On June 6, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed an agreement with the government of Myanmar for the repatriation of some 700,000 Rohingya refugees now living in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. This minority ethnic group had been forcibly displaced from their homeland in Myanmar's Rakhine State between August and December last year, when the country's armed forces unleashed a reign of terror killing and raping hundreds of men and women and burning down village after village under the guise of counter-insurgency operations against a small armed group. To be clear, Rohingya insurgency is a much smaller movement compared to the other ethnic rebellions going on in Myanmar's other regions. Yet the government had undertaken this massive terror campaign primarily to drive almost the entire ethnic group from the land of their birth and across the border into Bangladesh.
The UN has not made the terms of the agreement public. It didn't reportedly hold any consultation with the representative organisations before signing the agreement. On June 27, during a presentation at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said, “I note the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) recently signed between the Myanmar Government, UNHCR and UNDP in early June to assist the process of repatriation from Bangladesh. It is disconcerting that the MoU remains not publicly available and there has not been transparency about its terms.” There is no provision in the agreement that would oblige Myanmar government to ensure security and dignity of the Rohingyas after they return to Myanmar. There is nothing in the agreement about accountability for the horrific crimes committed against them by Myanmar's generals and other members of the armed forces.
This is not the first time that the international community has decided to “betray” the Rohingyas. The “Slow Burning Genocide” of the Rohingyas has been going on for decades. But the West that controls the UN was not really concerned. Yes, there was a steady outflow of refugees. But this was limited within the region of South and South East Asia. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan refugees, the Rohingyas were not swarming across the borders of the European countries. Europe was not threatened by the Rohingya influx.
The West had imposed “sanctions” on Myanmar. It was for the lofty ideals of “democracy”. It did not demand an end to the systematic ill-treatment of the Rohingyas and other minority communities of Myanmar. There can be no democracy without all citizens being able to participate equally in the governance of the country. This is the foundation of liberal democracy which the West boasts of having established. Yet, no Western leader had thought of including the restoration of equal rights to citizenship for all people of Myanmar in the agenda for negotiations for lifting the sanctions.
President Macron of France accused Myanmar government of committing genocide against the Rohingyas. Yet, France's business community, including its oil and gas giant TOTAL, continues to do business in Myanmar. The EU talked about imposing sanctions, but the truth is that even today, there are about 300 EU investors with the combined portfolio of more than USD 6 billion in Myanmar, some in collaboration with private partners and others with various government departments. These companies are working in diverse areas including health care, energy, construction, automotive industries and digital innovation. Two military conglomerates and cronies of the generals have total control over Myanmar's business interests even after the so-called “democratic reforms”. As we know, these generals are mainly responsible for spreading anti-Muslim hatred and whipping up mass hysteria among the Buddhist majority in the country.
The Myanmar Times on June 28 reported that the “EU is exercising more caution when making investment decisions involving Myanmar. This is due to recent instability at the country's borders, including the ongoing refugee problems in Rakhine.” Nevertheless, Myanmar remains an important trade partner to the EU, and the latter's interest to expand into the country remains robust.
The EuroCham-Myanmar, which is funded by the European Union, was formally launched in Yangon in December 2014, when Myanmar army was busy killing Rohingya men, raping their women and putting them in concentration camps. EuroCham-Myanmar promotes the business interests of European companies in Myanmar. Switzerland, Sweden and Norway are equally involved. While the Swiss are selling passenger aircrafts, Sweden's Volvo is selling cars and commercial vehicles and Germany's Mercedes Benz and BMW are providing luxury vehicles to Myanmar's generals and the rich. Norway's Telenor owns the biggest telecom network in Myanmar. Thanks to the efforts of Norway's ambassador, Telenor was able to beat the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean companies in securing the contract from Myanmar army. Statsoil, a Norwegian oil exploration giant, has a stake in the natural gas exploration off the coast of Rakhine. In fact, Norway's gigantic Pension Fund had led the opening of the floodgate of investments in Myanmar after the so-called “democratic reforms”, which have since been proven to be a charade.
There is also a host of American companies—about 130—doing business in Myanmar. The list includes Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, Ford, Pepsi, KFC and others engaged in diverse areas like oil and gas, insurance and information technology. About two weeks before the Myanmar army began its massacre of Rohingyas in Rakhine, Aung Naing Oo, director general at the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration and secretary of Myanmar Investment Commission, said, “We are in active discussions with Amcham Myanmar [American Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar] to facilitate trade and investment with the United States. We do hope the entry of US insurance companies in the near future, which will lead to millions of dollars surge in our list of FDI [foreign direct investment].” (The Nation, Bangkok, August 08, 2017)
Under the neo-liberal system, where promoting the private interests of the business community has become the primary responsibility of the governments, the lure of the “thirteen pieces of silver” will guide the policies of states. As long as the West continues to control the United Nations, with Russia and China aiding and abetting them, there is little chance that the United Nations will be able to live up to its charter.
In recent months, the human rights situation in Kachin and northern Shan States has worsened. Mass atrocity crimes continue to be reported. Over 120,000 Kachin and Shan civilians have been displaced since 2011. Thousands of people in Kachin State are trapped in conflict zones while access to humanitarian aid remains blocked in many conflict-affected areas. There is no mention in the UNHCR/UNDP/Myanmar agreement of the approximate 120,000 Rohingyas who are still languishing in concentration-camp-like situations inside Myanmar. Whatever may be said about the status of Rohingya refugees in refugee camps in Bangladesh, there is no doubt that they feel safe there. The question is how safe they will be once they are forced to go back under this agreement.
Tapan Bose is a writer and documentary filmmaker. He is a member of the Free Rohingya Coalition and is actively associated with the campaign “Protected return to protected homeland” for the Rohingya people.