Hellfire and Damnation in Myanmar: Ex-World Bank Country Head Recounts Rohingya Catastrophe Response  

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The crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State gripped the decade of the “democratic opening”, as state oppression of the Rohingya Muslim minority surged in 2012, culminating in the 2016 and 2017 mass expulsion that drove over 700,000 people into Bangladesh. The crisis severely affected many other parts of Myanmar in ways not fully appreciated at the time, much of it exacerbated by the cruel disregard of the military who perpetrated the ethnic cleansing, and by the obtuse arrogance of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). The international community didn’t exactly shower itself in glory either, but as usual, found a way to exonerate its own complicity, corruption, cowardice and incompetence.

Ellen Goldstein’s gripping and valorous memoir Damned if You Do is essential to understanding the role of international actors in this traumatic episode. A former country director of the World Bank (WB), Goldstein has written a uniquely vivid and lively record of desperate times and desperate choices.

Goldstein arrives in Myanmar in mid-2017, the first director-level leader of the WB’s presence (which also covered Cambodia and Laos). She lasts just two years in the job. The book opens and closes with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s address to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in December 2019, which Goldstein watches from Washington DC.

“I am not in Myanmar on this ignominious day. I am on the sidelines now, stripped of my position there…I was forced out by the World Bank – fired, really – although I chose to jump before I was pushed.”

Yes, the spoiler alert is provided by the author herself. It’s a novel narrative choice, and actually builds more tension: you want to know why this firebrand personality was subjected to such wretched treatment.

Myanmar was a consolation posting after her “dream job” of Vietnam fell through, victim to WB perfidy. You’d think dealing with Myanmar army generals would be a breeze after decades swimming with the hammerhead sharks of senior Bank management, but Goldstein faced implacable foes in Naypyitaw as much as Washington.

In 66 rapid-fire chapters, Goldstein recounts a tumultuous two-year assignment. As a Jewish American child reared on memories of the Holocaust, she was driven by the mantra of “it could happen again.” The author is an unapologetic “undiplomatic diplomat.” As she makes clear as she arrives in Yangon, “I have no small talk; I cut right to the heart of issues. I speak from to-do lists. I promise only what I can deliver and then deliver what I promise: billions of dollars combined with technical advice to transform ideas into results that improve people’s lives.” (Full disclosure, I met Goldstein a handful of times in Yangon and can attest she is a refreshingly no-BS professional with a drive to get good things done. I also participated with her and WB colleagues in a day-long staff workshop on the history of human rights and conflict in Myanmar, and later participated in a briefing for a visiting vice president of the WB, but never worked for the institution).

Arriving just months before the hellfire unleashed on August 25, Goldstein is inducted into the Naypyitaw Consensus, that traveling circus of ambassadors and agency heads who were forever flying to the capital for planning meetings with ministers, directors, and occasionally the State Counsellor herself, replete with early morning flights, hideous meeting room furniture, doilies everywhere, fancy hotel bars, and a constant feeling of not being sure if your message got through or you actually had an agreement. She discovers the bizarre byzantine logic of Naypyitaw, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) perceives itself to be a “Minister for Foreigners” and shuns inclusion of Burmese WB colleagues in official meetings.

Goldstein arrives at a nerve-wracking time, coming after the October 2016 attacks against the Rohingya, and five years after first intercommunal violence and then state-driven attacks cleaved Rakhine society. But undeterred, she committed to confronting the challenges head-on.

“I am the leader of the World Bank team in Myanmar. It is my responsibility to figure out how we can help this fledgling democracy in a time of crisis and how we can right at least some of the wrongs. What kind of a leader – what kind of a person – would I be if I did not at least try?”

It is her daughter Isabel who confronts the moral dilemma of the WB’s presence in Myanmar as repression against the Rohingya was set to explode, in Chapter 9: “Are We All Complicit?”. As Goldstein defends her and the WB’s engagement with the logic of stopping mass atrocity by “strengthening the civilian government”, Isabel retorts: “Sure, but in the meantime, you are complicit in genocide.” The rebuke stings Goldstein, as it would anyone.

It is pertinent to reflect on this exchange back in 2017 on a family visit to Hanoi, discussing American war crimes in Vietnam, and think of today as America supplies munitions pulverize the Gaza Strip, while Israel, like Suu Kyi and Myanmar, faces the ICJ on genocide charges.

Attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) unleashed a widely predicted violent response by Myanmar’s military: but its speed and savagery were still shocking. These chapters, of facing her horrified Myanmar colleagues, an obstinate democratically elected government whose leader denies the atrocities, and escalating pressure from headquarters, are powerful for how deeply Goldstein conveys her horror and the moral dilemma of how she should respond as WB representative.

