Who will bear witness? With the doctors gone, nobody watches Myanmar
The government of Myanmar has long instituted a campaign to keep the world from seeing their crimes against the Rohingya. The expulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières will likely lead to more, writes freelance journalist Tim Robertson.
By Tim Robertson
March 4, 2014
The January violence against the Rohingya in the Rakhine state was typical of the difficulties in reporting from Myanmar. Foreign journalist are barred from the area where the violence took place and humanitarian agencies are also incapacitated by a government intent on hiding the truth from the rest of world.
The United Nations called on the government of Myanmar to investigate “credible information” of violence against the Rohingya Muslims between January 9-14, in which over 40 people are thought to have been killed. The government responded by denying any such charges and accused the UN of fabricating the allegations.
Throughout this farce Medecins Sans Frontieres was the only credible and independent source of information on the attacks. They reported that they treated 22 patients on January 14, who were believed to be victims from the Maungdaw township in Rakhine state.
This seems to have been the catalyst for their expulsion. And yet another layer of accountability has been removed from an already threadbare arrangement. The message from President Thein Sein to other NGOs operating in the country is hardly ambiguous. His attempts to instil a culture in which crimes like murder, rape and torture are ignored and concealed paves the way for further depraved and widespread atrocities.
But the regime has had a change of heart; they will allow MSF to return, but have attached a sinister caveat: they will not be able to return to the Rakhine state where most of the Rohingya population live. They are not simply being denied medical care (a crime under international law in itself), they are being placed in a vice and held hostage by the unsupervised Buddhist nationalist security forces and villagers who are the very thugs responsible for much of the violence.
Travelling in Myanmar, it doesn’t take one long to stumble across the sense that much of the nation is consumed by the threat Islam poses to Buddhism and its devotees; it fills pages of newspapers and it was often the first thing Buddhists wanted to tell me about. Many seem to be genuinely fearful for their safety and their religion’s ability to overcome the perceived aggressiveness of Islam. In Yangon last month one man told me it wouldn’t be long before Burma began to resemble Pakistan — that is to say, a predominately Islamic state with a high-level of violence.
This Buddhist nationalistic movement is led by the religious leaders. Draped in their saffron robes, the monks preach hatred and racism, while masquerading as pacifists. It also comes as little surprise that the Burmese Buddhist community has close ties with the Sri Lanka Buddhist community — another pseudo-nonviolent group that was happy to see those of another creed butchered by their loyal government.
It’s a prophetic alliance: the situation in the Rakhine state could well be heading towards a genocide similar to that carried out against the Tamils in 2009. One of the first things the Sri Lanka government did was ensure foreign journalists were tethered to Colombo, claiming it as a necessary requirement to ensure their safety. It’s the same excuse used by the Myanmar government.
The systematic removal of independent people and organisations that may bear witness to the marginalisation and persecution of the Rohingya is a tactic that contradicts the rhetoric of a country supposedly in reform. It’s a tactic that won’t be able to hide a full-scale genocide, but it may succeed in obscuring a great many horrors in the meantime.
And perhaps this will be enough for the West to remain silent; to continue wishing that what’s happening in Myanmar wasn’t, and that by not objecting too loudly attention won’t be drawn to the fact foreign investors have been flooding into the country since sanctions were lifted. The possibilities for profit have been fully realised by the world’s leading economies; a decision by the World Bank in January to invest US$2 billion in the country was further affirmation that Myanmar is — as those investors are no doubt fond of saying — “open for business”.
So the level of complicity now extends beyond Myanmar’s border. Those with financial interests in the country are unlikely to welcome condemnation from other parts of the world, which could potentially pose a very real threat to their new ventures. This kind of self-interest is helping veil what’s really happening in the Rakhine state.
In Egypt last year, the United States government refused to call what was obviously a coup by its rightful name, because doing so would mean they would be legally obliged to stop supplying the regime with aid. The Rohingya will likely face a similar problem. If the “crisis” or “situation” (mere euphemism for wholesale murder, torture, persecution and destruction) worsens and the Genocide Convention is invoked, it demands intervention.
But those who are charged with invoking it have too many interests in not intervening. It’s a veritable catch-22.