Thursday, 19 July 2012

Arakan and the dangers of extremist exploitation

Earlier this week a coalition of organisations from around the world came together to warn that the horrendous communal conflict blighting Burma’s Arakan State is rapidly evolving into a fresh wave of government-led violence against the heavily persecuted Rohingya population.

Violence in Arakan State 2Whilst no one denies that members of both the (generally Buddhist) Rakhine community and the (generally Muslim) Rohingya community have been involved in sectarian killings over previous weeks, it is becoming ever more apparent that the government is using the chaos as an excuse to launch its own military assault against the Rohingya people, who have long been denied citizenship and subjected to some of the worst abuses anywhere in the country.

The present humanitarian crisis, which has left tens of thousands displaced, is being compounded by the Bangladeshi government’s appalling refusal to accommodate Rohingya refugees in clear violation of its international commitments. Meanwhile the political fall out continues to pose what many commentators regard to be the most serious risk to Burma’s reform process so far.

Within this there is a particular danger, should the violence continue, of which all sides should be acutely aware: namely the situation being exploited by foreign-based Islamist extremists as part of their own agenda. Islamist protesters Arakan 2

Despite the severity of the persecution that the Rohingya population has faced throughout the decades, armed resistance has been distinctly limited and external involvement utterly minimal. Yet even a quick scour of the internet shows how various groups are currently trying to turn the present crisis into a quick recruitment drive.

One extremist site carries ‘A call to every young Muslim to save the Muslims of Arakan’ , another ‘Jihadi’ youtube account hosts a video entitled ‘O Muslim of Bangladesh, Arakan is calling you’. Meanwhile the Indian fundamentalist group Darsgah-e-Jihad-O-Shahadat  (roughly translated as ‘Centre for Holy War and Martyrdom’) and the Bangladeshi Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami have both taken to the streets in protest against the Burmese government. Anecdotal reports suggest Islamist protesters Arakan Bangladeshthat extremist organisations in the UK are making similar attempts to gain support off the back of the unfolding conflict.

This involvement will bring nothing but further hardship for the entire population of Arakan State: it tarnishes perceptions of the predominantly peaceful Rohingya population, playing into the hands of those who seek to demonise them as Islamists and terrorists; it presents an unacceptable sense of threat to the predominantly peaceful Rakhine population, many of whom already fear for their safety; and it injects a violent and volatile element into Burmese politics at a pivotal point in the country’s incremental shift away from dictatorship.

Above all it reduces Arakan’s complex historical social, ethnic, religious and political issues into a crude propaganda tool. Restraint and dialogue will not come quickly or easily but they are the only solution to the current crisis; further violence will only empower the extremists – and that is the worst possible scenario for everyone.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The last thing Burma needs is Shell

Burmese troops Arakan StateIt has been hectic week in Burmese politics. Whilst Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s debut in parliament was a cause for celebration, things elsewhere were far more ominous: the government locked up student activists ahead of a key anniversary for the democracy movement, armed conflict dragged on in Kachin state and police brutally cracked down on Muslim Rohingyas in a brazenly sectarian response to the communal violence blighting Arakan.

In amidst all of this, a British trade delegation slipped in with surprisingly little media coverage. 

British businesses had been explicitly prohibited from seeking deals in Burma during the commercial tour of Asia led by David Cameron in April (a welcome move not matched by his promotion of trade with the Yudhoyono regime in Indonesia.) Back then he was in Burma for only one reason – to help the nation down the reformist path on which it has so tentatively begun.

That is not to say of course, that foreign investment in Burma is necessarily a bad thing per se. Ms Suu Kyi herself has welcomed the suspension of sanctions, which have helped encourage President Thein Sein to continue his program of liberalisation process, and have arguably strengthened his hand against hardliners in the government. However, she has also stressed in no uncertain terms that any investment should be cautious and ethical, particularly when it comes to the energy sector.

