Rights groups voice concern over World Bank’s plans for Burma
By Kyle Lawrence Mullin
October 7, 2014
While The World Bank Group (WBG) has aided swaths of struggling economies across the globe, activists in Burma say such assistance for the beleaguered South East Asian nation should come with strict conditions.
“The World Bank has an important role to play in advancing access to education, health, and electricity in Burma [also known as Myanmar],” wrote Jessica Evans, senior international financial institutions researcher at activist NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a press release issued this morning, before adding: “But for The WBG to really advance development, it needs to have its eyes wide open to Burma’s ongoing rights problems and actively work to address them.”
Chief among those issues is the government’s controversial new Rakhine State Action Plan. Critics say the plan will push Burma’s Rohingya Muslims to adopt a new ethnicity and falsely admit to being illegal immigrants (despite having resided within the nation’s borders for centuries). In the press release, Evans added that it is crucial for these human rights issues to be addressed by WBG president Jim Kim during his slated meeting with Burmese finance officials at the annual International Monetary Fund summit on October 10-12 in in Washington, DC.
But Evans is concerned that the WBG (who did not respond to interview requests for this story) will fail to make such stipulations, and instead find Burma’s development with no strings attached. In a later interview with Asian Correspondent, she pointed to a recent HRW case study on the organization’s work in Ethiopia as a troubling example. The case study found, among other troubling revelations, that World Bank funding intended for development of the African nation’s rural infrastructure was misappropriated for its infamous “villagization” practices, in which over a million marginalized minorities were forcibly, and violently, relocated.
Evans added that, as the largest and most famous development bank in the world, the WBG’s initial steps will set a hefty precedence in Burma.
“The World Bank has an opportunity to set a tone that takes fully into account the many challenges facing Burma and actively work to address them, rather than drawing invisible lines around issues that it considers too thorny,” Evans told Asian Correspondent, adding: “In doing this, it will also influence other donors.”
But even if such stipulations come to pass, the Burmese government (which did not respond to interview requests) may prove more than reluctant to embrace them. In an earlier interview, Phil Robertson (deputy director of HRW’s Asia division) told us that the aforementioned Rakhine State Action Plan “… continues the blatantly discriminatory policies against the Rohingya that we sadly come to expect from the Burma government.”
For human rights activists like Robertson, that unsettling trend can be traced back to 2012 when mobs of Burma’s Buddhist majority torched thousands of Rohingya homes and killed dozens of the minority Muslims with machetes. From there, over 100,000 displaced Rohingya were housed in new dwellings that activist groups liken to internment camps. The recently unveiled state action plan will relocate the Rohingya to a new, undisclosed location. The plan will offer them citizenship, but only if they admit to being of the “Bengali” ethnicity, implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which may leave them subject to confinement in detention centers.
Those measures seem reasonable to much of Rakhine state’s Buddhists population, according to Matthew Smith, executive director of another prominent activist NGO, Fortify Rights.
“The state and national-level authorities regard the Rohingya as invaders from Bangladesh, and the average Rakhine Buddhist is fearful that any recognition of Rohingya ethnicity would embolden Muslims to gain more economic and political power,” Smith said in an interview with Asian Correspondent, before adding that sentiment is also driven by far deeper, and more ruthless motives. “If you can deny a population their citizenship, burn them out of their villages, and drive them from the country, it’s much easier to confiscate their property and relative wealth, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing. These proposed policies are further to a well documented campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
Robertson said that Rakhine’s circumstances have not always been so dire, adding that it’s state capital Sittwe was almost evenly divided between Rohingya and Buddhists a mere two years ago, before the surge in ethnic unrest.
“Under this plan, that will never happen again,” he said. “The idea of reconciliation has been thrown aside in this plan, and replaced with so-called ‘peaceful co-existence’ – which will mean permanent segregation of the two communities, with the separation enforced by the might of the Burma Army and police, who have a long record of human rights abuses.”
The government has deemed the current and future camps to be a necessary safe zone for the Rohingya who fell prey to the 2012 attacks. Smith concedes this point is true, but only to an extent: “It’s sadly accurate that Rohingya would be attacked if they walked through downtown Sittwe tomorrow. But if the authorities were genuinely concerned about protection they’d facilitate lifesaving humanitarian aid and stop fueling the flames of anti-Rohingya sentiment. The authorities have given displaced Rohingya two options: try to survive in squalid ill-equipped camps or flee the country by sea.”
Smith added that a June 2014 Fortify Rights investigation (that included confiscated classified documents and interviews with hundreds of fleeing Rohingya) revealed a systemic exodus of the Muslim minority by sea. The report highlighted how that journey is fraught with dangers and how the Burmese government is perpetuating the participants’ departure (the report can be viewed here).
Evans said the WBG will have a unique opportunity to address those issues at its Oct. 10 meeting with Burmese officials. She added: “The World Bank Group should also make a firm commitment to ensure that human rights will be respected in all of its investments, both in the public and private sectors, thereby setting an example of rights-respecting development for donors and companies alike.”
Smith said a successful honoring of Burma’s human rights would include amending its dated 1982 citizenship law, granting the Rohingya equal access to full citizenship, providing them basic protection from future attacks, and allowing the displaced to return home.
“None of that is happening now,” he said, adding that another shortcoming has not only proven to be an injustice for the Rohingya, but also those who have been vilified in depictions of the Muslim minority’s struggle.
“There should also be accountability for abuses by the state against Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims,” he said. “The absence of accountability only lays the groundwork for future abuses. Both communities have suffered human rights violations in one way or another.”
Smith added that the WBG has “downplayed the situation in Rakhine State, and it’s unclear whose interests they serve by doing so… Very little is known about what the bank is planning to do in Rakhine State. The international community should not only avoid complicity… but should actively work against the ethnic and religious discrimination and entrenched segregation we’re seeing. The bank has some decisions to make, and we hope they take the right course.”