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I’m tempted to say straight off that what goes on in Myanmar (formerly Burma) is entirely the business of the Burmese people and that other countries don’t have any business interfering in the affairs of a sovereign country. And that’s fine, as far as it goes.
But there’s a shared responsibility that the world’s leaders have to the world’s citizens, which is the responsibility to ensure that what we call ‘normal civil rights’ are preserved regardless of which government or junta is in power.
Normally, this is expressed through the august offices of the United Nations, first by the UN Security Council (in emergency situations) and later, by the UN General Assembly.
In the case of Myanmar, the UN Security Council has barely commented, and the UN General Assembly hasn’t yet discussed the plight of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed, or partially deposed leader of that country — who, it must be said, barely ‘ruled’ the country in the first place, and that, only with the tepid approval of the powerful Burmese military.
Was she the leader at all, one wonders? Or was it all a pantomime to placate democrats around the world concerned about the purity of democratic process everywhere, and in particular, Myanmar?
I think it was the latter, because as soon as Aung San Suu Kyi began to implement democratic reforms she found herself under house arrest along with some of her government ministers charged with spurious offences. An utterly predictable outcome.
If you didn’t see this coming years ago, either you’re not an astute observer of international politics or you’re incredibly naive.
The Burmese Regime Has Been Preparing for This Moment for Decades
Obviously, it’s been the plan all along: Placate world leaders by installing a weak president bereft of any real power; arrest the president if he or she decides to implement real democratic reforms; and then get ready to repel invasion by international ‘do-gooder’ nations, and then, via the use of pre-placed terrorist operatives around the world, destroy their attackers from within, to ‘teach them a lesson’ about ‘messing with Myanmar’. Anything is possible in war they say.
Which isn’t a bad way for a country to make a name for itself and a good way for a large number of extremely wealthy Burmese generals to enhance and extend their grip on power. Totally logical. Efficient.
And likely to succeed on account of the extended preparation time that Myanmar’s military has enjoyed courtesy of a global order busy with postwar rebuilding, the Cold War, and various wars and economic crises in the postwar era. And during the entire time, Myanmar was at the bottom of the international ‘To Do’ list.
As I said, anyone could’ve seen it coming.
The Moral (and Tempting) Choice is for World Leaders to want to ‘Bring Myanmar to Heel’
But how is that possible without getting Aung San Suu Kyi killed, or worse?
And how is it possible for the world to quickly create a powerful military coalition to enforce change in Myanmar — without hundreds or even thousands of military casualties courtesy of the Burmese military which has been spoiling for this fight for generations and now seems ready to engage and fight this battle on their own carefully prepared turf…
It’s a fight that the existing order is wholly unprepared for and one they could actually lose.
No one thought that North Korea could fight to a draw, a robust America nearing the peak of its power in 1950-53.
No one thought that France could lose the war in French Indochina (Vietnam).
No one thought that the USA (at the peak of its power, 1962-1975) and acting in concert with some of its allies, could lose the Vietnam War.
No one thought that the Cold War would end in a stalemate, irreparably damaging the economy of the former Soviet Union and driving American debt to a sky-high 82% of GDP. Generations from now, American citizens will still be paying the debt on the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Afghan War, and countless brushfire wars, skirmishes, and ‘economic competition’.
No one thought that a single city (Mogadishu) could send the US Marines home damaged — not having ‘won’ their objective but not having ‘lost’ their objective either. And that was just one city.
And after all the billions spent to protect and defend American citizens, even the USA can barely protect itself from a tiny COVID-19 virus.
Myanmar’s military too, has been on an equipment spending spree for decades and it employs among the most sophisticated weaponry available in the world, its troops are trained to a very high standard, and Burmese generals seem to have no concern about losing thousands of their own citizens in civil war or international conflict. The fewer mouths to feed, the better. Unless they’re old enough to carry a rifle, that is…
It might be difficult for some to realize this, but the world has changed, and not just a little. The US, if it acted alone against the Burmese military in Myanmar, could lose that fight. Think about that for a minute. Think about how that would change the world.
