Lt. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield on Monday stood before his Burmese counterparts as the first American military officer to do so in decades. “My presence here is indicative of the new chapter in our countries’ relationship,” Crutchfield, the deputy commander of the United States Pacific Command, stated, speaking before a crowd of over 100 military officials at Myanmar’s National Defense College.
In his speech, Crutchfield stressed the need to adhere to the rule of law and respect human rights. But while the U.S. and other western countries begin to re-engage Myanmar after its decades as an international outcast, human rights advocates are increasingly condemning the way the world has turned a blind eye to Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims, which threatens to devolve into the world’s next genocide.
The international community has praised Myanmar’s skyrocketing economic growth and 2010 elections — the first in 20 years — as sufficient reason to restore relations with the former pariah state. However, critics claim that beneath the guise of democratization and an economic boom lies a much darker reality for Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities.
From 1962 to 2011, Myanmar was ruled by an iron-fisted military junta — which renamed the country from Burma in 1989 — that mercilessly suppressed all dissent despite punishing international sanctions. Throughout the decades, the military persecuted a range of minorities living in Myanmar, notably the Karen people of South and Southeast Myanmar and the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. Forced labor, state-sanctioned terror, and mass displacement became the norm for generations of marginalized groups living under Myanmar’s military rule. While the junta officially relinquished power in 2010, Myanmar’s constitution reserves a quarter of all parliamentary seats for the military, and the ministers of the interior, defense, and border affairs must all be sitting generals. But moderate reforms, such as allowing Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to run for Parliament, have convinced many E.U. member states and the U.S. that Myanmar is serious about improving its human rights record and implementing democratization.
The government’s cautious reforms have been rewarded with huge economic benefits from the same countries that previously refused to trade with Myanmar. After the E.U. lifted all sanctions except for an arms embargo last year, the U.S. followed suit, dropping most of its restrictions on trade and opening the country to investors. And while Lt. Gen Crutchfield’s talk was aimed at providing the Burmese military with training in rule of law and disaster relief, the meeting also signaled that the U.S. is ready to grant legitimacy to a government that many advocates claim is actively involved in ethnic cleansing.
While foreign investment has steadily flowed back into Myanmar, the country’s ethnically divided Rakhine State has witnessed sectarian violence that approaches genocidal proportions. Since intercommunal clashes broke out there in 2012, Burmese-Buddhist nationalists led by anti-Muslim monks have killed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims. As many as 140,000 Rohingya were also forced into internally displaced persons camps a top U.N. envoy said involve the worst degree of suffering that she has ever seen.
“What we’re seeing in Rakhine state is a dangerous precursor to genocide,” said Daniel Sullivan, Director of the Policy and Government Relations at United to End Genocide, in an interview with ThinkProgress. Sullivan coauthored a report on violence against the Rohingya after visiting Myanmar in March. He is also one of many who still refers to the country as Burma, which is the preference of both democracy activists who dispute the legitimacy of the government’s 1989 renaming decision and the U.S. government.
The Muslim ethnic minority group, which numbers over one million, has lived in Myanmar for generations, but the government continues to deny them citizenship, which was stripped from the Rohingya in 1982. Myanmar’s president, former general Thein Sein, publicly denied their existence, instead repeating the fallacious claim that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The stance is a common one in Myanmar; even pro-democracy hero Suu Kyi’s spokesman has said that she doesn’t believe that the Rohingya even exist.
The president has promised to crackdown on nationalists mobs that torch mosques, murder the Rohingya, and chase them from their homes, but Reuters reports that police regularly do nothing to interfere. While the government has repeatedly used mass arrests as a tool to punish the Rohingya for sectarian clashes, it has done nothing to apprehend the popular Buddhist monk who has branded himself the “Burmese Bin Laden” and regularly incites violence against Muslims through Islamophobic hate speech.
After the massacre of 40 Rohingyas in January, Myanmar’s government refused access to U.N. investigators and refused to acknowledge that the killings ever took place. The devastation has only increased since President Thein Sein banned the aid group Doctors Without Borders in February, eliminating the only source of medical care for many Rohingya and leading to hundreds of additional deaths.
“Nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide than in Burma today,” Sullivan continued. “One of the last tools for leverage left was military to military relations. While we see new bouts of violence where the state is either failing to act to protect people or is directly involved, military and diplomatic officials are visiting Burma and giving the army more legitimacy.”
CREDIT: AP Photo/Khin Maung Win
“On the whole, the international community has leaned more towards the positive story, focusing on the reforms, while ignoring the backtracking and dangerous warning signs of genocide from hate speech to organized propaganda campaigns by the state,” Sullivan stated. He suggests the E.U. and U.S. should “put pressure on the Burmese leaders to denounce inciting violence and ensure some form of accountability that includes independent international observers on the ground.” Without these steps, Sullivan predicts “an outright genocide” will occur, “or a less direct and slow rolling form of mass killing through the denial of aid.”
Myra Dahgaypaw, Campaigns Coordinator for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, is a human rights activist and member of Myanmar’s Karen ethnic minority. Originally from Karen State in Eastern Myanmar, she lived as an internally displaced person for about 12 years and a refugee for 17 years until she resettled in the United States. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Dahgaypaw shed light on how the development boom distracting from Myanmar’s ongoing violence is actually harming ordinary people, and offered suggestions as to how the U.S. could pursue relations with Myanmar in a more responsible way.
“The international community and our population here in the U.S. get the wrong message that Burma is now a democratic country, you can start doing business. But what lies underneath is terrible,” she said. According to Dahgaypaw, the Burmese government sanctions violence against minorities in part so that they are able to confiscate huge tracts of resource-rich land minority groups have inhabited for generations. These resources are becoming all the more valuable with the recent surge of development.
“Right now, we’re talking about opening up all kinds of economic engagement channels,” she said. “But massive relocation is taking place. Ordinary people, not even just ethnic minorities, are affected by massive land confiscation. People have become homeless in their own lands,” she said. “The changes that have come to the country are benefiting a very small portion of the people. Investment must benefit small businesses, small farmers on the ground. We want to make sure they are benefited by the change.”
Not easily discouraged, Dahgaypaw offered a framework for U.S.-Myanmar relations going forward. “The very important step is to move forward with preconditions: that is my biggest request. If the U.S. wants to have military relations, make the Burmese military stop fighting, killing and raping ethnic minorities. If they want to have economic investment, make sure the government doesn’t take away people’s land and make them homeless,” she said. “Our message is do it responsibly. Do it with caution.”
While the press hails Myanmar’s present as a “historical moment” in which the country is poised to finally achieve modernization, Dahgaypaw argues for a more nuanced understanding: “All I ask is that when the media covers investment and democratization, they also include ongoing violence.”
Photo: A Myanmar Muslim family, who identify as Rohingya, in Rakhine State refugee camp
Will Freeman is an intern with ThinkProgress.