CHINA STRENGTHENS TIES WITH MYANMAR AS HUMAN RIGHTS FALL BY THE WAYSIDE

by Yali Banton-Heath

 

Chinese head of state Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Myanmar (Burma) on Friday, where he met with State Councillor and de facto leader of the country Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, and the Burmese military’s infamous commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Although it was Jinping’s first visit since assuming office, the occasion marked 70 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries and signifies a continued mutual desire to unite their economic and strategic interests. A total of 33 agreements were signed to speed up China-backed development projects in Myanmar and bolster the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor; a vital component of the wider Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Both countries have track records of serious state-sponsored human rights abuses, and share an increasing disdain for, and distancing from the West. With the tantalising promise of economic prosperity, has China got Myanmar under its thumb, and will development come at the expense of human rights…

As Myanmar’s geographical location is of great strategic benefit to China’s Belt and Road Initiative it is no surprise that China has been cosying up to its Southeast Asian neighbour by funnelling billions of dollars worth of investment into its economy over recent years. In 2019 alone bilateral trade amounted to $17.1 billion, with booms in both imports and exports alike. The backbone of these new bilateral economic investments are the three pillars of the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor; the Kyaukpuy Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and the New Yangon City. What could be perhaps tentatively described as too close for comfort, the location of the Kyaukpuy SEZ is Rakhine state, an area which offers a prime strategic location for China to access the Indian Ocean and existing oil and gas pipelines. Similarly, another economic zone began construction in 2015 in Maungdaw township in Rakhine state; a town once at the heart of the Rohingya conflict. In reference to the Rohingya crisis, Sean Bain from the International Commission of Jurists in Myanmar was quoted in 2017 saying:

“Problems with the legal framework for SEZs and the human rights abuses associated with them are well documented. It is hard to imagine a more inappropriate site for the development of another SEZ given the ongoing conflict, overall insecurity and appalling human rights situation in the (Rakhine) area”

Currently in Maungdaw there sit hundreds of empty Chinese shipping containers which were placed there two years ago as a housing solution for Rohingya refugees returning home from Bangladesh. Beijing has assumed the role of mediator between Naypyidaw and Dhaka in the task of repatriating the hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya, however repatriation has thus far been unsuccessful, with Rohingya unwilling to return home until security guarantees are made. 

 

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Countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (One Belt, One Road Initiative). Source: Xxjkingdom using Hong Kong Qatar Locator (Wikimedia Commons)

 

China held back from joining the wider international community in condemning the Burmese government and military for the human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya since 2016. From the outset, it was against the issue being internationalised, and voted against the launch of the UN fact finding mission into whether the crimes committed against the Rohingya amounted to genocide; which the investigation subsequently affirmed. Many scholars, human rights activists, and diplomats alike share the concern that China is searching for a quick solution to the problem which ignores the resolution of fundamental human rights issues and instead prioritises its economic interests in Rakhine state.

Not only is China’s trivialising of the issue likely to be in line with its pragmatic strategic interest, but it is also likely to be a decision made in line with its own unwillingness to admit the state-sponsored systematic oppression of Muslims within its borders. The Turkic speaking Muslim Uyghur minority who live in the northwest province of Xinjiang have for decades faced a process of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Chinese military. According to Reuters, as of March last year around 1.5 million Uyghurs had been detained in concentration camps or ‘re-education camps’ – that’s 1 in 6 of the adult population, although exact figures are difficult to estimate.

 

Invariably, there seems to be a trade-off between economic development and basic human rights when China digs its claws into Myanmar’s development.

 

Burmese communities remain sceptical of Chinese investment, and have resisted various other China-backed infrastructure and energy projects in the country. In 2011, construction of the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam in Kachin state was suspended as a result of a huge local backlash from communities fearing displacement and environmental damage. For similar reasons in 2012, violent protests erupted over the human rights violations caused by the Letpadaung copper mine in Saigang region. Such local resistance efforts place Naypyidaw in a position where it must choose between disappointing China or letting down its own citizens. Invariably, there seems to be a trade-off between economic development and basic human rights whenever China digs its claws into Myanmar’s national development.

When she made a trip to the ICJ in December, Aung San Suu Kyi defended her government against allegations of genocide, and reiterated Myanmar’s right to investigate the Rohingya crisis internally, to reach its own conclusions, and to proceed accordingly. As the rest of the international community castigate Suu Kyi for her position on the Rohingya crisis and her rejection of international intervention, China presents itself as a strategic ally to Myanmar as it falls back into geopolitical isolation. Dai Yonghong, from the Institute of the Bay of Bengal Studies at Shenzhen University put it succinctly:

“It is China who is willing to pull Myanmar from the sludge, rather than the Western world that badmouths the nation”.