That is hardly surprising: for more than a decade Total and Chevron have tapped into Burma’s oil and gas fields whilst bankrolling the regime, devastating the environment and generating a litany of human rights abuses including reports of brutal acts by the soldiers drafted in to guard their assets, and the use of forced labour on their pipelines.

Further maverick investment by big oil right now would be seriously irresponsible and could significantly damage Burma at a critical crossroads in the democratisation process. And that is exactly why Royal Dutch Shell’s presence in this week’s trade delegation is so concerning.

Shell Clean up NigeriaIt has been more than sixteen years since Shell’s complicity in the execution of Nigerian environmentalist and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, yet after all this time the company continues to perpetuate environmental degradation and human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, whilst consistently meddling in Nigerian politics. Back in April, Amnesty International called the company to account after it emerged that officials had lied about the impact of a devastating seventy-two day oil spill, which Shell waited some ten weeks before even beginning to clear up. Tens of thousands may be affected through the pollution and contamination of their water and land.

Such irresponsible practices in the pursuit of profit would go largely unchecked in Burma whilst the rule of law remains week, corruption remains rife and military proxies remain in ultimate control. The last thing Burma needs right now is for Shell to start filling government coffers whilst trashing the nation’s fragile environment and undermining the human rights of local people. Yet ever since there was even a hint of sanctions being relaxed, the company has been chomping at the bit to dive in.

Investment can be a hugely positive force for stability and development, but Burma’s government is nowhere near conclusively proving its intention nor its capacity to establish a transparent rights-based framework. Neither has Shell proved its corporate responsibility or the prioritisation of people over short-term financial gain. Until these things happen it must stay away.

Shell and troops

Friday, 6 July 2012

Time to stop courting Kagame

Ntaganda troopsInstability and human rights abuses are nothing new in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s volatile East. Yet familiarity will not bring any comfort to those affected by the turbulent events of recent weeks, which hit new heights on Friday as troops loyal to rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda sent hundreds of DRC soldiers fleeing into neighbouring Uganda, killing a UN peacekeeper in the process.

Ntaganda, an indicted war criminal, is infamous throughout the region and the world for the rapes, massacres and recruitment of child soldiers frequently undertaken by his men. Comparisons to Joseph Kony are by no means an exaggeration of his ruthlessness: Ntaganda is reported to have once overseen the butchering of some one hundred and fifty civilians in a single day. Those living under his control tonight have every reason to be fearful.

Over the years Ntaganda’s loyalties have shifted, yet he has always retained strong ties with Rwandan rebel leader- turned president Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Ntaganda, also an ethnic Tutsi, served under Kagame when the RPF overthrew the genocidal Hutu government in 1994. In subsequent years he operated in the DRC, eventually integrating his force into the official army in 2009.

In recent months however, Ntaganda has broken ranks and, accompanied by a band of approximately six hundred troops known as M23, has seized control of territory outside the town of Goma, displacing thousands of people in the process. Despite the chaos and human rights abuses unfolding, Kagame’s government has covertly provided a stream of weapons, recruits and equipment to bolster Ntaganda’s position, increasing the prospect of an even more protracted and bloody conflict.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the current situation was theKagame with Obamas revelation last month that the USA was blocking the release of a UN report detailing Rwanda’s involvement. Yet such behaviour, whilst wholly unacceptable, is hardly surprising. Kagame has long exploited guilt over the international community’s utter failure to act during the Rwandan Genocide, in order to foster a healthy worldwide support base for his administration, despite its utterly abusive actions both inside Rwanda and across the Congolese border.

Now, with Ntaganda flexing his muscles further, using Rwandan troops and guns to fuel further conflict in the DRC, it is time for the USA and other Kagame-friendly states to put real pressure on the despotic President. Rwanda is expected to take a seat on the UN Security Council next year – a good starting point would be to block this at all costs, until Kagame ceases his support for one of Africa’s most brutal war criminals.

Bosco Ntganda 2