Letter to HE Ambassador Jan Kickert - Permanent Representative of Austria to the UN on Myanmar Army Chief Visit to Austria

25th May 2017

Your Excellency Ambassador Kickert,

I am writing to express my concern over the recent news surrounding the visit to Austria of the Myanmar Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services, General Min Aung Hlain, and the reception he was given.

I am fully sympathetic to the need to reward Myanmar for the progress it has made so far in their recent move towards democracy and towards opening up to the world, and to the need to encourage them to continue along this path. However, this encouragement should not come at the cost of legitimising serious human rights abusers and further enabling them to carry out such abuses.

In particular, I am concerned over the visits that were organised for Gen Aung Hlain to arms manufacturing facilities both in Austria and in Germany, as well as the proposal by Austria to help train Myanmar’s security forces.

As Commander-in-Chief, Gen Aung Hlain, remains perhaps the most powerful individual in Myanmar – more so than even the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. He is also directly responsible for the entire security apparatus of the country. And that security apparatus, especially certain sections of the federal military, the local police and the border angencies, are currently perpetrating one of the gravest human rights violations in the world: the term used by John McKissick, a representative of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, is “ethnic cleansing”.

The victims of this campaign of ethnic cleansing are Myanmars Rohingya Muslim minority, who in recent months have been subject to mass rapes and extrajudicial killings, which in turn led to over 70,000 people fleeing Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh in just the past 6 months. At this point, 70,000 people make up about 10% of the Rohingya population left in Myanmar, after more than half of the community has been pushed abroad over decades of persecution by the succession of military juntas who have ruled over the country since the 1960s.

What is more, over 120,000 of those left in the country are currently effectively imprisoned in internal IDP camps, from where external agencies and observers have been barred and where they are extremely vulnerable to abuses by the authorities.

Nor can it be argued that the situation has been getting any better since the coming to power of the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The latest assault against the minority by the authorities started last autumn, almost a full year since the Suu Kyi government came to power. There is no reason to believe that the crisis will ease if we just let the Burmese sort it out, and simply continue to reward them for their opening towards the West. Neither Ms Suu Kyi, nor anyone in a position of power at the moment in Myanmar has stood up to defend the Rohingya against these assaults. Indeed, Ms Suu Kyi rather prefers to pretend that there is no crisis going on.

In these circumstances, I believe it is deeply irresponsible to give Gen Aung Hlain, the man who is in charge of the very agencies perpetrating this ethnic cleansing, such a welcome in Europe. And what concerns me even more is what the visits to the arms factories signal: Austria is not only proposing to honour a man that should be under investigation by the International Tribunal at the Hague, but also to arm and train his men, once the embargos are lifted. If Austria, or indeed Germany who has also given Gen Aung Hlain a similarly warm welcome, proceed down this path, they will become complicit in what those men will do with the arms and training you will be providing. And in all likelihood, what they will do will be to complete their campaign of ethnic cleansing.

There are thus two very important reasons why I hope your country will choose a different path:

  1. The Humanitarian Reason: this is self-explanatory. No country that is a signatory to the International Bill of Human Rights, and who claims to abide by the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can condone, let alone sponsor actions such as those over which Gen Aung Hlain presides.
  2. Practical Reasons: the backlash from the international community and civil society, and indeed the backlash from ordinary Austrian voters, will be severe once it is shown that those arms and training will have been employed in ethnic cleansing – much like the backlash against the British government was severe for authorising the sale of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia, once they were proven to have been used against civilians in the Yemen conflict. It is highly unlikely that the arms contracts will be worth the cost in reputation and moral authority that your country will suffer once these things come to light.

I therefore urge you to advise your government over the concerns that this policy towards Myanmar and especially the treatment given to Gen Aung Hlain raises.

As I mentioned before, I fully appreciate the need to encourage Myanmar farther along the path towards democracy and towards fully joining the international community. But there has to be a better way to do so than to give guard-of-honour receptions to people like Gen Aung Hlain, or indeed than to offer to arm and train the very people who are carrying out ethnic cleansing as we speak.

I trust that your government will take note of these concerns and exercise proper judgement in how they approach the situation from here onwards. And I am fully at your disposal, should you require any more information on the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar, or any assessment of how to best engage with this situation.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Azeem Ibrahim

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