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