What kind of world will we live in if upstarts like Myanmar can beat the mighty United States military and its allies (within Myanmar) and concomitantly wreak widespread (terrorist) destruction across America during and long after a war between the US allied group and Myanmar?
The world has changed people! Think about what you want to do, before you commit your country to a plan of action.
It’s Not What the Burmese Generals Know That Will Bite Them – It’s What they Don’t Know That Will Bite Them
Although the military junta has created a large and lethal army to protect their operation, there are other ways to get the citizens of Myanmar what they want and get what we want for Myanmar’s people. Peace and prosperity, along with civil rights.
One: Give the junta everything they want. Eventually, financial excess, unlimited political power and infighting will have the Burmese army consuming itself until there’s nothing left and then legitimate politicians can return to power and never again be challenged by their military after that negative experience.
Two: Cut off any travel by air or sea (only) to and from Myanmar. (A no-fly and no-sail zone along Myanmar’s entire coastline) Yes, plenty of trade could still be done via Myanmar’s land borders and this plan might merely inconvenience the ruling junta.
However, if they challenged America and it’s allies at sea, the junta would lose badly because naval power and air power happen to be Myanmar’s weakness. They have no real air force other than the latest-missile-equipped spotter-type aircraft and they have no real Navy other than small coastal patrol craft that are capable of sinking drug-runner boats. It must be emphasized again that Myanmar has a large and formidable (land-based) army, representing a huge capability for them.
So, when you go to war, you always want to fight the enemy on your own terms, doing that which your own side does best. You never want to fight the enemy on their strengths as that will dramatically increase your own casualty rate and the casualty rate of the civilians you’re trying to protect.
But cutting off air and sea access to Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal ocean frontage would embarrass the junta and let the citizens of Myanmar know that their plight has been heard and is being acted upon by a coalition of nations. (Hopefully, acted upon by all other nations)
And eventually, with enough billions of coalition dollars and enough coalition casualties, they would beat-down the junta enough that they would allow President Aung San Suu Kyi to rule Myanmar again. Unhindered this time.
Three: A long process; But so-called ‘Soft Power’ — employing diplomacy to work with the ruling junta to help it gain the same respect, maturity, and perspective that developed countries enjoy and employ to attain their goals — would work to raise the level of discourse among the generals that presently rule Myanmar. And this is what should’ve been happening all along, throughout the Cold War and especially since the end of that incredibly destructive (and wholly unnecessary) conflict.
Bringing Myanmar’s generals up to the same governance standards as the rest of the world is, by far, the best way to ensure peace, security, and prosperity for Myanmar and other countries in the region.
Helping Myanmar’s junta to become part of Myanmar’s solution instead of part of its own problem is the way to proceed.
Time for a Tony Benn quote: “All war, represents a failure of diplomacy.”
Let’s Plan Ahead and Get the Result We Want
Who doesn’t like peace and prosperity?
Who doesn’t like watching their hopes and dreams come true every day?
Everyone likes these things, and for good reason, they are the pathways that lead to happy and fulfilling lives for citizens and those things allow the robust economics that produce the reliable revenues that politicians need to deliver high quality government services to their citizens year in and year out.
So, let’s continue to plan for that in our own countries, and in the case of countries like Myanmar where governance is clearly still a work-in-progress, let’s help them plan for the same outcomes in their country by giving them the information and training they lack — thereby allowing their country to succeed — instead of them becoming yet another nightmare, another failed state that we all wind up paying for in blood and treasure.
Either this generation of world leaders are up to that task, or they aren’t. And if they aren’t, they haven’t learned from past mistakes and we’ll soon be at some kind of war in Myanmar. We shall see…
As of this writing, over 450,000 Rohingya muslims from Myanmar (also called Burma) have fled violence and their burned-out villages to land across the border in Bangladesh, and after all the appropriate hand-wringing by political leaders and the media it appears that not one bit of international assistance has been rendered to help the refugees, nor to help Bangladesh afford all the costs of hosting such huge refugee numbers.
The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheik Hasina, is a wonderful lady and seems to want to help the Rohingya people.
