Although global media outlets like the Economist have made the case that the Rohingya of Burma are the “most persecuted people in the world” for several years at this point, their plight has yet to fully register around the world.
Besides the fact that the genocide involves a poverty-stricken and stateless ethnic people with no political voice, the world’s lack of knowledge about the Rohingya also stems from the fact that Myanmar State Councillor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has offered cover for the brutality of her military through her lack of action and her dismissal of the carnage going on under her rule.
As Hannah Beech wrote in the New Yorker, “[Suu Kyi] has described the Rohingya insurgents as ‘terrorists’ and dismissed the worldwide condemnation, saying that international outlets have created ‘a huge iceberg of misinformation.’ Her office has accused the Rohingya of setting fire to their own homes in order to provoke an outcry.”
This January Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and former member of an international panel advising Suu Kyi, described her situation this way: “She seems isolated. She doesn’t travel much into the country. I think she’s developed a classic bubble.” Richardson resigned from the panel in frustration, blaming the Burmese military for most of the killing and destruction and calling the government’s investigation into the Rohingya crisis “a whitewash.”
What exactly is being whitewashed? A New York Times article gave graphic details of the kinds of atrocities the Myanmar government is trying to cover up: “Survivors said they saw government soldiers stabbing babies, cutting off boys’ heads, gang-raping girls, shooting 40-millimeter grenades into houses, burning entire families to death, and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them.”
Human Rights Watch has gathered expensive data that corroborates what the refugees told the New York Times: “The atrocities committed by Burmese security forces, including mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson, amount to crimes against humanity. Military and civilian officials have repeatedly denied that security forces committed abuses during the operations, claims which are contradicted by extensive evidence and witness accounts.”
In March, the US Holocaust Museum joined several organizations that have taken back humanitarian recognition from Suu Kyi: it revoked its prestigious Elie Wiesel award, stating, “We had hoped that you — as someone we and many others have celebrated for your commitment to human dignity and universal human rights — would have done something to condemn and stop the military’s brutal campaign and to express solidarity with the targeted Rohingya population.”
At a recent international conference on the Rohingya held in Paris, organized by Dr. Maung Zarni, a Burmese Buddhist activist and organizer with the Free Rohingya Coalition, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi indicted Suu Kyi specifically in terms of rape: “My sister laureate has dismissed as ‘made-up stories’ credible finding of the Burmese military’s use of systematic and pervasive rape and other acts of sexual violence – such as public stripping of Rohingya women.
The UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on sexual violence Primila Patten of Mauritius has also gone public with her exasperation over Suu Kyi’s refusal to engage substantively on the issue of Burmese military’s systematic sexual violence against literally thousands of Rohingya women and girls – many of whom did not make it to Cox Bazaar’s [in Bangladesh] camps. Suu Kyi should know that inactivity in the face of genocidal actions can carry moral and legal responsibility.”
Ebadi insisted that Suu Kyi and Burmese military leaders be brought before an international tribunal on charges of genocide. Stripping Suu Kyi of her prizes and accolades is an important step towards exposing the violence going on under her protection, but knowing the history and the causes behind the persecution is essential.
The debates over what words to use to describe the carnage in Myanmar are not simply a matter of semantics. Words like “genocide” and “apartheid” trigger specific sanctions within international law and human rights discourse. The issue of whether or not the Rohingya are an actual “ethnic group” is likewise a critical point of debate, with specific rights and remedies hanging in the balance.
Roots of an Atrocity
Who are the Rohingya and why is Burma so intent on its brutal program of ethnic cleansing?
The Rohingya are recognized internationally as an ethnic group, present in their current location from at least the twelfth century. When the modern states were created upon the end of the British empire, the Rohingya were instantly transformed from a distinct people into an ethnic minority within Burma, later to be known as Myanmar. But the Rohingya are Muslim, and the Burmese state sees itself as Buddhist. The ethnic cleansing is meant to force Rohingya into submission or out of the country.
There are two main reasons behind the genocide: racism and greed. Militant Buddhist groups such as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party voice the dominant anti-Rohingya sentiment. One of its leaders, U Shwe Mg asserts: “the so-called Rohingya are just illegal immigrants. We allowed them to settle down here because we are generous people and we thought they would just stay a while. But the Bengali had a lot of children, paid Buddhist women to convert to Islam and marry them, stole our land, squeezed our resources, and now they demand equal rights and citizenship. It can’t be.”
This racism has been stirred up by the Burmese military, who have other reasons for expelling the Rohingya.: the land they have lived in for centuries has large natural gas resources. Big multinational corporations acting in collusion with the military are profiting from the killings and displacements. Even some Arab states such as Qatar are complicit in supporting the Burmese regime. According to Shirin Ebadi, these corporations and the military are “knee deep in the blood of the Rohingya people.”
