Myanmar and The Shame Of Us All

Hopes were high when Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power in Myanmar, but now there are allegations of brutality towards the Rohinyga people who are fleeing for their lives.


The rise of Aung San Suu Kyi was supposed to mark a new dawn from Myanmar. The country had been isolated from the world and Aung San Suu Kyi was an internationally beloved and admired figure. After all she had endured at the hands of her government, then surely she would bring much needed change to the state.

It’s not a unique narrative. In 2010, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan and after years of turmoil, it was hoped that the break would make for the start of peace and progress. It was not to be. South Sudan is gripped in a bloody civil war which the world isn’t talking about. The optimism for South Sudan quickly collapsed and the world has been largely inactive. In Myanmar, there was confidence that the new leadership would be an end to brutality by the state. For the Rohingya people though, nothing has been further from the truth. Our optimism in change seems misplaced, at least without a global commitment to ensuring change is delivered.

Dr Matteo Fumagalli, is a senior lecturer of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and  his work has paid attention to how the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar ever started, and how it has not been stopped.

“The Rohingya crisis makes headlines but is, seemingly, no priority for anyone, really,” says Dr Fumagalli. “Certainly not for the Trump administration, all too preoccupied with North Korea. That said, even without the North Korea crisis, I do not see all the urge to rush and tackle this crisis. In Europe, there is still some refugees crisis fatigue from 2015 (which in political terms clearly does not pay at all, as Angela Merkel was reminded of last weekend).”

“I do not see all the urge to rush and tackle this crisis”

Merkel may have won the German election, but the far right AfD managed to get 13% of the vote. There’s been a widespread backlash to the refugee crisis and politicians have not been able to stand up against islamophobia. It means many European leaders are far more focused on their own political positions, rather than acting as global leaders and standing up to support those fleeing war and terror.

“Apart from Bangladesh, which has ‘obtorto collo’ had to face the crisis from day 1, most other countries have been by-standers,” says Doctor Fumagalli.

However, while global leaders may be doing little, it’s the work of every day activists through humanitarian groups that are demanding attention.

“The most vocal actors have been human rights organisations and other international and non-governmental organisations.

“Although the leverage on the country is not insignificant (China in particular has considerable economic and security leverage), it seems the international community is not willing to use it. The West – Europe, the US, Australia, whatever – does not have many levers, apart from development assistance (see below), re-instating sanctions, or perhaps passing a resolution in the UN (likely to be vetoed, but would be nice to try).

“So, in short, what the international community has done so far well – and sadly – reflects the priority it assigns to the country and the refugee crisis.”

“The most vocal actors have been human rights organisations and other international and non-governmental organisation”

Doctor Fumagalli also reflects on what could have been for the country, but that there still could be changes that can be implemented to improve the situation – but that would depend on countries being willing to support refugees to a greater extent than they seem prepared to do.

“It is certainly ironic, and sad (in light of the country’s tragic history and recent past), to see pro-Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrators in Myanmar to hold pro-military banners.

“What can help the Rohingya in the immediate is willingness by countries in the neighbourhood to take in the refugees. Unfortunately for them the Zeitgeist at the moment is not one of welcoming refugees. And I am not sure this is a long-term solution either, since the Myanmar government would very much welcome that.”

The UN believes that 436,000 Rohingya people have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Yet concerns about violence towards the Rohingya in Myanmar is being dismissed as fake news (a very Donald Trump tactic) by the Myanmarese leadership.

Doctor Fumagalli believes that dialogue can help make breakthroughs with the situation, but it demands commitment,.

“By exerting pressure on donors. Demanding accountability. Myanmar has benefited from significant inflows of money in the form of international aid, bilateral and multilateral.”

In 2013, Myanmar disbursements reached $4.5billion. Recent years have seen Myanmar increase dialogue to the world, in part, because of the benefits of aid and donations. It’s this desire for cash flow into the country that can provide a route for dialogue.

“Engage Myanmar. And continue engaging. Myanmar has been isolated for decades and that has contributed to both the military’s sense of encirclement and people’s limited access to media.

“Access to reliable information about the conflict in Rakhine state is difficult, also for Myanmar citizens. Despite the disagreements my recommendation would be to keep talking to our friends in Myanmar, continue the conversation, even the disagreements.”

By writing to our MPs, protesting the injustice the Rohingya are facing and by not shutting up we can force the hands of politicians to finally engage. Many have fled for their lives but they still need support, and the Rohingya in Myanmar still need protection from further brutality. This isn’t fake news but a humanitarian crisis we have yet to respond to. We can still make a difference. Demand politicians support the Rohingya now.

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