Last month’s report of the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar confirms something that should have been obvious long ago: the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority of Rakhine State have been experiencing a genocide.
Shamefully, this genocide has been permitted to unfold in plain sight. Myanmar’s many crimes against the Rohingya — mass killing, torture, rape, forced starvation, expulsion, denial of basic health care and education, collective de facto stripping of citizenship, laws restricting Rohingya from marrying and having children, confinement in structures resembling concentration camps, and imposition of apartheid denying the Rohingya freedom of movement and access to livelihoods — have been meticulously documented in reports by multiple academic and human rights organizations since 2015, including the United Nations, Yale Law School’s Allard K Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, Fortify Rights, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The persecution of the Rohingya is atrocious in scale but not exceptional in nature: it has been inspired and enabled by the decades-long persistence of military occupation, genocide, and apartheid in Palestine and Kashmir. Indeed, the Rohingya genocide has been actively aided and abetted by political, military, and economic support from both Israel and India.
In examining this tri-national cooperation, we find that the breakup of former empires and the establishment of new nation states has not diminished Islamophobia in the least. To the contrary: the very political entities now hailed as supposed exemplars of democratic values — India, “the world’s largest democracy”; Israel, “the only democracy in the Middle East”; Myanmar, the civilian government of which is headed by “democracy icon” Aung San Suu Kyi — have been major traffickers and coconspirators in Islamophobic discourse, a powerful set of rhetorical tools and political tactics that has its historical origins in colonial-brand Orientalism.
Transnational anti-Muslim sentiment binds together India, Israel, and Myanmar in their mutual complicity in the immiseration, injury, and death of Muslims and other peoples not aligned with their idealized ethno-nationalist identities. Buddhist, Jewish, and Hindu nationalists deploy Islamophobic rhetoric to fuel the fires that power violent, exclusionary projects of nation-building and resource expropriation by elites.
The neo-imperial Global War on Terror has provided these states with a shared linguistic, legal, and policy framework for projects of suppression and dispossession against Muslim minorities branded as “terrorists,” the favorite trope of Islamophobia. In the alchemical logic of counterterrorism — which Israel was a pioneer in developing, in an attempt to provide a veneer of legality to its treatment of the Palestinians — racist, oppressive, and even genocidal state offensives against vulnerable civilian populations are transmuted into exercises of virtuous and even “sadly necessary” self-defense against threats that always emanate spontaneously and irrationally from a genetically predisposed “terrorist” population, whose threat to the ethno-nation is hyperbolized as existential.
We see this again and again — in the depiction of largely nonviolent demonstrations in Gaza as being “led” by Hamas militants; in the painting of a scarce number of Rohingyas, armed only with knives and sticks, as a formidable army of insurrection; in India’s demonization of the Kashmiris resisting brutal military occupation as mere tools of Pakistani “jihadists.” In each of these cases, the reasonable political will of a people to gain their basic human rights under intolerable conditions of deprivation and state violence is made invisible.
The resemblance between Israel’s landscape of apartheid and the strangling system of checkpoints, curfews, and other restrictions on mobility and access to basic resources that has been implemented against the Rohingya and other Muslim groups in Rakhine is not coincidental: Rakhine State officials have explicitly invoked Israel’s colonization of Palestine as a model to be emulated against the Rohingya.
For example, the head of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), Dr Aye Maung, has called on Myanmar “to be like Israel” in developing governmental policies to repress, contain, and drive out the Rohingya. Revealingly, Rakhine Buddhist nationalist discourse has also inverted the analogy to Israel by comparing the Rohingya to the Jewish communities that emigrated to their “own” state (Israel) instead of returning to Germany after the Holocaust, while likening themselves (the Buddhist Rakhine) to the Nazis.
“Hitler may be an enemy to the Jews, but he is a hero to Germans,” reads one RNDP publication. “Something so inhumane was done to protect the sovereignty and people of a country. When [others] do such inhumane acts to save their country, they cannot criticize us.”
Myanmar politicians have also likened the situation in Rakhine State to the one in Kashmir, to forge lines of solidarity with Indian regimes of counterterrorism that cast suspicion on entire Muslim populations as harboring violence. In September 2017, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi declared: “we are facing the same problem as India is facing in Kashmir … India has a large Muslim community and in places like Kashmir, where you face terrorism, the trouble of sorting out the terrorists from the innocent citizen comes up.”
The joint statement released by India and Myanmar following Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Naypyidaw in September “condemned terrorism in all its forms” as “one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region,” referring specifically to alleged “recent barbaric terror attacks” by the Rohingya in Rakhine and Muslims in Kashmir. Unsurprisingly, the statement did not mention the far more significant “threats to peace and stability in the region” generated by the Myanmar and Indian governments themselves, through application of massive state terror to the captive civilians of Rakhine and Kashmir.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s comparison of Rakhine to Kashmir is apt, although not in the way she intended: far from legitimizing Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, the analogy to India’s abusive occupation of the Kashmiris thoroughly condemns it. In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the “world’s largest democracy” is administering one of the world’s largest military occupations — while the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1990 grants Indian armed forces the “special power” of committing crimes against Kashmiris with impunity.
More than 70,000 have been killed over the last three decades, and many tens of thousands more have been “disappeared,” incarcerated indefinitely without trial, or tortured in horrific ways: waterboarding, electrocution of genitals, injection of petrol into anuses. The landscape of Kashmir, historically renowned for its beauty, is now pocketed with thousands of mass and unmarked graves.