In the end, Goldstein freezes a US$200 million budgetary support package, but HQ wants more. “I am feeling strong pressure to do something highly visible to express our outrage. And in his moments of frustration, our president spins out ideas like freezing our entire $2 billion portfolio or stopping all new projects… Everything we are doing to support Myanmar’s historic political and economic transition would stop cold.

Goldstein captures the mood of frenzied outrage, shock and the manifold conundrums of maintaining a presence after a horrific mass atrocity. She orchestrates a high-level phone call between the WB president and the State Counselor, working around the communications dysfunction that was Naypyitaw under the NLD, only to have the call canceled at the last minute because WB’s chief Jim Yong Kim read a damning New York Times article on Suu Kyi’s disastrous September speech weeks into the crisis.

Goldstein’s reaction is measured. “Fuck. It. All. They cannot be serious! I am reeling with disbelief and anger. A phone call between a head of state and the World Bank president is a rare thing… For us to request an urgent phone call and then refuse to take it is both nonsensical and highly disrespectful.” I was stunned by this revelation.

I’m sure anyone who has been based overseas dealing with a peripatetic headquarters or an imperious boss who believes all time differences should benefit him and not his staff, will sympathize with her frustration. Goldstein captures the intense frustration that anyone working in Myanmar must have felt between 2017-2018. To her credit, she stayed and tried her best. Many others scurried away, not wanting any career stains from getting too close to a mass atrocity. “And we have prevaricated mightily. The World Bank did not approve a single new project for two years after the Rohingya crisis escalated. Not by design, but through indecision. And when we finally did approve a project, it did nothing to help the Rohingya. What is the right thing to do? Which way are the international winds blowing?”

Goldstein and her colleagues come up with a plan to try and help the NLD help itself. They tell the WB board they’re looking for a calibrated response. They call it the “Relief to Recovery to Development Plan for Rakhine State,” or the “R2R2D Plan.” On paper it sounds promising. The initial workshop in early 2018 was one of those archetypal Naypyitaw boondoggles. Painful official speeches. Stultifying protocol. A government official exploding when he saw white WB staff in a session meant for Myanmar people only.

 

But Goldstein with her whiplash acumen gets to the heart of the political culture that fueled the Naypyitaw Consensus: “It is a tendency not only to see foreigners as an existential threat to the nation, but to see their own people as inconsequential, irrelevant. And in this, they fail to comprehend the democracy toward which they have chosen to move, with its defining shift in power toward the people.”

She also recounts her ill-fated dash to Bangkok to enlist the support of American politician Bill Richardson for the R2R2D plan. He resigned from the Rakhine Advisory Implementation Commission the next day, after a public spat with the State Counsellor. A great deal of effort goes into a plan that went nowhere.

If any reader is interested in the depth of denials from the NLD government, read Chapter 26 on “Spring Meetings”, where U Kyaw Win (Goldstein calls him ‘U Tin Oo’ in the book), the administration’s Minister for National Planning and Finance, presents a series of graphic death photos of allegedly slaughtered Hindus to a packed meeting chaired by the WB’s vice-president. “This is the most interesting World Bank meeting I have ever been to,” one of Goldstein’s colleagues remarks. This was the same minister who was widely known to have purchased a fake degree from Brooklyn Park University (in Pakistan) and who soon after the ill-fated DC visit resigned: he was under investigation for corruption. The NLD government was riddled with rotten apples, flunkies and bigots.

Goldstein’s mounting frustration at the selective assault, from DC decisionmakers and within the WB, on any dealings with Myanmar is visceral. And she does not shy away from calling out the hypocrisy.

“And why us? Why is the World Bank the only target of criticism in Myanmar? The Asian Development Bank has continued financing projects in Myanmar with only the most cursory analysis of conflict and exclusion. And the UN remains engaged in Myanmar, even financing small projects in Rakhine State, including on land once inhabited by Rohingya and now bulldozed into history!”

All good points. The ADB enjoyed an almost criticism-free reign to cause significant damage in Myanmar, especially in its deplorable road project in Kayin State when few seemed concerned their partner was Saw Chit Thu of the abusive and corrupt Border Guard Force (BGF).

The WB’s shift away from government-heavy development projects to “social inclusion, non-discrimination, and creating equal opportunities in conflict zones” was emulated by many other aid and development actors. But nowhere is the stalled and shaky peace process interrogated. Nor is the fact – often overlooked amid the ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine – that the Myanmar military had been on a decades-long murder spree in many other parts of the country.

By October 2018, the WB President is threatening to pull the bank out of Myanmar. Jim Yong Kim’s handling of the Rohingya tragedy, as the author strongly suggests, was driven more by the potential blowback on his reputation than actually command of the delicacies of staying engaged for the greater good of the people of Myanmar. This is not handwringing vacillation, but aloof, capricious, self-preservation: my words, not Goldstein’s. She puts it more eloquently, bemoaning the president’s unfulfilled promise to always be open to discussing complex issues over Myanmar. “Well, that was a bunch of bullshit. Such a farce. I am disgusted by the hypocrisy.”

