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The United Nations has finally alleged Genocide, Crimes against humanity and War Crimes have been inflicted in Burma. Wider questions now need to be asked: Who has known what has been going on? What have they known? What have they chosen not to know? What role have UN agencies, NGO’s and Face book played in this man- made disaster? Why have so few challenged what has been going on? When do disregard, silence and understatement amount to passive complicity? When does passive complicity become active complicity?
Let us acknowledge a dilemma of AID. It seeks to reduce suffering but all too often aid workers have to ignore, or work through, or with, or round the perpetrators of suffering. They have to compromise in other words. This is normal, but at what point does compromise become complicity? Arguably, many of the international NGO’s have crossed that line in Burma.
A preliminary clarification should be made at the outset: there is a distinction between natural disasters and man- made ones. For decades the Burman (as opposed to Burmese) army has been subjugating, assimilating and destroying other ethnic groups. Burma is thus a man made human rights disaster, not a natural one. The violations inflicted by the State have been identified and, implicitly or explicitly, condemned as crimes against humanity by UN Special Rapporteurs for human rights and UN General Assembly Resolutions since 1992.
Most international organisations, with notable exceptions such as Human Rights Watch and the UN Office of Human Rights and Fortify Rights, have, however, downplayed or disregarded the gravity and extent of the violations for years. They have been aided by journalists and academics who usually view the ethnic minority areas through the distorted lens of Yangon and their own conscious and unconscious self-censorship. As a result Burma’s decades long , slow motion genocide has often been misrepresented or understated as “underdevelopment” or peripheral “tribal conflict.” A paramedic, for example, working in Karen state without rubber gloves torn up by the Burma army, fails to deliver babies hygienically not because of poverty, isolation or backwardness, but because her gloves have been intentionally destroyed. That’s policy, or as The Genocide Convention states in article 2c: deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part.
Moreover, collaboration and complicity has been institutionalised in Burma. Let us examine a specific example. In January 2013 I was in Ma Ja Yang, Kachin State in the far north. Thousands of Burmese troops had been massed for human wave attacks on Kachin positions. Mortar bombs rained down. Babies were taken over the Chinese border for safety and tens of thousands of civilians were, and are, incarcerated into camps with little food or medicines largely cut off from AID. Two boys suffocated to death in a collapsed earth bank next me as Russian fighter bombers flew over head. Meanwhile the NGO’s were dutifully assembled to sign their memoranda of understanding with the new “civilian” “democratic” government in the capital. On the BBC World service the Secretary General of the UN welcomed the ceasefire. In Britain dfid was funding a program for the Burma army. In the Western media Burma’s brave new world of peace and democracy had been triumphantly lauded and misrepresented on the front cover of Time as “Burma unbound”. Meanwhile the mortar bombs – the big Chinese variety at 7000 dollars apiece- continued to rain down round me. By signing memoranda of understanding with the military controlled government, while remaining silent about its policy of genocidal violence, the NGO’s have been, and are, guilty of passive complicity and collective collaboration.
The media fixation with Aung San Suu Kyi has helped facilitate misrepresentation. Far from being released into freedom as the media presented it to a fawning world, Suu Kyi has been co-opted by the military and is now its most effective complicit apologist. The global media and diplomatic community misinterpreted and misrepresented the reconsolidation and refiguration of Bamar military power in the last election as a democratic transition. The final act of self-delusion was the UK Parliament’s naive beatification of Aung San Suu Kyi in a State address to both houses of Parliament, an unconscionable endorsement of the Bamar dictatorship, even while crimes against humanity were being inflicted.
Complicity and appeasement of criminal regimes by prestigious international organisations is nothing new. The Red Cross’s deliberate misrepresentation of conditions in Aushwitz as “harsh but fair” in 1942 may be one of the most infamous examples of NGO complicity, but so too were the Norwegian Prime Minister and EU’s External Affairs Commissioner’s dismissals of the genocidal persecution of the Rohingya as “an internal Myanmar matter.”
