It's time for the EU to walk back its friendly trade agreement with Burma, acknowledging the suffering of the country's Rohingya Muslims

Burma has, in short, our ideal Brexit deal – full single market access, while not having to give anyone freedom of movement. Not even its own citizens, if they happen to be Rohingya Muslims

Muddassar Ahmed
Friday 15 September 2017 16:29
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Almost 400 Rohingya Muslims are confirmed to have died in the recent unrest, with the Burmese military accused of committing crimes against humanity by campaigners
Almost 400 Rohingya Muslims are confirmed to have died in the recent unrest, with the Burmese military accused of committing crimes against humanity by campaigners

“Can you find a better word to describe it?"

That was UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ response when he was asked whether the Burmese Government’s murder, rape and displacement of almost half a million of its own citizens was “ethnic cleansing”.

The UN seems much more comfortable with the truth than the EU, which has Rohingya blood on its hands.

Burma is effectively in the EU single market, thanks to Brussel's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). Burma benefits from a preferential trade regime that means it has “duty-free and quota-free access to the EU for all products except arms”.

Rohingya Muslims flee violence in Burma

Burma has, in short, our ideal Brexit deal – full single market access, while not having to give anyone freedom of movement. Not even its own citizens, if they happen to be Rohingya Muslims.

The EU’s position is difficult to believe: their statement last week “condemned the attacks on Myanmar security forces” but made no mention of the Burmese army’s campaign against the Rohingya. EU Vice President Federica Mogherini could hardly have been more understanding of the Burmese army’s post-truth posturing, and more in denial of the truth of the Rohingya’s conditions.

Compare this to Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who has at least called for “an end to violence against innocent civilians in Rakhine State”. We are in the surreal situation of the current US Government being more concerned about humanitarian causes and global social justice than the “progressive” European Union.

It’s worrying when the Trump White House is more “woke” than Brussels.

But what’s in it for the EU? The Brussels elite are understandably keen to do business with “one of the world’s top five nations in terms of its proven oil reserves”. European oil companies have been awarded the lion’s share of contracts by the Burmese military. Many of these contracts are production-sharing initiatives in Rakhine State – the Rohingya homeland.

The EU’s success in drawing Burma out of China’s sphere of influence is such a coup that they feel reluctant to undermine their success by raising the awkward issue of human rights. But doing dodgy deals with despots is a crowded market place. Do the Brussels Bureaucrats really think they can compete with Beijing?

These are not the rumblings of a Brexiteer who is delighting in finding a stick with which to beat the EU: I actively campaigned to Remain, and many would call me a Remoaner. It is precisely because of my admiration for the EU’s values that I expect – and demand – better from it. I am inspired by how the union of previously divided and warring European states has, in a generation, created the world’s largest trading bloc. But that unity and peace can only be maintained at home if it is exported abroad.

Instead, one of the main exports Britain is sending to Burma is free training for its authoritarian army. The only training we should be providing Burma’s Generals is diversity training.

The genocide of the Rohingya, and the free world’s (and particularly the EU’s) silence is already being used as a rallying cry by Jihadists. A contact in diplomatic circles yesterday showed me grainy videos from Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Syria calling for a global all-out Jihad against Burma and Buddhism.

The world must deprive the terrorists of this recruitment tool, and Brussels must take the lead. The EU has, in recent years, threatened both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh with the loss of EU single market access because of their lack of progress on labour laws. There have been no similar threats made to Burma because of its lack of progress on not murdering its own citizens en masse.

The EU's Rapporteur in charge of the EU-Burma Investment Protection Agreement, David Martin MEP, has been conspicuously silent in the face of Burma's ethnic cleansing. When his committee meets on 25 September, they must immediately suspend Burma from the GSP duty-free and quota-free trade regime with the EU. And they must not reinstate it until Rohingya are recognised as full Burmese citizens with equal rights, and those guilty of crimes brought to justice.

Boris Johnson: Aung San Suu Kyi must speak out on Burma persecution

I’m sure that Burma’s Generals will retaliate by cutting off European oil companies who are doing a roaring trade in extracting Rakhine state’s oil from the soil under burnt-out Rohingya homes. I’m sure that Burma will then pivot back to China, jeopardising what some Western diplomats are still dreamily calling Burma’s “democratic transition”. I’m sure that EU trade will suffer as the money dries up.

But to do anything else is simply not an option. To ignore the genocide and displacement of half a million people live on our TV screens, to witness psychopathic Burmese spin doctors accuse “Bengalis” of setting fire to their own homes, to simply look the other way while they continue to send us their cheap oil and their cheaper garments, is unbridled hypocrisy.

It is worse than that – it is repugnant, spineless, cowardice.

Can you find a better word to describe it?

Muddassar Ahmed is chair of Forum for Change, a British think tank working on issues of inclusion and diversity, and a former British government adviser

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