(To be published in Arabic for Arabi21)
A United Nations report on the massive abuses being committed in Myanmar against the Royingya Muslims was released last Friday detailing systematic violence against civilians, including gang-rapes by security forces, and the killing of children. Later that night CNN aired a report about Rohingya militants involved in a violent insurgency in Rakhine state in Myanmar, where the Muslim minority is being severely repressed. Here we have to concur, uncomfortably, with Donald Trump’s assertion that CNN is “fake news”.
The Rohingyas are often referred to as “the most persecuted minority in the world”; and with good reason. In 1982 they were stripped of their citizenship and people whose families have lived in Myanmar for hundreds of years were turned into “illegal immigrants” overnight, and rendered stateless. Their very existence was invalidated. This legal obliteration of their status as citizens opened the flood gates for extreme discrimination and brutality. The Rohingyas have no freedom of movement, no property rights, and have enormous difficulty even getting legally married. They are regularly attacked, their homes and villages burned to the ground, they are literally forced into slave labor, women are raped by soldiers and Buddhist civilians with impunity. In short, they have been designated as officially loathed, despised, and disposable.
Despite all of this, the Rohingyas, as a community, have not turned to violence. While a militant group has emerged for the purpose of self-defense, it is very small, disorganized, possesses only primitive weapons, has no funding, and is not connected with any global Jihadist networks. And, by and large, the Rohingyas want nothing to do with them. It should be obvious that any sort of armed insurgency would be suicidal in Rakhine, and the eagerness to exaggerate the presence and influence of militancy among the Rohingyas should indicate just how useful armed resistance would be to the authorities. The UN report confirms more explicitly than ever before the extent to which the Rohingyas are powerless victims of state violence, so portraying them as a dangerous security threat would go a long way to undermine any sympathy for them, and deflect criticism of the regime. In the era of global Trumpism, the Rohingyas have at least two strikes against them: they are Muslim, and they are classified as immigrants.
So, why might Western media adopt the narrative of the Myanmar government? Why is the dehumanization and persecution of the Rohingyas useful for anyone outside of Myanmar? Well, after decades of economic isolation by the West, Myanmar has recently been integrating into the global economic system. The government has adopted neoliberal policies and the macroeconomic reforms “recommended” by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, sanctions have been lifted, and multinational corporations have been entering the country in droves. Myanmar is geographically a “crossroads” country, providing investors with immediate access to at least half a billion regional consumers. Myanmar possesses natural gas, oil, precious gems, and arable land; and Rakhine state specifically has one of the longest coastlines, making it ideal for trade and potential tourism. Indeed, one of the areas from which the Rohingyas were recently displaced by an army “clearing operation” has been earmarked for the establishment of a “special economic zone” for foreign businesses. China (Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor) began construction of an oil pipeline through Rakhine in 2009, which led to massive land confiscations and displacements. Current Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Myanmar is at a record high, nearly double its previous peak in 2014.
The economic fallout of the government’s neoliberal path has been intensification of poverty and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. Discontent among the youth has been growing everywhere in the country. This has made it all the more urgent for the regime to divert popular anger, while also increasing repression, particularly in areas of the country with vital economic importance. Hence, the existence of an officially hated segment of the population comes in handy.
This is particularly true in Rakhine state, which is one of the poorest in Myanmar, and whose population is ethnically distinct from the ruling elites in Yangon. Rakhine has a history of secessionist sentiment, and, of course, any such autonomy or independence would be devastating to the economy of Myanmar were it ever achieved. Redirecting the hostility of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists away from the central government, and instead towards the Rohingyas is a very effective strategy for the government, and thus, for the international business community.
In my view, it is not that the government actually wants to complete Genocide against the Rohingyas, they want to maintain a genocidal sentiment, preserve the Rohingyas as eligible for extermination, and just keep the hatred alive as long as they can. This can both keep the Rakhine majority distracted and it can provide a rationale for military occupation of the state, in a manner very similar to what the central government of Nigeria has done in the resource-rich and utterly impoverished Niger Delta. And, again, this is intrinsically connected to the interests of foreign investors and multinational corporations.