Forces of Hindu nationalism have echoed Myanmar’s demonization of the Rohingya as “terrorists” to advance India’s own politics of repression. The presence of significant numbers of Rohingya refugees in Jammu and Kashmir is cited to entrench the Indian state’s narrative that Kashmiri resistance to military occupation is “terrorism” induced by transnational forces of violent Islamism, rather than organic opposition to decades of violation.
Journalists and politicians have vilified the Rohingya fleeing genocide as Islamist infiltrators, the President of the Jammu Bar Association has called for Rohingyas to be eradicated by “bombs and AK-47s,” the Jammu National Panthers Party has taken out front-page ads in local newspapers labelling the Rohingya a “ticking time bomb” requiring immediate eviction, and the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry has proposed a movement to “identify and kill” all Rohingyas.
In an affidavit to the Supreme Court arguing for the Indian government’s right to deport Rohingya refugees en masse — ignoring the cardinal rule in customary international law forbidding states from returning asylum seekers to situations of persecution — the central Ministry of Home Affairs asserts that “many of the Rohingyas figure in the suspected sinister designs of ISI/ISIS.” Astonishingly, this incendiary accusation was made without citing any proof at all. In fact, it brazenly flies in the face of all available evidence indicating that not a single Rohingya from Myanmar has been charged with a terrorism offence or reported for radicalization in India.
At the same as it is trying to expel the Rohingya refugees back to conditions of genocide and strip citizenship from millions of Muslims in the state of Assam, the neo-fascist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is seeking to amend Indian law to expedite citizenship exclusively for non-Muslim refugees from Muslim countries.
“In the northeastern states [of India],” notes Cambridge academic Saba Sharma, “the fear is that this amendment would legitimise migration of Hindus from neighbouring Bangladesh in particular, potentially affecting the demographic makeup of the region” — a move reminiscent of Israel’s Law of Return, which accords “every Jew the right to come to this country as an immigrant” while denying the internationally protected right of return to Muslim and Christian Palestinian refugees.
In the alternative reality machine of the War on Terror, refugees become terrorists, abusive states become heroic counterterrorism warriors, and the most wretched of the earth are framed as the perpetrators of illegitimate violence rather than the primary victims.
In October 2017, Haaretz reported that Israel refused to stop selling advanced weaponry to Myanmar, even during the period it was accused of conducting ethnic cleansing: an outrage Israel justified by claiming that the Rohingya as well as Myanmar had committed war crimes, projecting a false and immoral symmetry between genocider and genocided. In September 2017, Israeli Attorney Itay Mack had filed a petition in the name of human rights activists calling for a halt to arms sales to Myanmar.
While the ruling of Israel’s High Court’s decision must remain secret because the judges hearing the case — Yoram Danziger, Anat Baron, and David Mintz — issued a gag order on it at the request of the state, the continuation of arms sales moots whatever decision the court made. It is well-known that these weapons had been previously wielded against the Palestinians. Indeed, the fact that they have been “battle-tested” on the men, women, and children imprisoned in the Occupied Territories is pitched as a major selling point by Israeli arms manufacturers.
It is not entirely surprising that Myanmar and Israel have now entered into a bizarre reciprocal agreement wherein each nation gets to vet how its history is represented in the other’s school textbooks. This is ludicrous, given the utter untrustworthiness of both states and their propaganda machinery.
“It is inconceivable that while the Burmese junta is busy committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, it has the right to interfere in curricula in Israel,” objects a joint statement from Israeli educators and academics to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In August, a 117-page book issued by Myanmar was discovered to contain fake photos. As the Guardian reported, “the 117-page book, published in July by the army’s department of public relations and psychological warfare, includes what it calls ‘documentary photos.’ A Reuters investigation reveals that the provenance of three of the eight historical photographs contained in the book were faked.”
Similarly, two years ago Israel issued a remarkably mendacious video that shows the lengths it will go to rewrite history and legitimate the dispossession of Palestinians. Portrayed as a humorous attempt to reassert the claim that the Jewish people are the original and therefore proper inhabitants of the land of Palestine, “Welcome to the Home of the Jewish People” shows a contemporary Jewish couple in their suburban home.
When they answer a knock on the door, they find themselves confronted by a group of Assyrians who say that they are the rightful owners of the land. This is repeated by groups Greeks, Romans, Arabs, crusaders, Mamluks, and Turks. The issue seems to be resolved when a British officer of the Mandate period signs the land back to Jacob and Rachel. But after a moment of calm, there is another knock on the door — this time it is the Palestinians.
As the Independent UK noted: “This is not just an academic issue; Palestinian refugees remain displaced, Palestinian citizens are discriminated against and treated as immigrants in their own country, and the Israeli government is dominated by politicians who refer to the West Bank as ‘Judea and Samaria.’” The video’s strange blend of humor, sexual innuendo, and “comic” images of severed limbs as the various groups’ (but never the Jews) battle over the land indicates that the producers wanted to come up with a light-hearted medium with which to deliver a deceitful lesson in revisionist history.
The image of these two nations making sure the other has “accurate” information is both comic and deadly, for these falsehoods enable the further persecution of Rohingya and Palestinians. Just as the physical evidence of atrocity is concealed with the establishment of new “facts on the ground” — parks and settlements built over ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages, military bases and mining operations constructed over the ruins of Rohingya homes — the memory of atrocity is overwritten with the propagation of “alternative facts” in official histories.
Our resistance to these racist systems of abuse must be as interconnected and mutually supportive as the systems of abuse themselves. In response to the linguistic and legal obfuscation produced by the Global War on Terror, we have to name the crimes which the Rohingyas, the Palestinians, and the Kashmiris have been subjected to for what they are: genocide, apartheid, colonialism.