Why the investment in Burma of foreign businesses such as clothing retailer Gap, are fuelling the slow genocide of the Rohingya community.
By Khurshid Khatib
In recent years the long-isolated country of Burma has been increasingly welcomed by the international community. The lifting of sanctions by the US in 2013, and the release of human rights defender Aung San Suu Kyi, distinct highlights in Burma’s perceived new status as a reformist government under President Thein Sein. Both tourism and trade are being heavily promoted, and a rush of foreign investment with companies such as Coca-Cola and Starbucks, is taking place throughout Burma or Myanmar, as it is now known.
As one of Asia’s poorest countries, the potential for so many new jobs is a hugely welcoming prospect. According to the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) website, ‘Poverty and food security remain serious challenges facing Myanmar. One in four people lives below the national poverty line and two in five children below the age of five are under-nourished.’
Clothing retailer Gap, is one such foreign company working in Burma, creating nearly 700 new jobs and supporting the employment of more than 4000 people*. In 2013, to its credit, the company voluntarily submitted a report to the US Embassy in Rangoon entitled, ‘Responsible Sourcing in Myanmar’ which examined health and safety issues for workers. Its findings highlighted similar concerns to a survey also conducted in 2013 by labour rights groups researchers and reported in the Burma and Southeast Asia news source, The Irrawaddy, where Rangoon factories showed a ‘range of labor rights violations, such as long working hours, unsafe conditions and intimidation for joining unions, while most are paid “extremely low” basic wages of between $25 and $37 per month.’
Whilst there has been an increase in labor rights activity under Thein Sein’s government, the report says that the reality has been that ‘there is still little legal protection’ for such activity and that ‘employers often in collusion with authorities, continue to trample over the rights of workers,’ adding ‘there is still a lack of political will to genuinely protect and promote labor rights.’
Gap has stated that since their audit, the factories had instituted disciplinary policies, conducted training of managers and reprimanded supervisors “who engaged in verbal abuse or inappropriate behavior toward workers.” However, whilst Gap’s clothes production has tripled within its first year in Burma**, there is, as yet, no minimum wage in place, despite the government setting a minimum wage law in March 2013. The company’s director of government and public affairs, Debbie Mesloh has said in May 2015 that ‘the minimum wage law had been enacted but they still hadn’t set a figure, but we were hopeful that it would happen soon.’
It’s worth noting that 90% of Gap’s workers are women, working a 60-hour week. According to the Rural Poverty Portal website, ‘Rural women in Myanmar are amongst the most marginalized groups with high vulnerability to food insecurity and poverty’; those women looking for work in the cities and a way out of endemic poverty are also at risk of finding themselves working for overtime within an inconsistent framework of employment. Independent auditor Verité has found ‘that workers didn’t really have any idea of what they could expect in terms of payment, time spent on-site, limitations on overtime, days off.” Verité CEO Dan Viederman has said ‘Gap won’t allow his firm to discuss specifics but that the factories’ working conditions have improved since Verité began its inspections.’ ***
Women are not the only people whose rights have diminished in Burma. The Rohingya community is a minority group regularly described as ‘one of the most persecuted people’ on earth, with a bewildering long list of restrictions, imposed generation upon generation. They cannot marry or move freely between villages without consent of the authorities; their number of children has been limited to two. Rohingya farmers have widely reported land confiscation and thus the deprivation of their livelihoods. Their women have been raped with impunity.
Since 2012, when riots between mainly predominantly Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya made both communities homeless and forced to live in camps, and at a time that has seen Burma increasingly welcomed into the international community, the segregation of the Rohingya has grown all the more extreme. Journalists who’ve managed to report from Rohingya camps describe them in stark contrast to temporary Rakhine areas; they are filthy-with no clean water or access to regular food. There is no effective sanitation. The dream of the provision of an education for children growing up there remains just that. Many of the Rohingya have succumbed to starvation and disease.
Whilst Burma has changed its name to Myanmar, and attempted to project a new image of acceptability, the cruelty of marginalization and dehumanization of the Rohingya has accelerated to the extent that even the name Rohingya is not acknowledged by President Thein Sein’s ‘reformist’ government. They are instead mostly referred to as ‘Bengali’, implying an unjustified and inaccurate illegal status.
To both Burma and the outside world, the Rohingya have remained almost invisible for years. But recent media publicity given to thousands of starving men, women and children found drifting along South East Asia’s shores has bought this apartheid system to the world’s attention (however fleeting it may be). This forced movement of thousands of people, having left behind everything they know and own, is nothing new; however the labels ‘migrants’ or ‘boat-people’ as they are often ascribed, assumes a casual reference to the movement of people due to a lifestyle choice, as opposed to the more sinister business of human trafficking. It furthermore and more crucially, detracts responsibility for the organized and deliberately inflicted violation of human rights, that activists, journalists and rights campaigners (some of whom still remain in Burma’s prisons today) have spoken of for years as being state-sponsored; evidence of language and action that is allowing the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has been gathered and compiled into the report ‘Hear our screams-making a case for the Rohingya genocide.’ (www.mlajhb.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Hear_Our_Screams.pdf )
Burma continues to flatly deny responsibility for the unknown figure of Rohingya forced to face human trafficking, as exemplified by its Foreign Ministry Director-General Htin Lynn’s comment ‘this issue of illegal migration of boat people, you cannot single out my country’ in response to the UN refugee agency calling for recognition and citizenship (May 2015)
As foreign investment continues to flourish in Burma, so will the profits made from the exploitation of human misery as huge sums of people continue to be forced to attempt ocean crossings, fully aware that they may not survive their journey. As they enter these boats, some placing weary children across their laps on weak wooden boats, they know that even if they escape drowning and hunger, or the brutality of traffickers who beat them beneath the decks, that if they do finally reach another land, they are most likely to find themselves unwanted yet again. The Rohingya have no country that will give them citizenship, no place that that they can call home and a rapidly increasing number of foreign businesses such as Gap that are choosing to buy into and ignore the wholesale abuse of almost every act of inhumanity possible. But one thing’s for certain, being an accessory to genocide will never be fashionable.
Follow Khurshid on twitter @KhurshidKhatib
* Source-Gap company fact sheet.
** Source-The Irrawaddy 21/5/15 Article by Kyaw Hsu Mon
*** Foreign Policy Report, ‘Gap Gambles on Myanmar”by Jamila Trindle