In an op-ed that ran in the Guardian last week, Hannah Lownsbrough of the NGO SumOfUs put forward a highly provocative take on the Rohingya crisis gripping Myanmar. Running just a few days before Christmas, Lownsbrough asked whether Christmas shoppers buying gifts from brands like Bulgari wanted to “consider their role in propping up the genocide of Rohingya people.” As she tells it, outside companies that source materials from Myanmar (and, by extension, their customers) are bankrolling the violence against the one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The article puts forward an appealingly simple narrative of corporate complicity in Myanmar’s conflict. Unfortunately, that simplicity ignores far more important factors in the Rohingya’s ongoing suffering and advocates a course of action (divestment) whose efficacy is a matter of contentious debate. Why the fixation on what the Guardian op-ed refers to as “genocide gems” just one year after the Obama administration lifted remaining US sanctions on the industry?
One possible explanation: the people advocating divestment may not be exactly who, or what, they seem. In her op-ed, Lownbrough states her organization is campaigning alongside the International Campaign for the Rohingya (ICR) to “cut off this income stream to the Burmese military.” The ICR indeed seems laser focused on pressing multinational companies do “no business with genocide” but does not otherwise seem active in supporting relief efforts.
In a peculiar coincidence, the organization seems to be led by American lobbyist Joseph Grieboski and staffed entirely by his associates. Grieboski’s wife is named as ICR co-chair, while the campaign’s treasurer is an employee at Grieboski Global Strategies and the chief strategy officer at Grieboski’s firm Grieboski Jolly Caraway is listed as the group’s “secretary.” Joseph Grieboski is also founder of the obscure “Institute on Religion and Public Policy” and known for his connections to the controversial Church of Scientology (including alleged lobbying work on its behalf).
Does this mean there are ulterior motives behind the SumOfUs/ICR campaign against foreign companies who do business in Myanmar? The ICR’s website makes no mention of funding sources (other than pointing visitors to a donate button). However, one of Grieboski’s major clients is the 57-country Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC, which technically represents the entire Islamic world but in practice is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia, has offered more rhetorical support for the Rohingya than concrete assistance.
If there were a deeper connection between the OIC and the ICR, it would be a bizarrely roundabout way of responding to the crisis. Fully 860,000 Rohingya men, women, and children have sought refuge in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The UN and other aid organizations need hundreds of millions of dollars to assist up to 1.2 million people impacted by the crisis.
Funding shortfalls mean those organizations do not have the resources on hand to handle the sheer scope of the exodus. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has met only 35% of its $434 million US fundraising target. The $15 million in aid Saudi Arabia’s King Salman pledged for the Rohingya in September does not stake up to the generosity of previous monarchs: during a previous crisis 2012, King Abdullah donated $50 million. Before that, King Faisal allowed many Rohingya families to resettle in Saudi Arabia. Salman, for reasons that remain unclear, later moved to deport many of them.
There are reasons for Riyadh to dissimulate its criticism of Myanmar, many of them economic. Saudi oil uses a new, 771-kilometer pipeline that starts in Rakhine State and traverses Myanmar to reach customers in China’s Yunnan Province. Myanmar’s central location gives it a key role in Saudi regional economic aspirations. Curiously, the ICR has not called on companies like Saudi Aramco to abandon their interests in the country.
Saudi Arabia isn’t the only Muslim country with a problematic stance. Bangladesh has taken in the vast majority of the Rohingya to flee Rakhine State over the past few months, but is making their stay a precarious one. Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina is moving ahead with a proposal to resettle 100,000 Rohingya refugees on a remote, flood-prone island liable to being completely submerged by the tides. Dhaka signed a deal with Myanmar to repatriate displaced Rohingya to Myanmar, even as Rohingya villages still burned.
The campaign to force corporate interests out of Myanmar raises a broader question: what, if anything, would divestment actually do for the Rohingya? Campaigners like SumOfUs point to apartheid-era South Africa to illustrate the power of ostracization. However, comparing South Africa in the 1980s to Myanmar today is problematic at best. This is not least because Suu Kyi, the one leader who could translate a global divestment campaign into effective grassroots action, is herself guilty of ignoring the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya by her country’s military.
One of the most important factors driving the Rohingya crisis is the fear, hatred, and suspicion with which even pro-democracy members of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority view their Muslim neighbors. While Myanmar’s military is obviously implicated in the deadly attacks on Rohingya communities, vigilante groups and the Buddhist nationalist movement have actively stoked and committed anti-Muslim violence for years.
Having grown accustomed to decades of seclusion, it is difficult to imagine Myanmar’s generals or sectarian extremists bowing to pressure from abroad. Economic isolation may instead produce the same retrenchment Myanmar’s junta fostered for decades. Western officials recognize that blanket sanctions and economic disengagement are unlikely to help the Rohingya, but even the targeted measures now under consideration by American policymakers could undermine Myanmar’s economy and end up strengthening domestic support for the military’s anti-Rohingya campaign.
As Hannah Lownsbrough herself wrote in the Guardian, untangling the conflict between Myanmar’s government and its Rohingya will “not be straightforward.” Unfortunately, changing the government’s behavior is also far more complicated than her piece lets on. If the international community (and especially Muslim-majority countries) want to help the Rohingya, they should look directly to the refugee camps where the need is greatest.