But her idea is for diplomacy and negotiations to solve Burma’s domestic strife. And in a normal situation that’s the first step of a long process.
However, the Rohingya are a tiny minority in the country (2.2 million remain in Burma) and every day, tens of thousands race for their lives to the Bangladeshi border. By the time diplomacy and negotiations get rolling there won’t be a single Rohingya muslim left alive in the country — they’ll either have fled to Bangladesh or they’ll have been killed by Buddhists who don’t want them in Burma, period. Full stop.
Because the situation in Burma is so toxic, there is absolutely zero chance that any Rohingya that remains in Burma won’t be killed by Buddhist mobs or (purportedly) by the Burmese military. Therefore, my respectful advice to PM Sheik Hasina is to begin preparations TODAY, to house, feed, and employ, the remaining 2.2 million Rohingya that will surely arrive in the coming weeks.
The question is; What assistance have the UK, The Commonwealth, or the United Nations offered to Bangladesh where 450,000 people have shown up with only the clothes on their backs, and another 2.2 million following over the next few weeks? The silence is deafening.
On the Ground in Burma
Due to high levels of harassment, intimidation and conflict deaths in Myanmar (also called Burma) that is openly carried out by hostile Buddhists and (purportedly) by Burmese government troops, almost half a million Rohingya muslims have fled in recent days to neighbouring Bangladesh.
The refugees are arriving in southern Bangladesh tired, afraid, hungry and disoriented as they flee their burning villages. Sixty per cent of those are women and children.
In Burma 4.3 per cent of the country are Muslim (about 2.6 million in total) while 88 per cent (46 million) are Buddhist and 6 per cent are Christian.
What’s different for the Muslims in Burma is that due to arcane Burmese law, they aren’t allowed to own real estate (land or buildings) because they aren’t recognized as citizens due to the fact they can’t prove their ancestors lived there prior to 1823. The Rohingya are… human beings without a country.
In recent decades over 100,000 have fled to nearby countries to work or to ask for refugee status. Most of them didn’t qualify for Burmese citizenship in the first place — and therefore arrived in a totally new country with no birth certificate, passport, other reliable identification, or even a family address. Intolerable, doesn’t begin to describe it.
Which is why hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have landed across the border in Bangladesh since August 25th. Up to 2.3 million more may arrive in the coming months if all Burmese muslims flee the country.
If the present situation is any indication, it looks like all of them will leave Burma.
Why Not Just Go Back?
Burmese Rohingyas have nothing to return to, only burned out villages and increasingly hostile citizens. And once having crossed over into Bangladesh, they can’t cross back into the country in which they were born because they have no legal identification to show to Burmese border guards other than a long-distance telephone calling card (if they’re lucky) and no family address recognized by Burmese authorities.
Myanmar laying landmines on Bangladesh border (Al Jazeera) (so the Rohingya can’t return)
Bangladesh: The Promised Land for the Rohingya
For decades, the Rohingya have been leaving Burma for Bangladesh and other southeast Asian nations, seeking employment and a chance at a new life.
In those places, if they can find employment they can eventually apply for citizenship and become an actual citizen, with an actual street address, and be a person with an actual job and a real life. If you’re a factory owner that hires a Rohingya, you know they are highly motivated to succeed and that they will be the least problematic of your workers.
However, even a successful economy like Bangladesh can’t accept millions of refugees in a matter of weeks. The country is doing relatively well for a developing nation and continues to improve its infrastructure and the lives of its citizens every year.
Bangladesh is ranked surprisingly highly by development agencies, and is often referred to ‘one of the next-11’ countries after the G20 countries.
An interesting note about Bangladesh is that they are the largest contributor in the world to UN peacekeeping missions — providing tough, fully trained troops for many UN operations. (The UN pays the wages of the Bangladesh soldiers while under its command and supplies many of the tanks and APC’s that Bangla soldiers use while on UN peacekeeping missions, which is a standard practice of the United Nations)
What Will it Take to Help the Rohingya?
