By Maung Zarni
- The author is a Burmese coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition and co-founder of FORSEA.co, Southeast Asian network of human rights activists, dissidents and democrats.
LONDON (AA) - This week South Korean President Moon Jae-in is due to arrive in Myanmar on a state visit at the invitation of his Myanmar counterpart Win Myint.
As a founding member of the activist People’s Solidarity and Participatory Democracy, one of S. Korea’s 3 largest pro-human rights grassroots networks, Moon ought to distinguish himself from the rest of Asian leaders by not behaving indifferently to the international crimes in his backyard.
Asian leaders, save Mahathir Mohamad, have adopted a “policy of indifference” toward Myanmar’s ongoing genocide of Rohingya people and the brutal military attacks against other ethnic nationalities, be they Rohingya, Christian Kachin, or Buddhist Shan and Rakhine.
At the recent Seoul Conference on the accountability of Myanmar for its genocidal crime at Sogang University on Aug. 23-24, the outspoken UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee coined this specific characterization of leaders and political groupings to denounce the humanitarian whitewashing of Myanmar genocide by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
But her coinage applies equally and aptly to other Asian policy-circles, from India to Japan, from Taiwan to China.
South Korea’s involvement in development projects in Myanmar began in the waning years --1987 to be exact -- of the late General Ne Win’s murderous one-party dictatorship.
Thirty years on, South Korea’s involvement in Myanmar affairs have grown exponentially, from bilateral trade to so-called development aid, from foreign direct investment in natural gas and oil to industrial agriculture, industrial complex, hotel chains and textile factors.
Today, South Korea is the 6th largest investor in Myanmar, after China, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and United Kingdom. According to Myanmar Business Today, South Korean corporations are beginning to expand their business ties into Myanmar’s budding manufacturing sector.
On Aug. 25, Xinhua news reported that Seoul has been involved in 175 commercial and development projects to the tune of $3.69 billion as of the end of June 2019 since Myanmar’s first commercial opening after the bloody crackdown of Myanmar’s nationwide uprisings in 1988. The bilateral trade between Seoul and Naypyidaw stood at $713.5 million in 2018-19 fiscal year.
Seoul’s expansion of ties with Naypyidaw is through various sectors including both the Korean private sector (for instance, the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry or KICC), and the governmental Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). Besides, KOICA launched Myanmar Development Institute as a local think-tank. Korea’s top conglomerate LOTTE Group is also deeply invested in the hotel and restaurant chains while S. Korean KIA cars are popular among Myanmar consumers.
But Seoul-Naypyidaw ties are deeply troubling since both the UN International Independent Fact Finding Mission and S. Korean UN Special Rapporteur have called Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya nothing less than a full and ongoing genocide. The International Criminal Court has made steps toward the likely full-investigation of the country’s crimes against humanity and other grave crimes against Rohingya.
But there is something else, far more sinister in this bilateral engagement, which has largely escaped international scrutiny. South Korea’s Daewoo Group has helped manufacture semi-automatic sub-machine guns for Myanmar Tatmadaw, or the Armed Forces since the mid-1990’s, according to my in-depth interviews in Bangkok and Manila in 2010 with the formerly strategically placed Burmese army deserters.
Among my interviewees were high-value Russian-trained Burmese military engineers who deserted the military and fled the country across South East Asia: one was a personal staff officer (PSO) who had served the then Lt. Gen. Myint Hlaing, who travelled to Pyongyang and Shanghai on arms sprees, as the head of Ministry of Defense procurement while the other served as a young lecturer at the Defense Services Technological Academy, recently the targeted site of a bomb attack by the Northern Alliance.
During these day-long interviews the army deserters revealed the ways in which both North and South Korea were aiding and abetting the military regime. North Korea’s role in Myanmar’s unsuccessful nuclear weapons project was well-exposed by the Democratic Voice of Burma in 2010. But Seoul’s sinister role in Myanmar military’s armament schemes remain largely unreported.
Historically, Myanmar military has since 1950’s received technological assistance in its armament projects -- particularly artillery and G3 and G4 machine gun productions -- from the then West Germany, specifically Fritz-Werner Corporation, which was at one point owned by West German government. The Federal Foreign Office of West Germany used its Cold War-era need to keep Myanmar at bay from the Communist East Germany as the rationale for its technical collaboration with General Ne Win even it came to light that Ne Win’s military dictatorship was slaughtering dissidents and ethnic nationalities with West-German-made guns.
After Myanmar’s relations turned sour with the post-Cold War Western bloc as the latter re-discovered human rights and democracy as its “values”, Myanmar turned to Daewoo to fill the arms production vacuum vacated by Fritz-Werner.
It’s been nine years since I heard these sordid tales of dodgy foreign visitors and Burmese military hosts coddling one another. And Myanmar’s honeymoon of “Democratic Transition” has already morphed into the genocide of Rohingya. Human rights don’t exist in a country that commits genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
As a democrat, who lived through his own country’s military dictatorships which brutally slaughtered dissidents and democrats throughout 1970’s and 1980’s, it is imperative that Moon demonstrates that he takes his moral, national and regional responsibility seriously. After all, he needs to come to terms with the fact that South Korean companies -- particularly Daewoo -- have produced sub-machine guns which were used only two years ago by the military of his Myanmar host in the slaughter of almost 20,000 Rohingya villagers.
South Korea’s most prestigious human rights foundation -- May 18 Foundation of Gwangju -- withdrew its highest honor bestowed on Aung San Suu Kyi for her culpability in the Burmese genocide.
On his part, President Moon should do well to call a spade a spade, enquire about the status of citizenship restoration and restitution of land for Rohingya, and make South Korea's investment and technical cooperation conditional to Myanmar ending the ongoing genocide.
This is the least I as an Asian democrat expects of President Moon with a grassroots activist background. After all, he is in a row and escalating trade war with Japan for the latter's refusal reckon with WWII Tokyo's war crimes including forced labour and sexual slavery of Korean "comfort women".
Moon must not keep quiet about the mass rape and genocidal slaughter of Rohingya people by his Myanmar host.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.