Burma’s Muslim minority is a casualty of a geopolitical tug of war between the West and China to dominate Asia
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is on track to win nearly 90 percent of the votes in Myanmar’s historic elections.
EU observers have poured gushing praise on the “transparency” and “credibility” of the elections - despite simultaneously admitting they are not “truly genuine” due to the denial of voting rights to Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, who make up 1.3 million of the Burmese population.
Last October, the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University in London found that the Rohingya, who reside largely in Rakhine state, face “the final stages of a genocidal process”. Leaked government documents show that plans to inflict “mass annihilation” have been prepared at the highest levels.
The ISCI report catalogues the rape, torture, massacres, arbitrary detention, land theft and ghettoisation perpetrated as part of “a longer-term strategy by the state to isolate, weaken and eliminate the group”.
Overall, four million Burmese have been denied voting rights. Overseas Burmese workers cannot register, voter lists are riddled with errors, and polling has been cancelled in areas of ethnic violence - while a quarter of all parliamentary seats are reserved for the military.
Since 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has repeatedly bowed to government authority, refusing to criticise military aggression against Christian Kachin rebels, amidst allegations of internal election rigging to prevent thousands of younger NLD members from voting.
“She has in some ways been co-opted by the government, which is led by a lot of former generals,” observed former Australian Ambassador to Myanmar Trevor Wilson.
Guy Horton, “the man who uncovered the truth about Burma” and a friend of Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband Michael Aris, has slammed the NLD’s compromises with the junta for providing an “apparently legitimate democratic fig leaf for the illegitimate military controlled government and the whole grotesquely rigged political transition”.
US and British “democracy promoters” play the lead role in defending Myanmar.
In May, the US State Department published its Investment Climate Statement for Burma, intended to “help US investors make informed investment decisions”.
The report highlights “the international business community’s interest in Burma and the unique opportunities the country presents - including a rich natural resources base, a large market potential, a young labour force and a strategic location between India, China and the countries that make up the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)”.
The State Department report focuses on the need for Myanmar to continue neoliberal “economic reforms” to open up the country to foreign investors.
Rather than acknowledging the junta’s culpability, the document makes passing reference to “political violence,” characterised ‘neutrally’ as “anti-government insurgent activity in various locations,” and “inter-communal violence… between Buddhists and Muslims”.
A report by the UK government’s department for Trade and Investment (UKTI) was similarly breathless: “Burma is estimated to possess 3.2 billion barrels of oil and 18 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas reserves… Its unproven resources may be vastly greater.”
These resources make Burma “among the world’s top fifth nations in terms of its proven reserves”.
According to the Economist “foreign oil experts” believe “Myanmar’s fields could be on a par with Britain’s North Sea before it was exploited, or Brazil’s reserves now”.
US, British, Australian and European oil majors have been awarded contracts by the junta, including BG Group and Ophir (UK); Shell (UK-Netherlands); Statoil (Norway); Chevron and Conoco Phillips (US); Woodside (Australia); Eni (Italy) and Total (France).
Many of these contracts - particularly those involving Chevron, Ophir, Woodside, and Eni - are production-sharing initiatives in the Rakhine basin, just off the coast of the Rakhine state where local Rohingya Muslims face the prospect of extinction.
But the West’s eagerness to open up access to Myanmar’s untapped energy resources is also about China.
“Drawing Myanmar out of China’s sphere of influence was touted in Washington as a great diplomatic boon for the US pivot to Asia,” explains Hunter Marsten, a former State Department official based in Rangoon, Myanmar. “The US aims to inhibit China’s expanding regional influence… to preserve the status quo security architecture put in place by the US and Europe.” That is “why the United States has refrained from criticising Myanmar’s shortcomings… The US needs a ‘good enough’ democratic partner in Myanmar to provide a bulwark on China’s strategic southern border with India”.
Ramping up Western fossil fuel investments in Myanmar is therefore integral to the wider strategy of containing Chinese influence.
The China-Myanmar pipeline completed last year provides the first overland access route to China for oil and gas shipments from the Middle East. It is capable of carrying a whopping 0.5 percent of global oil demand.
Saudi Arabia is a major player in the Myanmar pipeline. In 2011, the Saudi’s Aramco signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to supply China 200,000 barrels of crude a day through the China-Myanmar pipeline. In return, China would help develop Saudi’s Yanbu refinery on the Red Sea coast.
A parallel gas pipeline has since 2014 transported four billion cubic metres of methane from Myanmar and Qatar to China via the seaport of Kyaukpyu in Rakhine. The latter has “become an operational hub for multi-billion dollar investments by Daewoo International, which has offshore gas concessions, and China National Petroleum Co. [CNPC],” according to Simon Montlake, Forbes’ Beijing bureau chief.
Daewoo, a South Korean firm, is operating in Kyaukpya in partnership with Australia’s Woodside.
It is no coincidence that the areas of the pipeline passing through Myanmar’s Shan and Rakhine states have involved frequent clashes between secessionists and government forces, crushing efforts to challenge the finality of central control of these energy transshipment routes.
This includes ethnically cleansing the Rohingya coastal communities in Kyaukpyu, Rakhine.
“Much of the attention has been on the pipeline’s diagonal path across Myanmar and the role of the military in securing it,” reports Forbes. “But there are also concerns about the impact on Kyaukpyu and other coastal areas.”
Montlake refers to the expulsion of the Rohingya from the coastal town in October 2012. Satellite imagery published by Human Rights Watch “identifies the torched community as being on the eastern shore, near to the industrial zones where CPNC and Daewoo are invested”.
According to Anne Gillman of the US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, like the West, the Gulf regimes see Myanmar as a key economic entry point into Asia.
They are interested in “using land in Myanmar for food security”. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is keen to export its “agricultural chemicals and fertilisers industry” to Myanmar.
Qatar’s Ooredoo has already invested billions of dollars in Myanmar’s telecom infrastructure. And since October 2012 - while Kyaukpyu’s Rohingya quarter was being razed to the ground - Qatar Airways rewarded Myanmar by opening direct flights from Doha to Yangon.
That year, UAE conglomerate al-Marwan also began seeking contracts “to build road infrastructure and hotels and also set up trade and marine services in the country”.
Death by growth
Sustained economic growth, now around 8.5 percent, has come at a price paid by increasingly disenfranchised agricultural workers - about half the population.
Economic reforms have “driven displacement, human rights abuses and social unrest that have called the country’s democratic transition into question,” writes David Baulk in Foreign Policy.
In simpler terms, growth is not trickling down, but raping the majority on behalf of the few, translating into ethno-religious tensions.
Meanwhile, the scramble for Myanmar’s resources has granted the junta the impunity it craves to accelerate the genocide of the Rohinga.
- Nafeez Ahmed PhD is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Image: Rohingya women and men gather at the Thel-Chaung displacement camp in Sittwe located in Rakhine State on November 8, 2015. Tens of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state living in displacement camps have been disenfranchised by the government from the landmark November 8 elections. (AFP)