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Burma Campaign UK: for our government, 'the Rohingya are expendable'

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Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK, speaks with The National Student about the manner in which the British Government facilitated the perpetration of mass crimes against humanities, war crimes, and possible genocide in Burma.

According to Mark, not only did the UK government ignore prior warnings, but actively participated in a training programme for Burmese soldiers and is currently failing to push for an arms embargo or for senior military officials to face trial at the International Criminal Court.

Our conversation concludes with a discussion on how students can pressure the government to change its policies and help alleviate the suffering in Burma currently.

Over 600,000 displaced Rohingya now live in refugee camps

Could you begin by describing who Min Aung Hlaing is and his importance in Burmese Military atrocities?

Min Aung Hlaing is the head of the military, he is the commander-in-chief of the defence services. This makes him the most powerful person in Burma. He is more powerful than the President or Aung San Suu Kyi’s created post of State Counsellor, where is she is the de facto leader.

The military brought in this new constitution in 2008, which was meant to address the pressure they were facing domestically and internationally; they knew they had to have more openness and democracy with freedom of expression within the country to alleviate some of that pressure domestically, and to get sanctions lifted to allow for trade and investment.

Min Aung Hlaing has been commander-in-chief since the reform process. The changes began in 2010-2011, and during that time we have seen a dramatic escalation in violence and human rights violations, particularly human rights violations that would be considered serious violations of international law, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and now the UN is saying possibly genocide.

In 2011-2012 with the military offenses there was a much greater intensity and a higher level of human rights violations, including a very high level of the use of rape as a weapon of war by the military.

What we are seeing now with the Rohingya in Rakhine state, they are taking it to a completely different level again, first in October 2016 and then in August 2017. His soldiers are committing a much more intense violations of human rights, and it seems to be a deliberate tactic to instil fear into the population to drive them out. The media has mostly ignored Min Aung Hlaing; he sometimes gets the occasional reference, but when this military offensive began in August 2017 a lot of the attention was on Aung San Suu Kyi. Min Aung Hlaing was the one who was ordering those soldiers to do that, and he was not getting the attention, which means he was not getting the pressure to stop.

A lot of what we were trying to do was make sure media and others were aware that this was the person who was responsible. There needs to be focus on him, and we were partially successful in that.

You wrote in your report to Parliament that Every time new abuses were perpetrated against the Rohingya, the British government, along with the rest of the international community, failed to act. Not only did they fail to act, they relaxed pressure, and gave more support to military and the government even as they perpetrated these abuses. Could you explain that statement?

The military were very lucky, in that, as they were introducing their “new” system it coincided with Obama in the White House, who was very weak on human rights, and who had other priorities in the region.

In the UK we had the conservative led government here that took over in 2010, which dropped human rights as a priority. Once they stopped pushing within the EU, all those countries within the EU that had wanted a softer approach were given free reign.

This ended up with the international community agreeing to life sanctions, and a mini-race to get business contracts in the country. European countries and others that had not been there scrabbled to set up trade offices and representatives, and the British government in particular wanted contracts from the government on services, advising them on developing agriculture, transport infrastructure, energy, things like that. They were bidding for contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to advise the government, so the UK were being particularly obsequious on these matters.

Every time something happened with the Rohingya it was an inconvenience; the British Government didn’t want to know about it, so they pushed it aside. (During) the first violence against the Rohingya in 2012, the UK and the EU tried to present it as a policing problem, that the police didn’t have the experience and the capacity to control what was communal violence, not something the government was perpetrating. So the UK and the EU went with a policing programme. This meant that the police that were backed by the military government and were getting training and support from the international community.

When the EU suspended sanctions in 2012, they had set one of the conditions for the permanent lifting of those sanctions as the improvement of the condition of the Rohingya. Things obviously were not improving; they got worse, there were two large scale waves of violence, 140,000 people displaced, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing committed according to a legal analysis by Human Rights Watch.

Yet the UK and EU continued with its training programme and lifted the sanctions. So consistently the message was sent to the Burmese government that the Rohingya is merely a talking point, we are interested in trade, and basically the Rohingya are expendable. The ministers who visit are effectively in a subservient sales position, they are not going to be asserting the promotion of human rights.

Boris Johnson has been slow to act on weakening and punishing the Rohingya 

During the relaxing of pressure on the Burmese government and military was there any forewarning that this was a bad idea?

Organisations like ourselves, Burma Campaign UK, (and) other human rights organisations - Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights, and Rohingya organisations - were all saying this is a dangerous downward spiral, it is getting worse and worse. We were doing everything we could to try to get the international community to wake up to what was going on.

