Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Facelift Operation Burma can't hide the desperate flight of refugees

BURMESE opposition leader Aung-San- Suu-Kyi's visit to Britain and other countries last month was welcomed as a sign that both her and her people were gaining freedom at last.

Suu-Kyi, elected with her party to the Burmese parliament after spending over 15 years under house arrest, called on her return home for the freeing of all remaining political prisoners in Burma(Myanmar), of which they reckon there are 330.

But though David Cameron called for the suspension of sanctions on Burma when he visited the country in April, the military have not given up power there, and holding political prisoners is not their only crime against human rights. Cameron, the first British prime minister to visit Burma since it became independent in 1948, was following up on visits by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague in January.

But is this rush to take the Road to Mandalay really about Burmese freedom or something else?


One sign of any country's claim to democracy or even civilised behaviour is its treatment of minorities. The Guardian and some other papers have reported recently how Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing Burma, seeking asylum in Bangladesh or other neighbouring countries. The Bangladesh government has been forcing people to go back. But these are hardly people seeking a better life in poor Bangladesh. These are refugees fleeing for their lives.

Any of us who remember the epsode of the Vietnamese boat people might note the comparative lack of attention given these people taking to boats to try and reach Bangladesh.

Although Burma's Muslim population increased hugely with immigration during British rule, the Rohingya Muslims can claim an older pedigree, going back centuries and producing a Muslim kingdom in the 15th century in part of Arakan. Following the Burmese conquest of Arakan in 1785, as many as 35,000 Arakanese people fled to the neighbouring Chittagong region of British Bengal 1799 to avoid Burmese persecution. The Burmese rulers executed thousands of Arakanese men and deported a considerable portion of the Arakanese population to central Burma.

During World War II the Arakan Muslims were once again targetted for persecution by Japanese and Burmese forces. Then in independent Burma Rohingya were deprived of citizenship. More recently under military rule many were conscripted as forced labour. Not surprisingly some of the Rohingya resistance has taken a far from moderate form.

During Cameron's visit in April human rights organisations here noted that despite reforms, Burma was still a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world, and where the military had control.

Kelland Stevenson, Save the Children’s country director, said:

"More than a million children under five in Myanmar are suffering from chronic malnutrition brought on by poverty and inadequate spending on health care. Chronic malnutrition has severe long term effects on children’s health as they grow. Malnutrition limits their physical growth, weakens their immune system and significantly hampers mental development. The government and the donor community should prioritise reforms that help reduce child hunger".

Sanctions probably didn't help. But was reducing child hunger uppermost in Western leaders' minds? Notwithstanding their supposed pariah status, the Burmese military have been keen to attract foreign investment, as well as ensuring their own share of the wealth.

One journalist who interested in the Rohingya story is Palestine Chronicle editor Ramzy Baroud, writing in Arab News

Democracy and killings in Burma: Gold rush overrides human rights

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At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Jim Monaghan said...

Two good articles on the ethnic struggles in Burma. Aung's father had the right ideas. Pity he was murdered. The ESSF site is very good. Roughly aligned to the Fourth International but with lots of good articles from elsewhere


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