Human Rights Watch released their 2020 annual world report last week. Its foreword addressed the impact that China is having on human rights standards, highlighting the detainment and oppression of the Uyghur minority, intrusive state surveillance systems, suppression of dissent and civil society organisations, and undermining the One Country Two systems agreement in Hong Kong. In the report, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth pointed not only to this vast spectrum of human rights abuses China inflicts upon its people, but also its attempt to undermine international human rights standards through censoring Chinese criticism overseas, muting attention to human rights in diplomacy, and weakening global rights mechanisms. 

During his visit, Xi Jinping exclaimed in his speech that:

“We are drawing a future road map that will bring to life bilateral relations based on brotherly and sisterly closeness in order to overcome hardships together and provide assistance to each other”

It’s difficult not to interpret the ‘hardships’ that Jinping mentions in his speech as basic standards of human rights protection. A bilateral relationship to overcome the ‘hardships’ of local resistance to megaprojects and to act with impunity without the scrutiny of international human rights bodies. The economic sanctions, investigations, and judicial proceedings implemented by the West in response to human rights violations committed by the Burmese military are no doubt pushing the country further and further into the refuge of China’s lap.

Chinese suppression of human rights is indeed a worrying prospect for people’s rights worldwide, as the Belt and Road Initiative will eventually involve infrastructure developments in 64 countriesChina’s rise to power and its assertion as the biggest economic player on the international stage will provide developing nations – including Myanmar – with the investment needed to reach their economic goals without the conditions placed upon them by international human rights standards. Perhaps instead of isolating countries with poor human rights track records Western diplomatic efforts and international organisations should attempt to engage better with them, and offer more progressive investment alternatives. States which commit human rights violations should absolutely be condemned for their actions and held to account, however, shunning and disengaging with these countries may only serve to exacerbate the situation. 

 

Featured image credit: Christopher Michel (Flickr)


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SUDAN UPRISING

By Sarah Edgcumbe

CW: genocide, murder, rape, torture

Sudan is burning. Literally.

Government offices have been set on fire. Areas in Darfur have been burning for quite some time, though Western media no longer reports on it. The killings in Darfur that proved to be the initial acts of a campaign of genocide took place in 2003. Since then 480,000 have been killed by President Bashir’s forces, which include his ‘Janjaweed’ militia, with a further 2.8 million being displaced.

Continue Reading

THE 2017 PAPUA NEW GUINEA ELECTION: BAD LUCK?

by Maud Webster

The 2017 Papua New Guinea election was fraught with allegations, violence and anger. Yet the object of the disquiet – Peter O’Neill – was still re-elected as Prime Minister. He represents the People’s National Congress Party, which has been rising rapidly in popularity over the past couple of decades. In 2002, they were in opposition with two votes, but entered government in 2007. Now, they hold twenty-seven. O’Neill has held the position since 2011 and just about holds it still, by obtaining support from minor parties and scrabbling together support for his party’s re-election. Following coalition discussions, his vote support margin stood at sixty votes to forty-six.

The election itself was blighted by disorganisation and electoral roll irregularities, in addition to initial dissatisfaction with O’Neill’s first term. Voters expressed concerns about the chaotic economy, rife with extensive borrowing. Whilst statistics show growth in GDP, growth has dropped from 13.3% in 2014 to a mere 2% in 2016.

The election itself was an appalling farce. Continue Reading

VENEZUELA: FROM INSPIRATION TO DESPOTISM

by Chris Jarvis

CW: torture, rape, political violence

Less than a decade ago, left-wingers across the globe turned towards Latin America as something of a road map towards a more progressive and socialist politics. Many a left tradition could be identified in the range of regimes, leaders and parties that had come to power throughout the region. Evo Morales in Bolivia, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva in Brazil, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Ollanta Humala in Perù, Jose Mujica in Uruguay, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, the ever present Castros in Cuba, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The “Pink Tide”, as this phenomena became loosely known, was high, and international awe developed among the left.

Breaking out of the 1990s, in which the global institutions of neoliberalism, from the IMF and the World Bank to the US state and multinational corporations drove an agenda of austerity, privatisation of services and market liberalisation, Governments of the “Pink Tide” brought promise of a better deal for the various Latin American nations which elected them. To greater or lesser degrees, these Governments sought to recentre economies away from international capital and towards the needs of people, increase spending on and provision of welfare and public services – whether through anti-hunger initiatives, healthcare programmes or education projects, and deepen democracy. Across the region, the Pink Tide brought with it decreasing levels of economic inequality, higher literacy rates, reduced poverty and greater levels of health.

In 2017, the legacy of these leftist Governments lies tarnished – and perhaps the most emblematic of this turn is Venezuela.Continue Reading

FRANK HABINEZA: POLITICS IN AFRICA IS SOMETHING YOU CAN DIE FOR

by Olivia Hanks

Content warning: mentions genocide

Frank Habineza is all smiles when I meet him at the Global Greens Congress in Liverpool. It’s hardly surprising: the congress, which he helped organise in his role as president of the African Greens Federation, is running smoothly; and he is one of its star attractions, having just been announced as the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR)’s first ever presidential candidate.

