Boycott Myanmar: An Open Letter to the Microfinance Community
To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.
– Elie Wiesel
Over recent months, I have been engaged in multiple events and conversations on expanding financial inclusion for refugees. I’m impressed by how quickly the sector has ramped up to focus attention on this topic, and encouraged by the level of interest it’s been generating among donors, investors and providers.
But all this attention has forced me to confront a topic that’s been troubling me for some time. The attention on refugees includes a focus on the plight of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority from Rakhine State in Myanmar, and the world’s latest victims of genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they’ve been supported by the usual agencies and NGOs that work with refugees, as well as by BRAC – one of the world’s leading microfinance institutions. This is important and laudable work.
And yet, throughout these conversations, I haven’t heard anyone from the microfinance sector mention the source of the Rohingya’s misery – the unspeakable atrocities taking place in their villages in Myanmar. Perhaps that’s not an accident. That discussion is too painful.
After all, Myanmar represents one of the fastest-growing microfinance markets in the world. Its MFIs – many of them members of international microfinance networks or founded by sister MFIs in nearby countries – number in the dozens and serve over two million clients. Among its leading MFIs, many have recorded annual growth of 100 percent over the past few years. And much of this is fueled by a large influx of funding from the international microfinance sector. According to the CGAP Funding Survey, funding commitments to the country stood at US $310 million in 2016. And that’s just public funding; private investors have been no less active. Hardly a month goes by without a deal announcing a multi-million dollar investment in a Myanmar MFI. At the same time, the country’s microfinance regulators and relevant government authorities receive ongoing support and training from multiple development institutions, participate in international conferences, and collaborate on large-scale research projects.
None of this attention goes to the Rohingya or so much as mentions their plight. We notice them only once they cross the border to Bangladesh, as refugees.
There is no way around it: When we work in Myanmar, we are complicit in ethnic cleansing. After all, the government’s unconscionable policies towards the Rohingya enjoy popular support among the Myanmar majority Buddhist population, and there’s no reason to think that the clients and staff of the MFIs are in any way different. Working with these clients and staff means working with people who at best ignore and at worst actively support ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Is that a shocking statement? If so, why? Anti-Rohingya violence isn’t something foisted on an unwilling population. The Facebook-driven mobs and the unwillingness of its popularly-elected State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to even mention the word “Rohingya” are testaments to both the deeply embedded ethnic hatred among the majority, and the implicit (and even explicit) support of ethnic cleansing that comes with it.
But whatever blame belongs to the country’s population, more blame belongs to its leaders. Working with Myanmar’s ministries and regulators means working with the very government that’s behind the atrocities.
Why do we, as a community of socially responsible microfinance practitioners, continue to be engaged in Myanmar? I know many great people who work closely with the Myanmar microfinance sector. And I respect them deeply. But this willingness to avert our gaze from evil and continue to engage in business as usual is wrong.
I know it’s wrong because of my own family’s history.
As a Lithuanian Jew, I descend from a community that was all but destroyed during the Holocaust. I’m alive because each of my grandparents was a survivor. Much of their families were all but wiped out – great-grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, some still children at the time. To this day they lay buried in mass graves scattered in the forests throughout Lithuania. My maternal grandmother and her sister were the sole survivors in her family, having fled in advance of the Nazis one sunny Sunday, on June 22, 1941. When my grandmother returned after the war, she found her family home occupied by former neighbors, who kept the furniture, the clothes and all her family’s possessions – while her parents, brother and the rest of the family lay buried in two mass graves in the forest nearby. The only thing these neighbors returned to her were a handful of photographs of her family – photographs that my family treasures to this day. All this took place in a small, poor village, not so different from the villages of Myanmar. Like my grandmother’s family, those neighbors were poor. The home they took over – my grandmother’s home – was a simple, wooden village house with no water, plumbing or electricity.
It’s never said out loud, but I believe many of us view poverty as an absolution. Somehow, we cannot accept that poor people can be responsible for the kind of violence we otherwise readily denounce. But this is a false dichotomy. Ethnic hatred and violence span the economic spectrum, from the poorest farmer to the wealthiest businessman. Both are responsible. We cannot separate the Myanmar majority Buddhists who support anti-Rohingya violence from the clients we interact with in the course of our work. They are one and the same.
We know this is true not because of news articles or UN reports, but directly from our work. We know this because we cannot speak of it, at least not in Myanmar. It would be different if we could advocate for the Rohingya and their rights – in branches, during group meetings, or while working with the government. It would be different if we could set up microfinance operations to work with Rohingyas who have been internally displaced in Myanmar itself, and facilitate their return to their homes. But we can’t do any of those things. And because we can’t, we are forced to become complicit with the violence itself. Through our silence, we commit the greatest of all sins described by Elie Wiesel.
And because we cannot both speak out against anti-Rohingya violence and still participate in the microfinance sector in Myanmar, there is only one path left: a country-wide boycott. Social investors should suspend any new investments, and donors should suspend work with government authorities. Most importantly, we must accompany the boycott with a loud and clear message that while there’s much need for microfinance in Myanmar, we cannot continue working there so long as the government continues its unconscionable campaign against the Rohingya. We must take Wiesel’s dictum to heart and not allow ourselves to be cowed into silence. Only after the campaign of violence is ended and acknowledged by the Myanmar government and proper recompense is made – including allowing Rohingya refugees back into their villages – we too will come back and restart our work there. But not before.
Yes, this would hurt MFI clients – few if any of whom are directly implicated in the violence. Yes, this would hurt MFI management and staff – many truly good people, some of whom came from outside of Myanmar to help. But there is no other choice. Myanmar stands as a challenge to our morals. At the end of the day, we must abide by the most basic pillar of social responsibility – respect for human rights. We cannot simultaneously speak of social responsibility while averting our eyes from one of the most horrific examples of social injustice in the world today. And we cannot continue serving and collaborating with those who are doing – or, by their silence, condoning – the deed. That’s not what social responsibility means.
Boycott Myanmar. It’s the only moral choice.
Note: This article represents the personal opinion of the author, and does not necessarily represent the views of any organization he’s affiliated with.
Daniel Rozas is co-founder of the MIMOSA Project.
Image: Minara Begum, a twenty-two year old Rohingya woman, walks through the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of UN Women.
Homepage photo: Communications InterAction, via Flickr.