Ultimately we were ignored. Not just ignored, the British government cut off access to British ministers for these human rights groups. They didn’t want to hear what we were having to say. We were proven right, but they did not want to hear it, they did not want to know.

You had the British government not just denying the problems, and looking the other way, they were actively downplaying it. They cannot claim they had no idea this was happening, they knew. They knew it was so serious that if it was accepted they would not be able to justify their policies: giving military training, giving their business, so they downplayed it. They were wilfully ignoring what was going on. No one has lost their job for it. We are talking about thousands of lives, thousands of women raped, this is a colossal atrocity, and not one government official, not one government minster has been held accountable for doing such a terrible job in such a way that has led to and facilitated what has happened.

One of the things noted on your website was your success in lobbying the British Government to stop the military training.

Yes, the military training was announced in 2013 and this is a programme that was normally only given to countries that had already gone under a transition to democracy, which Burma had not done.

They tried to spin it as human rights training, and we fought a yearlong battle with the Ministry of Defence to get the details, and it turned out that out of 60 hours only one was on human rights. So it was not human rights training at all. They lied. It was only after this latest offensive began, and 157 parliamentarians wrote to the government about it.

It appears Downing street has overruled the foreign office and have cancelled the programme. We saw quite a strong reaction from the Burmese military, who said they would never ever accept training from Britain ever again. But what was incredible is that this was cancelled at the end of September 2017; it was a month on from the atrocities, by then everyone was clear there were hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Bangladesh.

The details of the human rights violations taking place were very clear, and even as the British government finally belatedly cancelled this programme there were Burmese army military officers in the UK at British taxpayers expense that had arrived just a couple of days before.

Burma Campaign UK conducts a variety of campaigns to pressure the UK Government to act in accordance with international human rights 

How can students in the UK stay informed and help the situation in Burma?

Well our organisation is on social media; we have an email list which people can subscribe to where we have regular updates and campaigns.

In the UK there are organisations like Burmese Rohingya Organisation, which the Rohingya community here have established, and they have a global reputation to brief governments and to speak at public events because of the reliability of their work.

There is Rohingya Vision, which has people on the ground reporting what is going on. But the thing is I see people sometimes who roll their eyes when they ask “what can I do?” and I say “talk to your MPs”, but it really makes a difference. We have seen time and time again when we are trying to get the British Government to do something and they are refusing, if we can mobilise enough support in Parliament then the British government feels the heat.

It is rare that we have found that the Foreign Office will do something because it is the right thing to do. Logic and morals do not seem to be the primary driving factor in their decision making, but at some point you have a minister who is being questioned in Parliament all the time, he is walking down the corridors in Parliament and he has got MPs coming up and talking to him about something and he is going back to his officials and asking why the government is not doing anything about it. Writing to MPs, or going to meet your MPs, really does make a difference. We have had MPs standing up in Parliament really putting a boot into the minster, based on the fact that they have had constituents meeting them and writing to them.

The other thing is that we are going to be producing a ‘dirty-list’ of companies that are arming or doing business with the military at some point later this year. This will include the contact details of all those companies in order to contact those arms manufacturers, or any other companies that are involved in human rights violations against the Rohingya, or any other ethnic people in Burma. All these companies will be named and shamed on this list with their contact details. When we had a dirty list in the past more than 100 companies pulled out, so we know this is an effective tactic.

One of the other goals your organisation mentions is a UN global arms embargo - is there any movement towards that end?

We have been really surprised how hard it has been to get any country to support this; we thought this was a no-brainer. I mean this military is committing what the UN says is ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide - not selling them guns should be a no-brainer. If ever there is a good reason for having a UN mandated global arms embargo this would be it, yet it has gained no traction whatsoever.

We have been calling on the European Union, the British government, and others to support this, and it seems countries are not willing to go there. The EU has its own arms embargo but is not willing to support a UN mandated arms embargo. Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries that have been so outspoken have not been willing to support it, because their member states are still supplying the military with equipment.

At the end of the day it is another one of those things that would require the UN Security Council to act, and China and Russia are both selling huge amounts of equipment to the Burmese military, so the problem of a veto is present.

But this is another example where just the process would put pressure on the Burmese military. With more and more countries coming out supporting a UN-mandated arms embargo it starts to become a thing that countries are not going to want to ignore, because of the potential controversy around its human rights implications. Really anything that makes the military’s life more difficult will save lives on the ground.

Visit Burma Campaign UK on Twitter and join their email list here

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