 

On her way out, Goldstein and the WB are castigated by INGOs for their dormant $100-million program on Rakhine relief and rehabilitation, citing a tepid project document posted on the bank’s website. Without defending the WB, it is ludicrous for international aid agencies to heap blame on international financial institutions (IFIs) when they were equally complicit and in many ways even more up to their necks in blood, for their long involvement in not just Rakhine but other conflict zones of Myanmar where they chose continued donor funds over principle.

Leading the charge in a spectacularly inaccurate opinion piece in the Washington Post was the arch-fabulist Azeem Ibrahim, whose 2016 book on ‘hidden genocide’ set the international false note on Rakhine State early on. It was yet another case where the media and INGOs privileged raw emotion over reason with the Rohingya. No one involved in the Rashomon of Rakhine State since 2012 is clean. But the WB simply didn’t have the time and opportunity to create as much damage as the UN was already doing.

It’s an understatement to say that Goldstein was thrown under the bus. Yet the excruciating reciting of awkward conversations at WB headquarters in late 2018 (Chapter 38) makes clear she was thrown to the wolves: “I think I was fired for failing to prevent genocide,” she tells a friend. Her response is vintage Goldstein stoicism. “Fuck it all. If I am going to be fired, I

want to see as much of Myanmar as possible before I leave.” She goes to Mrauk U.

The real scandal is that soon after forcing her out of the door, Jim Yong Kim resigns to take up a position on Wall Street, and Goldstein’s treacherous supervising boss leaves for a lucrative UN job. In those two years, no new WB programs were announced. The author estimates that Myanmar lost $1 billion in WB assistance alone, with several billion dollars in aid if all tallied up. All for a mass atrocity perpetrated by the military and covered up by the NLD.

Like everyone else, Goldstein was poleaxed by the 2021 coup. After scrutinizing all the signs from the military leadership and admitting to mounting unease, she writes, “[p]olitical analyst Richard Horsey tweets from Yangon, ‘It appears that the Myanmar military has stepped back from its coup threat and will ‘follow the Constitution’…any imminent putsch seems unlikely.’ Like I said. Not going to happen. My political instincts remain sharp. Nothing gets past me.” It’s a thoroughly depressing conclusion, after some glimmers of hope in 2020 and the WB contributing in significant ways to Covid-19 relief.

This is no dry academic study or high-level sanitation process. Damned if You Do is raw confessional. I know many friends and colleagues in the aid and development industry who will feel emboldened by reading Goldstein’s account, especially women who have long had to struggle against institutionalized sexism: and that struggle is far from over. Anyone who has ever struggled to get a mouth-breathing pencil pusher boss to understand what it’s like to navigate real world complexity will adore her frankness.

Yet I also know many professionals who would gravitate to Jim Yong Kim’s dark side of working to end poverty: keeping up “burn rates”, producing escape-proof planning documents, deflecting scandal onto others, always redirecting risk, interpreting leadership as looking after Number One, and understanding that the real battleground isn’t on ‘the ground’ but in headquarters meeting rooms. They wouldn’t be seen with a copy of this book on their work desk any more than The Anarchist Cookbook.

At times Goldstein overstates the broader perception of the WB.

“We are experts at defining plans – national development plans, sector strategies, action plans, any kind of plan, really. We are big believers in defining a clear plan and then implementing it. Also, the government trusts us. We are perceived as relative newcomers and neutral technocrats in Myanmar unlike others who have flamed out. Especially the United Nations.”

She’s right about the UN. But there was widespread unease over the role of IFIs, especially the WB, which faced justifiable criticism over the social and environmental impacts of its “plans” and its approach to “community consultations.” In hindsight, the $250-million Peaceful and Prosperous Communities (PPC) would have likely been disastrous.

Goldstein’s prodigious profanity is almost a character in itself, and remarkably refreshing for an elite narrative such as this. “Maybe we can start to turn this shitshow around,” she says at one point. My favorite has to be her reaction to a well-meaning but clueless colleague who obviously hadn’t heard of the United Wa State Army. “In my head, I am screaming, Are you out of your goddamn mind? But instead I say, “Do you know you could start a fucking war by cutting off cell phone service to Wa State?” A more suitable response.

Anyone who works on Myanmar should prioritize reading this book, especially if you’re in the aid racket. It’s rare to read such a bracing account. The coup derailed the opportunities for reform Goldstein and her colleagues worked so so hard to pursue, even more than the crimes against the Rohingya several years ago. Yet this account is an important addition to memorializing the past and providing signposts for Myanmar’s inevitable reconstruction after the military finally falls.

 

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian, and human rights issues on Myanmar.