The World Bank eagerly reengaged in Burma, also known as Myanmar, the moment the country began to open up and military rule was replaced with a military-backed elected government. Now the World Bank invests more than US$2 billion in the country, celebrating that it has “fully reengaged with the government to support reforms that will benefit all of the people of Myanmar, including the poor and vulnerable.”
But the institution is staying woefully silent as Burma’s security forces are committing rampant atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim population, in response to attacks by a Rohingya armed group on police outposts. The Rohingya, having suffered decades of state repression, are one of the poorest and most marginalized ethnic groups in the Buddhist-majority country.
The United Nations estimates 313,000 Rohingya from Burma’s western Rakhine State have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh in the past two weeks. The refugees have described killings, shelling, and arson in their villages that have all the hallmarks of a government campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” New satellite data obtained and analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows widespread burnings in Rohingya villages.
In 2012 the World Bank downplayed the violence in Rakhine State as “localized instances of communal violence.” But since 2015, following criticism, it recognized that Burma’s government has been fueling institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya. Now it needs to go even further.
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim should denounce the Burmese government’s abuses. He should highlight how this attack on the Rohingya population runs roughshod over the government’s commitments to advance social and economic development, putting the bank’s investments at risk and undermining its twin goals of eliminating extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity. The bank should also publicly offer to assist implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former UN-secretary general Kofi Annan. Ironically, the bank’s silence on the Rohingya is happening as the World Bank and UN prepare to launch their flagship report on development and the prevention of violent conflict.
Jim Yong Kim has emphasized how institutionalized discrimination is bad for people, societies, and economies. His integration of non-discrimination into the bank’s work can be his legacy for the institution – but only if he tackles the most serious abuses as they arise. He should start by speaking out against the horrifying situation unfolding in Burma.