- Plenty of international aid money
- Acceptance by Bangladesh citizens
In the southern region of Bangladesh, 450,000 Rohingya are being held in camps stretching along the border with Burma. While 60 per cent of the refugees are women and children, Bangladeshis worry about young Rohingya males who may have been exposed to extremist thought and could conceivably at least, act against Bangladesh citizens in the future. So far, nothing like that has been reported.
However, keeping hundreds of thousands of refugees in miserable and makeshift camps in hot and humid weather isn’t going to help anyone’s mood.
Even if the Rohingyas arrived there never having imagined a terrorist thought in their life, a year of living under those conditions won’t help to keep violent acts out of the minds of young men, who, like young men everywhere, are prone to acting on a perceived problem without properly thinking it through.
‘No words’ to describe Bangladesh camps, Red Cross says (abc.au)
If Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina can convince UN donors to generously fund the effort, her country has a good chance of accommodating the sudden flood of refugees; Assisting them to find jobs, homes, and helping to build the strong sort of communities that are an asset to any country — but if it doesn’t happen in this manner, that region of Bangladesh is on the same path as the extremely hurtful (to all sides) Israeli/Palestinian conflict was at its very beginning. Nobody wants that.
Or do they? We’ll see what the response is after UN General Assembly meets this week in New York.
What Jobs Can the Rohingya Do?
If Bangladesh elects to help the Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma, the best way forward is to employ them as farm labourers in the southern part of the country. Many of these people have lived in rustic conditions and it will take some time before they will be getting jobs as CEO’s, airline pilots, or automobile designers. But that’s not to say they can’t make a valuable contribution to the Bangladesh economy — they can!
Starting the Rohingyas working in the fields will allow them to acclimatize to the new country and cement their place as valuable workers in Bangla society.
The most important thing for the Bangladeshi authorities to remember after taking care of food, shelter and medicine for the new refugees is to provide a sense of community.
Just dumping these people on a hunk of land and feeding them every day isn’t going to solve anything, but the eventual result will be a social crisis on the scale of what we’re witnessing in the Philippines today.
What Kind of Housing for Working Rohingya Families?
Refugees that want to work should have access to temporary living quarters. You simply can’t get any sleep in a refugee camp (you know this if you’ve ever visited one!) and therefore, you won’t keep your job very long. Therefore, it’s important to relocate Rohingya workers to suitable accommodations for workers until they can save enough money to purchase their own dwelling.
There are thousands of used portable offices and portable crew quarters in the world available at any time. Not only that, but the UN could purchase thousands of new ATCO-type portable trailers to house Rohingya workers and ship them to southern Bangladesh.
In that way, the Rohingya that are able and willing to work will have appropriate accommodation. The benefit of these portable buildings is that they are prewired for electricity, and stoves and heat are provided by natural gas tanks located on the exterior of the unit.
One point to remember about this kind of living quarters is that they can be lifted via crane and placed on top of solid stilts — this is important in Bangladesh as many areas of the country are prone to flooding during the annual monsoon season. Many Bangla homes are placed on stilts to avoid being flooded or carried away in the floodwaters.
It seems Shaikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh sincerely wants to assist the Rohingya refugees and that’s admirable.
However, it’s going to take a few billion dollars just to meet the needs of these desperate people until the end of the year. After that, rather than allowing the miserable conditions of the refugee camps to become the fuel for conflict, the Rohingya must be urged to find local work on the many farms in the region. It’s really the only option in this case.
Getting refugees employed is almost as important as sheltering and feeding them as they stream across the Bangladesh border.
- ‘The scale is just vast’: Authorities, aid workers in Bangladesh overwhelmed by Rohingya refugees (CBC)
- Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, Speech At UNGA United Nations | Sept 21, 2017 (YouTube)
- Aung San Suu Kyi invites international help for Rakhine crisis
- Bangladesh restricts Rohingya refugees, starts immunization
- Rohingya Muslims are being wiped off Myanmar’s map
- Myanmar accused of crimes against humanity (CBC)
- Myanmar’s front lines of horror (Globe and Mail)
- Indian Army strikes Naga insurgents along India-Myanmar border (LiveMint)