The idea that these resources do not belong to the Rohingya, and that they are simply interlopers in Burma, is manifested in laws that perpetually keep them disenfranchised. Last year Myanmar began a citizenship verification program in Rakhine State under which some residents were granted a form of citizenship on condition that they identify as Bengali, rather than Rohingya. This puts the Rohingya in a Catch-22 situation. If they identify as Bengali in order to get this citizenship they are considered as immigrants from Bengal and their form of citizenship made precarious.
This is essentially a bribe to self-incriminate. Their taking this bait advances the government’s argument that the Rohingya are not a distinct Burmese ethnic group but rather Bengali “foreigners.” The Rohingya have resisted this form of blackmail and insist on their designation as a Burmese ethnic group.
Amnesty International has called the system the Rohingya live under “apartheid”: “This system appears designed to make Rohingyas’ lives as hopeless and humiliating as possible. The security forces’ brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing … is just another manifestation of this appalling attitude.”
The deliberate burning of Rohingya villages, often with their inhabitants inside, is done not only to cause death and displacement, but also because according to Burmese law, the state can then claim that land.
In December, UN Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein noted “concordant reports of acts of appalling barbarity committed against the Rohingya, including deliberately burning people to death inside their homes, murders of children and adults; indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians; widespread rapes of women and girls, and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques… Can anyone… rule out that elements of genocide may be present?”
The only sanctuary that has been offered to the more than one million Rohingya refugees has been from one of the poorest nations in the world, Bangladesh, whose resources are now stretched to the limit. Fifty-eight percent of those refugees are children, many of them orphans who witnessed the execution of their parents and other family members. These children continue the generations-old history of being stateless. They are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
To give a sense of the immensity of this human-made horror, Shirin Ebadi asserted that refugee camps in Syria and Palestine are like “five-star hotels” compared to the refugee sites in Bangladesh. The present conditions are bad enough, with the monsoon season is fast approaching, disease, hunger, and death will rise exponentially very soon.
A Just Return
The Rohingya in exile are arguing for their human right to return, but most importantly in safety and with rights.
On June 6, the United Nations announced that a Memorandum of Understanding had been signed between the Government of Myanmar, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). It says the MOU is the first step needed to create conditions “conducive to voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable refugee returns from Bangladesh, and their reintegration in the country.”
While this seems an encouraging advance, it is crucial to note that the very people it is meant to help, the Rohingya, were given no voice in the matter. That is a disturbing sign. The process that led to this MOU has not been transparent, and the key idea of “citizenship” is left wide open to interpretation.
The only satisfactory kind of citizenship for the Rohingya would need to full and unconditional enfranchisement. Otherwise all the talk about “reintegration in the country” would rightfully be looked upon with suspicion. And even if legally granted full citizenship, it would be naïve to think the Myanmar government would not continue to find ways to continue its repression.
The international human rights NGO, Refugees International, reacted to the MOU thus: “UNHCR’s engagement in the process is welcome and its inclusion in a framework for returns will be an important step toward ensuring that any improvement of conditions in Myanmar can be independently verified. However, RI urges that the text of the MOU be made public and warns that conditions for Rohingya in Myanmar remain appalling.”
It added that “continued impunity, restricted access to aid, and denial of basic human rights in Myanmar’s Rakhine State make repatriation a distant reality at this time.”
But international law is mostly a matter of self-interest and the exercise of power to secure those interests. Today those interests are aimed toward acquiring those natural gas resources — hence the need to think broadly and imaginatively about how to act alongside international protections, which are slow to be activated. The role of civil society is therefore critical.
In the Paris conference, Mireille Fanon-Mendès France, a prominent human rights activist and daughter of Franz Fanon, noted the similarity between the case of the Rohingya and that of the Palestinians, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement there, which stems from Palestinian civil society. The likeness is striking.
Foreign Policy agrees: “Both groups became disenfranchised in the aftermath of colonial rule and imperial collapse, and both the Myanmar and Israeli governments have attempted to relocate them from their territory, portraying them as foreigners with no claim to the land. In both Israel and Myanmar, there have been attempts to rewrite the history of the two persecuted groups, claiming that neither constitute a ‘real’ ethnic group and are thus interlopers and invaders.”
International solidarity groups have formed in many countries such as Japan, Turkey, the US, India, and Ireland that support and offer refuge to the Rohingya. Calls for boycotts and sanctions have been issued. At this point Bangladesh is bearing the weight of the world’s responsibility — this cannot continue to be the case.
Hannah Arendt wrote that human rights cannot depend on nation-states or international bodies for their viability. She said the only guarantor of human rights is the human community. On August 25, the Free Rohingya Coalition will hold a global day of awareness, and ask that world governments and civil society help end the suffering and death of the most vulnerable and persecuted people in the world.