Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Don’t believe Everything you Read . . . But Keep Reading!

My latest post was going to be titled “What Drugs is the US on Now?” or “Dear Hillary: Have You Lost Your Mind?” but since I learn something new every day about the Rohingya crisis (and very little of it is good) I have revised my opinion of the presumed freewheeling permissiveness of the US Administration towards Myanmar human rights violations and seen it for what it is: business as usual.  And not business in a vacuum.  The “democratization” of Myanmar has created a veritable love-fest, a pajama party of the highest order, between nations near and far who want a piece of that fairly lucrative and certainly untapped market.

Last week that cagy government-sanctioned media outlet Myanmar Breaking News reported that “the US has denied Saudi Arabia allegations that an ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim community is taking place in Myanmar,with the complicity of the authorities.” 

Of course, this is designed to convey US approval, or at least tolerance, of the way the Myanmar government is handling itself.  No problem here! Myanmar can say.  Those pesky Saudis—always trying to throw money at stupide things like mosques, poverty, starvation.  Who needs ‘em when we have Coca Cola and Pepsi on the way?

But I digress.

Now, I am not giving my Administration a hall pass on this, but the fact that I and others like me saw nothing to counter this story tells me a bit about how either we really don’t care that much, or how tired the world is, how truly worn out, from all these hate-based calamities.  There just aren’t enough column inches to cover everything.  Witness last week’s parallel incendiary activities in Assam, India, where an alleged attack on the Bordo by Assam Muslims from (surprise!) Bangladesh led to retaliatory violence, over 70 deaths, and a mass exodus of Muslims back into among other places (double surprise!) Bangladesh, from whence they came after being encouraged by the Indian government to resettle for the purposes of increasing voter rolls during crucial elections and, of course staying and straining the social and economic infrastructure.

Interesting sidebar: “The Indian government has blamed unidentified groups in Pakistan for uploading images of what appear to be massacres of people in Myanmar and Thailand and passing it off as [the Assam area in] Northeast India.”

Make no mistake about it: this is a universal issue.

So imagine my confusion when last week I asked a former top-ranking US official in Myanmar if there appeared to be a trend in the region of persecuted groups following the Rpohingya’s lead and making a break for it in the hopes that the global spotlight would finally expose their situations as well.  I asked this to learn what the experts thought the political and social landscape of southeast Asia would look like over the next two years.  The response? “I don’t know anything about those other countries; that’s not my area.”  Which is precisely the mindset that got us into this position ijn the first place.  Pardon me while I slit my wrists.


Let us crawl back to Myanmar for a moment and examine the US’ rather Suu-Kee-ish response to the crisis.

Instead of stating, as the Myanmar press claimed, that human rights violations are certainly not happening in Myanmar, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell’s August 10th press brief had the familiar blandness of a damp dishtowel: “ . . . we continue to urge all parties to exercise restraint, to refrain from further violence, and to uphold principles of non-discrimination, tolerance and religious freedom. We obviously have some concerns about making sure that [the displaced] get humanitarian aid.”

Not a battle cry, but not a Saudi-bashing disavowal, either.

So . . . why is the US, in the body of the State Department, being so circumspect when in the last 3 weeks practically every human rights organization and media outlet has amassed enough information, despite government-staged visits of refugee camps, to be pretty sure that the Myanmar government, especially the Myanmar local governments (state leaders, military, police) are taking this opportunity to join their regional neighbors in passively (if you can call it that) exterminating this group?

Let’s go to the bedroom, and see who’s crawled under the covers so far.

Well, there’s the US, of course, a little late to the party but still trying to take up as much space as possible via lucrative Pepsi and Coca-Cola contracts, there’s the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey,  and they’re all trying to be quiet as mice about talk of genocide because that tends to shut the old door when you want to get in a country and start making money.  The US can “loosen” but not “lift” embargos on Myanmar that will appease human rights watch groups while at the same time put a toe firmly in the door for corporate interests to slide through.  Myanmar, for its part, welcomes this attention because in addition to not being able to pay its expenses (including its army), this friendly interest from large countries presents the semblance of things “getting better.”  In The Disunion of Myanmar in the August 18 Latitude, Swe Win writes that contrary to trying to alleviate ethnic issues, “the government has been exploiting the situation: rather than intervene to ease communal tensions and finally clarify the murky legal status of Rohingyas, it is further stigmatizing them in order to ingratiate itself with the [Buddhist] majority.”

So things haven’t gotten better; they’ve just gotten different.  From a militarily-ruled closed system, a democracy emerged that by definition had to at least pay lip service to sunshine.  "Politically, [Parliament member] Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this," Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, told the Associated Press. "She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She's a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority."  (the Independent) So the “progress” that the world sees in Myanmar is not so much the changing of anyone’s beliefs or ideology so much as the actual presentation of tiny bits of information where there had only been our imagination.  So sure, they’re starving and oppressed and treated like animals but look!  We’ve decided to feed them!  Next step (of course): human rights for all.

China's also in on the sleepover.  According to the August 12 Express Tribune (Pakistan), “China had earlier warned Pakistan on the Burma issue by imposing restrictions on Ramzan fasting. They have also worked behind the scenes or may even have warned Saudi Arabia. With this aid and not blaming anyone, Saudis keep their good name with Muslims and also obey China. Burma, China and Japan have a sizable Buddhist population. With US oil and gas production increasing and the US reducing its oil imports, no oil exporting country can afford to alienate China, Japan and India. Burma has strong Chinese support. Even Bangladesh has no sympathy for the Muslims in Burma. This gesture [the $50 million in aid from Saudi Arabia] will make the Burma issue forgotten in no time. The substantial Buddhist population in China, Japan and Burma have not forgotten the Bamyan Buddhas [destroyed in Afghanistan] and they do not blame the Taliban for the destruction. They blame the forces behind the Taliban that incited and influenced [them]”.

Funny thing, one can think that media and global pressure have led to today’s AP announcement that “Burma's government said today it would no longer censor local media outlets, the most dramatic move yet towards allowing freedom of expression in the long-repressed nation.”  Or one can be cynical like me and wonder if this is not a first step in the allowing of these commercial global markets to be able to be more successful in the country via the use of media, and that it has nothing to do with honoring any kind of idea of freedom of speech or expression.  AP adds that “reporters will still have to send their stories to the Press Scrutiny Department after publication so government monitors can determine whether their work violated any publishing laws.”

The official with whom I spoke made it quite clear: if the Rohingya continue to demand minority nationality status, they will never make any gains.  The only way that they may ameliorate their current situation is to accept citizenship status—not minority status, but just citizenship status.  (and that isn’t even offered yet.)  Swe Win’s article also reports that “[the Burmese government] has announced that it will place any “illegal” Rohingyas — meaning, in its view, any Bengalis who settled in Myanmar after independence in 1948 — in detention camps to be run by the U.N.’s refugee agency or send them away to other countries.”

One would conclude that this might give pre-1948 “citizens” (ie anyone over 64 years old) a country, but no compensation for generations of abuse, no ability to seek asylum as a persecuted minority, and no recourse from what will most likely be a continuation of human rights violations by local militia and citizen hate groups.

But at least Pepsi will be able to sell soda, and Hillary will be happy.

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