The EU appears to be turning a blind eye on Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar governments denial of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in return for a stronger economic and strategic partnership.
“First the soldiers told us, ‘Do not do anything, we will protect you, we will save you,’ so we trusted them,” a 25-year-old Rohingya survivor told Human Rights Watch after witnessing one of the deadliest sectarian massacres in Myanmar in 2012. “But later,” he said, “they broke that promise.”
This conflict left 70 Rohingya killed, leaving 28 children hacked to death, 13 of them under the age of five, in what Human Rights Watch reports as state supported campaign of ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Muslim minority by the Buddhist majority in one of many clashes which has gripped the country for decades.
The aftermath of the 2012 conflicts left 140,000 Rohingya forced into squalid refugee camps, while the attackers were left to kill with impunity as the government never persecuted, let alone jailed, anyone for the killings that took place.
Within a few months of the violence, the EU, supportive of the Myanmar governments recent push for democracy, hastily suspended all non-military sanctions. With a massive potential for investment in Asia’s “last frontier economy,” Europe has toned down its advocacy for human rights in a bid to win over the country’s quasi-civilian rulers in return for a strategic partnership with the country and to curb power balances in the Asian region.
April 2016 saw the first fully free elections for Myanmar in nearly five decades, with the National League for Democracy (NLD) taking full seats in parliament, led by their charismatic de-facto leader, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi has been publically accused of “legitimising genocide” by refusing to condemn violence against the Rohingya and denying that Muslims in Myanmar have been subject to ethnic cleansing. More than a dozen fellow Nobel Laureates have condemned her actions in a 2016 letter describing the violence as having, “the hallmarks of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, as well as ethnic cleansing in Sudan’s western Darfur region, Bosnia and Kosovo.”
On the other hand, the EU publicly praised the Myanmar’s governments progress on human rights under the leadership of Aung San in late 2016, saying that they would not be introducing a resolution at the United Nations condemning the country’s record for the first time in 15 years.
High Representative of the European Union, Frederica Mogherini said the European Union understood the “complexity” of the situation in Rakhine and told Suu Kyi, “I know that you are working hard to find a sustainable solution for both communities.”
Despite this, October 2016 saw violence escalate once again, with the UN reporting thousands of Rohingya being slaughtered in ethnic clashes. On February 3, 2017, the UN human rights office officially purported that the Myanmar military had long been engaged in a brutal raping and ethnic cleansing campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslims.
Testimonials of hundreds of rape cases have also been identified as a major problem in the conflict. “After entering our house, the army apprehended us. They pushed my mother on the ground. They removed her clothes, and four officers raped her,” said one 11-year-old Rohingya girl to UN officials. “They slaughtered my father, a prayer leader, just before raping my mother.
With international pressure mounting on Myanmar to investigate these claims of crimes against humanity, the government relented to examine the accusations of abuse. The government, led by Suu Kyi, concluded in their investigation “insufficient evidence” of rape, with the government claiming many allegations were made up.
Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak has amounted from fear of the fragile political environment of Myanmar, and that any statement made would only fuel tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya. The pressure to appease the Buddhist majority was also in their recent electoral interests. In a country gripped with Islamophobia, feared perceptions the NLD were becoming too close to Myanmar’s Muslim minority, would cost them the 2015 elections. The Election in which the Rohingya, who had been stripped of their ability to vote, brought Suu Kyi to power.
While the silence over the Rohingya abuses continues, development and investment by the EU is on the rise.
This shift away from military rule has meant Myanmar is fast becoming a valuable strategic and economic partner for various regional and international stakeholders. As the they are opening their doors to the international community, it is becoming evident what their significance means to the region.
Since the 2012 sanctions were lifted, the EU trade investments in Myanmar have quadrupled, from €165 million to €675 million, with total trade between the two hitting €1.2 billion in 2015. In short, the EU has a big stake in the success of the on-going transition to democracy to guarantee bilateral trade continues to rise.
With its untapped natural resources, large potential of its growing markets and strategic geographic location connecting South and Southeast Asia, external powers have begun to increasingly engage with Myanmar, seeing them as a commercial highway throughout Southeast Asia and in particular, to China.
Power balance in Asia
In a bid to curtail Chinese influence, Myanmar may be seen as the next field for geopolitical competition in the Asian region among major international powers.
The EU is anxious over the economic and military ties to China; China being the largest investor in Myanmar with bilateral trade exceeding $1.4 billion. However, the EU also has a major stake in the power balance of the Asian region, and by backing Asia’s newest democracy, the EU hopes to gain a strong foothold in the region. As stated in the European Commission’s 2016 “Elements for an EU strategy vis-à-vis Myanmar/Burma: A Special Partnership for Democracy, Peace and Prosperity,” the dossier explains the EU’s strategic relationship with Myanmar.
“The opening up of the country has already brought about a re-balancing of its foreign relations with the overall effect of diversification in its crucial relations with China and India. A closer partnership will help advance the EU’s strategic interests in the Asia Pacific region.”
Historically, China has been a big player in Myanmar politics, with Beijing being one of the only countries to back their previous military regime, when most western nations were penalising the country through use of sanctions. China also has a big stake in the geographical location of Myanmar with major shipping routes along the Bay of Bengal, and the Strait of Malacca.
China has also recently built an oil and gas pipeline through Myanmar, signed under the military government, which bypasses the contested shipping routes through the South China Sea from the Middle East to China. It is clear Myanmar is of massive significance to Chinese commercial trade.
In a 2013 journal article from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Dr Ludovica Marchi argues, “China and its policies are interwoven with the Europeans’ attention to Myanmar. The tension is understood to be connected with China’s growing arms imports, defence budget and spending, persistent military cooperation with Myanmar and holding of Myanmar to ransom. The EU has a particular interest in the East and Southeast Asian region.”
Despite the change to democracy, the political situation in Myanmar remains volatile. Myanmar armed forces still play a powerful role within the countries security and economy, and maintaining peace is a fine balance when a country is gripped with majority backed sectarian clashes.
The EU has provided €93 million humanitarian aid to Rakhine state since 2012 to assist the ‘vulnerable’ Rohingya, yet the soft pressure exerted by the EU has not been enough to stop the violence. There is real fear from the international community that too much pressure could result in backlash, and heightening the already severe ethnic tensions in the country.
However, until the Aung San and the Myanmar government recognise the stateless position and marginalisation of the Rohingya, they will continue to be persecuted as foreigners in their own country.