Complicity in Burma can also be unobtrusive and individual. A UN researcher in 2002 was investigating a massacre of Karen women and children on the Thai/Burma border. By chance I happened to be in the same area. He was shocked and angry to meet me, not because of the atrocity we were confronting, but because I might reveal his identity and thus jeopardise his career prospects in Burma. Self-interest has all too often trumps telling truth to power in Burma.
In addition to many NGOs, some UN organisations and national governments have also generally maintained a collaborative silence for years in Burma. The UN, with its “neutral” mediators and collaborative country “team”, has reportedly acknowledged that it is itself “dysfunctional.” Most of the organisation’s agencies have apparently been indifferent to its own human rights reports. The UN, being a government club is pre- programmed to fail because its” neutrality” backs the legitimacy of States rather than their citizen victims. The current UN Rohingya return initiative is only the last of a long line of failed “neutral” mediation exercises in Burma and is likely to be as effective as its response to the Rwanda genocide fax. It will however obfuscate, delay and buy time till the Rohingya genocide becomes as forgotten as the Naqba.
After denial comes the collective amnesia of mass tourism, itself a form of passive complicity. In “Booming,” “Burma unbound,” as the Wall Street journal and Time magazine infamously and respectively described the “liberated” country, that complicit disregard is complemented by myopic ignorance. In the eastern mountains on the Thai border, long necked women, marketable freaks burnt out of their homes, dutifully pose and smile for selfies, while on the plains the vast, slave built pagoda complex of Pagan, “cleansed” of indigenous local villagers, beguile tourists with the mirage of eastern exoticism in “The land that time forgot.”
National governments are also guilty of active complicity. The US DEA provided the Burma army with Bell helicopters which were used to massacre Delta Karen in Operation Storm in September 1991. Israel has supported Myanmar with military equipment and is now reportedly helping it to rewrite history expunging the Rohingya from memory. The UK’s dfid funded the 2014 population census to the tune of 15 million pounds. It was flawed, to put it mildly, partly because it excluded the Rohingya, many Kachin and other groups subjected to systematic persecution. Moreover, its result, coming in at about 5 million below what was expected, indicates something truly alarming; that the cost of Burma’s violent persecution over decades can indeed be estimated, in what former SLORC General Saw Maung stated, as “millions” of dead. Why did the UK government generously fund a census for a military government inflicting crimes against humanity against its own citizens?
Let us take a further example of failure of moral leadership from my own experience. A leading charity funded me to carry out human rights research and advocacy in eastern Burma from around 2002-2005 on condition that I did not reveal my sources, something I have honoured until now. Thus transparency and accountability was compromised at its outset. When my report, “Dying Alive” was published in 2005 it received world- wide attention. The charity, however, disregarded it and distanced itself from me. The regional director phoned me, not to offer congratulations, or provide support, but in alarm, because he heard that the BBC had covered it. I found myself in the bizarre position of having to protect my funder from the success of its own commissioned report. The latter had succeeded in doing precisely what it had been commissioned to do: alert the world to genocide. (As a result of the report Burma was placed on the UN genocide watch list.) However, unlike most other s, it saw the full light of day and did not end up as a door stopper. All my attempts at communicating with the funder were rejected, however. Finally I went to its headquarters, a business park, on a wet Monday morning. Despite having exposed myself to mines, malaria and Burma army ambushes for years and wasted weeks trying to get an appointment, I was told by customer relations there was no one available to see me. Meanwhile the report, “Dying alive” received worldwide attention and substantially contributed to the 2007 UN Security Council Resolution “Burma: A Threat to the Peace.”
In conclusion, Burma is a human rights disaster sustained by decades long active and passive complicity. Passionate compassion, empathetic identification with victims, and desire for justice have been largely replaced by appeasement.
Burma, we should note, signed and ratified The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of Genocide in 1956. It is thus accountable for the crime from that date, irrespective of the Rome Statute which only came into force in 2002. Moreover, the Convention outlaws not just the act of committing genocide but attempting it, conspiring to inflict it and being complicit with it. It also uniquely requires State parties to prevent it. Any future judicial mechanism should hold accountable all those directly and indirectly responsible for the crime.