Standing for election in Rwanda is not to be done lightly: although opposition is nominally allowed, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly raised concerns about torture and imprisonment of dissenters. Opposition party leader Victoire Ingabire is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence, and many other activists have gone missing in recent years. Habineza himself was forced into exile prior to the last presidential elections in 2010, after the DGPR vice-chairman André Kagwa Rwisereka was murdered.Continue Reading

THE FINE ART OF WAR: PROFIT, DEATH AND THE GLOBAL ARMS INDUSTRY

by Gunnar Eigener 

“You must not fight too often with one enemy
or you will teach him all your art of war.”

                                                                                                              – Napoleon Bonaparte

Last week the European Parliament voted in favour of an EU embargo on selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Although non-binding, it remains nonetheless an interesting attitude taken by a trading block which in 2013 made €36 billion in arms export licenses. The attitude is not without reason however. Saudi Arabia has been involved in a conflict with Houthi rebels in Yemen for over a year resulting in bombings of a number of Medicines Sans Frontier hospitals, the deaths of thousands of civilians and the use of internationally outlawed cluster bombs. This embargo has come late in the day but it is still a positive action.

The UK Parliament’s International Development Committee has called for the UK to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Last year, the UK supplied almost £3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. British military forces have also been involved in training Saudi pilots who carried out airstrikes. These Saudi pilots were offered 100 Bentleys by a billionaire prince as a reward for their work. David Cameron has long been accused of secretly involving the UK in a war of which we should have no part but has rejected this suggestion during Prime Minister’s Questions.

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(Yemen after an airstrike © Hani Mohammed)

Needless to say, the rest of the government hasn’t displayed a progressive attitude. Hours after the vote, Minsters attended the ADS Group dinner at the Hilton. ADS is an industry trade body that represents defence and security industries. ADS members include BAE Systems, the builder of Eurofighter and Tornado jets, as well Raytheon UK which builds guided bombs. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest customer for weapons so this is hardly surprising. Yet it is the blatant fashion in which ministers ignore the death tolls and the violence. Despite calls from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that there is a humanitarian disaster happening in Yemen, it appears that business comes first. Despite world conflicts consisting of nearly 90% civilian casualties, 40% of them children, there has yet to be a serious debate.

The arms industry is without morals; it has no conscience. The connections between this industry and the political establishment should be an embarrassment for a government that claims to care about human rights. As austerity measures hit the military – George Osborne ordered £1 billion worth of cuts last year – private companies are stepping in to fill the void. Weapons manufacturers are reaping the benefits, and there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of them which is no wonder considering the government support they receive.

Research carried out by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAP) found that approximately £700 million in government subsidies are provided to arms companies every year. Marketing and promotion support is provided by the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) and financing is given by the Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD). Support consists of military personnel being made available to help with bids and arranging visits with government ministers and officials. While making up 2% of exports, 50% of the work done by the ECGD covers the arms industry. The government insists on using British companies to supply its military, often at a greater cost.

Is this really how we want to be viewed by the rest of the world? Judged by our ability and readiness to put our war machine into motion?

Despite being a critic of Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, the UK government still granted arms export licenses to Zimbabwe so as to protect the reputation of British arms firms. Arms also continue to be sold to countries which continuously violate human rights like Qatar, Bahrain and others in Africa.

How long will our government continue to act in this way? The EU vote is unlikely to stem the tide of weapons flooding wars zones and creating new conflicts. Our politicians should surely be held accountable for their questionable actions. The arms industry is not a financial advantage for our economy, only employing approximately 90,000 people yet costing over £700 million in subsidies with jobs regularly going abroad. Arms industry experts often attend government officials foreign trips to boost their business.

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(War Heads © Polyp)

Is this really how we want to be viewed by the rest of the world? Judged by our ability and readiness to put our war machine into motion? As usual, the establishment carries on with its corporate duties, denying care and assistance to its own people whilst willingly piling onto a bloated, soulless industry that couldn’t care less about who its products affect. War is a business, that much is obvious but it has successfully entangled itself with those who control the purse strings. The rate at which arms firms line their pockets with taxpayers money and profit from predominantly killing civilians in any number of despicable ways is a stain on every country that participates in this business.

Two ex-defence Secretaries, Geoff Hoon and John Ried, have gone on to hold prominent positions in arms firms. Former junior military minster Ann Taylor left for Thales at the end of 2010. Admiral Sir Alan West, former First Sea Lord, ended up at QinetiQ’s Defence Advisory Board. The list goes on but you get the message. The people who are entrusted with this countries safety and prosperity use the government and military as a springboard to better paydays. And we, the taxpayer, have funded their journey. President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning in 1961 is coming true.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

See also: https://www.caat.org.uk/issues/influence

Featured Image © Polyp