President Thein Sein with William Hague

Pardon? Britain are doing what now? That can’t be right, everything is too perfect at the moment. Please don’t spoil things, we’ve had a Royal baby, WE have all just given birth to a King! Have some respect!

Alas, “British Aid for Myanmar Ethnic Cleansing” was the accusation levelled at ‘us’ in an Asia Times article written last week by Maung Zarni. Who is this renegade anti-Brit? Who does he think we are, America?!

Actually, quite well-esteemed is the answer. Mr Zarni is an exiled dissident  blogger from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and currently a visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics.  So what is he talking about?

Before we begin, this isn’t as major as it first appears, but every story needs a good headline. Britain is not LITERALLY helping state sponsored ethnically motivated mass murder. This is not happening. Maung Zarni is alluding to something that has not yet happened, but he believes will do in the future. So put down your strawberries and listen up. His article argued that:


“Britain is effectively aiding and abetting the unfolding “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim Rohingya by helping to finance the country’s controversial 2014 national census.”

The Myanmar President Mr. Thein Sein was on an official visit to Britain last week, when it was announced that Britain planned to give Myanmar a £30million aid and development package. A chunk of that money will be spent on a census. This is the part that Mr. Zarni has taken issue with.

A British Government statement read that bankrolling the census is “essential to make sure support is getting to those who need it”. Within the last year Myanmar, has been in several trade and development negotiations with Britain since the EU lifted trade embargoes.

Zarni disagrees with the British Government and believes that the census will be used against the Rohingya ethnic group, who have been persecuted for years by the state and are still not considered proper citizens of Myanmar. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is rife across the country, particularly amongst ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks. The Rohingya have the misfortune of not only being considered non-citizens, tied to their supposed historical origins (that are untrue), they are also Muslim. Many have been killed in rioting in Arakan State recently and thousands have fled into refugee camps or into neighbouring countries.

Zarni went on to explain that:

“Because Thein Sein’s government is forcing the Rohingya people to register as “Bengali”, a continuation of a decades-old policy of stripping the Rohingya of both their citizenship and ethnic identity, Britain’s financial support for this process is troubling. The coming census will no doubt be used to reinforce this racist policy and practice of forcibly registering the self-referenced Rohingya and erasing the fact that the Rohingya as an ethnic nationality group ever existed in Myanmar.”

Essentially, by classifying different groups, age old prejudices, feelings of resentment and an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude, Zarni believes, will be exacerbated. Zarni therefore feels that the violence towards the Rohingya will continue and perpetuate because of the census.

What does you think?

What do you think?

As Zarni believes, have Britain become ‘officially complicit in the atrocities against the Rohingya’?

To attribute this to Britain is difficult. You cannot say whether the census will be used as a tool by the state to attack more Rohingya and to try to remove them from the country. Most importantly, the census has not been created yet.

The worrying thing about this quandary is the precedent. Firstly, there is a precedent in Myanmar for state ordered violence and persecution towards the Rohingya, as well as deep-rooted national antipathy towards the group. According to Zarni in 1978 a fully operational state programme effectively caused the removal of 150,000 Rohingya. Not a good start.

Secondly, the process of officially demarking different ethnic groups by documentation has led to some of the most hideous events in history. The Jewish population in Nazi Germany became ‘officially’ labeled in the 1930s. The Tutsi’s in Rwanda were separated through I.D cards, which preceded the Rwandan Genocide.  Time and again throughout history ethnic minorities have suffered because perceived ‘differences’ become legitimised via documentation. It is then easier for a ruling group to maneuver against the minority, be it through violence, forced-evacuation or discrimination via the manipulation of state services such as healthcare and education. Not good either.

This is the worry that Zarni is bringing to our attention. There is also no doubt that the Rohingya are marginalized in Myanmar. According to Zarni the statistics bear witness to this. The doctor:patient ratio for the Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State is reportedly 1:83,000 and the adult illiteracy rate is reportedly at 90%.

As well as these two different aspects of precedence, you must be suspicious of the Myanmar Government…… in almost every way.

“Are you Generals in disguise?” “Democracy you’re having a laugh” and “A regime that imprisons its people for speaking freely, we know what you are” would be a pretty apt football-themed way of singing it.  So this is pretty bad.

Can Britain trust the regime of Thein Sein? Who am I to say, but instinctively you wouldn’t, say, let him look after your cat for a week whilst you go on holiday. Is this a realistically useful question to ask when a country is in democratic transition and a strong candidate as a future British ally? Unfortunately not really. That’s the name of the game.

I don’t want to pooh-pooh the democratic changes that have already been introduced to Myanmar since 2010, but there is still a long way to go. Any international development must not get ahead of itself for the sake of the Myanmar population.

What Britain can ensure is that there is a mechanism in place to monitor how the census is used, and make sure that financial assistance is used to integrate the Rohingya, rather than isolate them. The British Government has a responsibility to see that the money is used in a proper manner because ultimately, they are accountable.



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