Are Austria and Germany contributing to Myanmar’s humanitarian catastrophe?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

In late April, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Defense Services, General Min Aung Hlain, was received with much pageantry by his opposite numbers in both Austria and Germany during a good-will tour of the European countries. There were guard-of-honour, inspections of the troops, and then extensive introductions to senior military figures in both countries in turn.

It was not a typical exchange, but, as Myanmar continues to open up to the world, Western countries, especially European countries, have generally taken the view that the rulers of Myanmar, of which Gen Aung Hlain remains probably the most influential, despite the transition to civilian government in the country under Aung San Suu Kyi, should be encouraged to continue on the current course. And rewarding particular individuals in this way might be a sensible way to offer a carrot for the progress the country has made so far.

Or at least, this would all have been quite reasonable, were it not for the fact that Gen Aung Hlain was invited to a number of arms manufacturing facilities in both countries. There is currently still an embargo in place on the sale of armaments to Myanmar, but it is expected that this embargo will be lifted soon. So this was not just a diplomatic event. It was a business meeting.

But it may interest the Austrian and German officials to know who they are proposing to sell armaments and military training to. And if not the officials in those countries, it should certainly interest their citizens what their leaders are getting themselves into.

Gen Aung Hlain is in charge of the security services who are overseeing and are currently largely responsible for perpetrating one of the most serious abuses of human rights going on at the moment in the world: the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority from Myanmar.

Whenever the authorities needed to distract the people from the ways in which they were mismanaging the country, they used to instigate another conflict with the Rohingya, or with other minorities

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

‘The enemy within’

The dark-skinned, Muslim Rohingya have been the preferred “enemy within” of the succession of military juntas who have ruled the majority light-skinned, Buddhist country since the 1960s. Whenever the authorities needed to distract the people from the ways in which they were mismanaging the country, they used to instigate another conflict with the Rohingya, or with other minorities in the border regions.

But the Rohingya have been uniquely targeted for discrimination, most have been stripped of legal citizenship, they have severe restrictions imposed on them regarding travel, marriage and family size, movement within the country of Myanmar, restrictions on worship, and so on.

Yet the current level of outright violence, and especially of direct abuse by the authorities themselves, are at least as bad as they have ever been. Rapes and extrajudicial killings are routinely carried out by the military and police forces directly under the command of Gen Aung Hlain, as 70,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in just the last 6 months.

What is more, the move toward democracy and the opening toward the West of the country in the past couple of years has not alleviated the situation of the Rohingya at all. Quite the opposite. The Rohingya in Myanmar have never been in as precarious a situation as they are now in the entire history of their community. Despite what the West hoped would happen with the rise to power of Aung San Suu Kyi, the situation has only gotten worse.

And yet, Germany and Austria are proposing to arm the perpetrators of these human rights abuses, and to train them too. Even as they show no movement towards ending the current wave of abuse, nor any acknowledgement that their “handling” of Rohingya situation is in any way inappropriate.

Germany and Austria are thus not just rewarding the opening of the country toward the West. They are also implicitly condoning the abuses that Gen Aung Hlain and the Myanmar security services are perpetrating right now. If they pursue this “business opportunity”, both Austria and Germany will become complicit in this humanitarian catastrophe. Are a few tens of millions of dollars worth this disaster?
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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