were clearly on the horizon. The article was published in Britain in July; the genocide began in August.
Around 700,000 Rohingya have now fled Rakhine, pretty much emptying the province of Muslims. Thousands of men and boys have been killed; mass rapes of women have been commonplace; many villages have been all but destroyed. It is South East Asia’s very own Srebrenica.
The media coverage in Britain was more widespread than expected. Suddenly Rohingya was a word that everybody knew. It seemed that people were finally waking up.
There was no call for military intervention in Myanmar last summer, though, to stop or slow down the ethnic cleansing. Aid workers are peaceful people, but our sources in Myanmar told us that military intervention was exactly what was needed; or, at least, intervention by UN peacekeepers.
Theresa May called it exactly that: “ethnic cleansing”. It’s a crime so serious that we have intervened militarily multiple times in the Middle East to prevent it. Yet when it came to Myanmar, May seemed indifferent to calls for a military deployment. The pro-interventionist think tank crowd also stayed silent. So did the media columnists. The drums of war, so familiar when oil-rich countries are the centre of attention, did not bang so loud for Myanmar.
What this does is sink the argument that Western interventionism is all about humanitarianism; that is just one factor amongst many. Hence, to call that particular foreign policy doctrine “humanitarian intervention” is clearly more spin than substance.
It is reductive, of course, to say that access to energy resources is the only reason why Britain, France, the US and other Western nations – as well as Russia — have intervened militarily in the Middle East so many times over the last century rather than in other countries with comparably awful human rights records, but it’s certainly one of the main reasons. Just because Western companies did not capitalise on the Iraq oil boom post-2003, it does not mean that it was not a major consideration in the rush to go to war there.
The Middle East and North Africa sit on so much oil and gas that this should be no surprise. Its primary fruits – carbon-flavoured — keep the world economy and living standards moving onwards and upwards, as well as generating needless conflict.
North Korea — where the UN has said crimes reminiscent of the Nazis during the Second World War are ongoing — has little resource value to the West. Myanmar, meanwhile, has modest but not spectacular energy resources. It is a complicated country where military intervention would be difficult and should be considered carefully. Toppling the regime there in the same way that the West tried with Slobodan Milosevic or Muammar Qaddafi may work out in the end, but it seems unlikely to happen.
If only the victims of war in the Middle East were subject to such graces and carefully considered analysis before interventions which weren’t swayed by special interests — the oil or defence industries, for example — or the populist media piling on the pressure and urging leaders to act rashly. Perhaps that day will come. For now, though, the Rohingya are still stuck in Bangladesh; many are dead while the survivors are scarred for life. The Middle East, meanwhile, awaits with some trepidation its next “humanitarian intervention”. Military intervention to protect the Rohingya obviously isn’t on the Western agenda, but all lives matter. Will we never learn?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.