Last summer when riots broke out in Rakhine state, Myanmar, much of the world became aware of what would be described as ethnic and religious tensions between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims, who have been deemed stateless by the government since 1982. By almost all accounts the Government of Myanmar was condemned for the harshness of its crack down and in many cases accused of being complicit if not directly involved in the violence against the Rohingya.
The events that followed the riots were less observed; largely the massive displacement of Rohingya fleeing the violence, reports of continued violence, rape, and extortion by police and military officers against Rohingya, and the placement of Rohingya into locked refugee camps. To call it collective punishment is a gross understatement. Famously, the UN has called the Rohingya of Myanmar one of the most persecuted peoples of the world, and it’s a title that gives nowhere near the credence deserved to the absolute heartbreak beneath it.
One of the great tragedies of this persecution is that allies are few, wavering, and of questionable sincerity. One such ally has been Saudi Arabia. Since King Faisal offered refuge to the Rohingya the ties between the two peoples have been distinct, but since Faisal’s death they have been far more precarious. On occasions of Muslim persecution around the world the Saudi government is very often one of the first to speak out, but unfortunately not always the first to take action.
In the case of last summer’s riots Saudi Arabia, to their credit, was one of the first to criticize the government of Myanmar in the most certain of terms. Their condemnation echoed what the citizens of much of the Muslim world regretted their own governments were not saying. Impressively on top of this the Saudi government gave $50 million in aid to the Rohingya. It was as though a line had been drawn, where the Rohingya’s plight had awoken the slumbering giant and protector of the world’s Muslims.
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But as violence continued against the Rohingya by the State and Rakhine buddhists, when refugees fleeing were turned away or killed in neighboring countries, when riots reignited in October resulting in further death and harshening of conditions for the Rohingya, when aid was blocked to refugee camps, and protests were held condemning anyone who helped them; through all of it those harsh words of condemnation never arose again, it was as though the giant had gone back to sleep.
It is plausible that the responsibility of the Rohingya had been delegated to The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a collection of 57 Muslim states with a permanent delegation to the UN. The organization has picked up where Saudi Arabia left off, continuing to defend the Rohingya in words, and seeking several angles from which to offer assistance, and ultimately have been blocked from even setting up an office within Myanmar to attempt some form of reconciliation from the group. At no fault of their own the OIC has proven ineffective, without teeth to their condemnations, only offers of charity. And yet the giant still sleeps. One has to wonder, why?
The accusation that most frequently nips at the heels of Saudi Arabia is that they’ve become so entrenched in the pursuit of wealth that it has altered their moral compass. Whether this is true or not is best left for someone else to answer, but in this situation it is a possibility that has to be explored.
While directly Myanmar and Saudi Arabia may have cold words, KSA has been on increasingly friendly terms with the Chinese, specifically in regards to exportation of oil to China from Saudi Arabia. In 2011 a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two countries that would deliver 200,000 barrels of oil a day from KSA to China, however this requires that the oil be transported across Myanmar through the controversial Shwe Pipeline.
All human rights violations directly tied to the pipeline aside, the profits of the pipeline for Myanmar go to the government and ultimately fund those who this past summer Saudi Arabia condemned. One can’t help but wonder if the giant was sleeping at all, or perhaps whose bed it was sleeping in.