Myanmar the preconditions for genocide are now firmly in place. Racism has been normalised among the ethnically Burman population and the Rohingyas have already been subject to communal violence, state oppression and have been forced into both internal and external exile. Anti-Rohingya sentiment has been deliberately stoked up by a series of regimes since Burma gained independence. And most of the waves of anti-Rohingya violence have either been orchestrated by the state or have seen the officials of the state acting in close cooperation with other ethnic or religious groups.
A powerless minority is the victim of effective ethnic cleansing, in an environment where they are hated by their neighbours and actively discriminated against by state authorities. The situation is stark. Rohingya human rights activist Tun Khin has said, “We fear we will be wiped out.” Given the importance of preparing the ground for genocide, in terms of creating a particular set of social attitudes, his conclusion should be a warning to the world: “In the case of inhumanity and injustice, no one should be silent. What’s happening to us requires a serious kind of humanity – this is a very important moment for Rohingya.”
There has been no improvement since 2004 when Barbara Harff argued that Myanmar was the state in the world most at risk of genocide.
Indeed, with the recent waves of violence, the situation has palpably worsened. According to United to End Genocide, “nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide than in Burma today”. The Early Warning Project identified Myanmar in 2015 as the state in the world most at risk, above countries such as Sudan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which all receive more international attention.
The attitude of the Myanmar state towards its Rohingya minority has already crossed many of the lines from ethnic conflict towards genocide. The way the state thinks about this minority is also fundamentally racist, and more than that, the Rohingyas are now seen to be an existential threat to the chosen religious identity of the state. The events since 2012 can be seen as testing the limits of what is deemed acceptable both by Myanmar’s society and the wider international community, and are comparable to the build-up to genocide we have seen in the other examples discussed. As such, it seems the only thing missing is a trigger for outright genocide.
…Each electoral cycle in Myanmar since 1990 has seen a further reduction in the rights of the Rohingyas. They were able to participate in the elections between independence and military rule, with some limits, and ethnic Rohingyas were elected to parliament (and continued to serve in parliament even after the imposition of military rule in 1962). In 1990, despite the loss of many rights in the intervening period, a number of Rohingyas were still allowed to vote and stand for elections, and even won seats.
Disgracefully, the NLD and its Rakhine allies then cooperated with the military to have these victories annulled. Even in 2010, some Rohingyas had the right to vote and three were elected from Rakhine. One of these, Shwe Maung, stood for the USDP.
To properly understand the risks of the 2015 electoral cycle we need first to look at how the lead-up was used to complete the exclusion of the Rohingyas from civic life in Myanmar, then consider the wider political dynamics in Myanmar as a whole, and then move on to consider the very specific dynamics within Rakhine. There is a risk that tensions at either national or regional level could be the final trigger; however, the complete exclusion of the Rohingyas in effect means that either the authorities reverse their recent decisions or the situation will escalate into forced deportation and/or mass murder. In effect, this has created a situation in which anything can be the final trigger, since any safety nets or alternative power structures have been destroyed.
The lead-up to the 2015 elections was marked by an escalation of the exclusion of the Rohingyas.
As a group, they have been left with no place in civic Myanmar, many have been forced into internal camps, their last vestige of official documentation has been stripped away and there were, for the first time ever, almost no Muslim candidates from any ethnic group, including those outside Rakhine, standing for parliament in 2015.
A key step in bringing this situation about was the census conducted in 2014, when the Rohingya ethnic group was not included, and was expected to self-identify as foreigners. David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch has expressed severe concerns not just about the conduct of the census but also the complicity of the UN and other donors:
“The exclusion of the Rohingya from the census was a betrayal of the very principles and purpose of conducting the census, and the international donors and UN agencies who were involved are complicit in this exclusion. The Rohingya have the right to self-identify and should be accorded the rights of citizens. The census [in] refusing to do so doesn’t solve the problem of stateless Rohingya, it exacerbates it and the government shouldn’t be caving to extremists and their racist agendas.”
The 2014 census saw the deliberate exclusion of the Rohingyas, as they were forced to choose to register either as “Bengalis” or be excluded. Even the official version of the census report shows the reality in Rakhine. One third of the population was declared as “not enumerated” and nowhere in the glossy state publications can the casual reader find an explanation for this remarkable outcome. The relatively small numbers excluded in Kachin and Kayin States reflects ongoing armed conflict in those areas, something that clearly is not the case in Rakhine.
The Rohingyas were removed from the electoral register whether they accepted the state-imposed designation of “Bengali” or refused to answer.
Accepting the state designation as “Bengali” was tantamount to accepting the loss of any right to live in the country of their birth. Refusing to accept this designation meant the regime confiscated any remaining identity cards and tried to force all those who now lack identification into the internal refugee camps. A recent report has noted that this has “led many Rohingya to believe that there is little hope for their future in Myanmar”. An ASEAN report believes that this complete exclusion from the civic life of their own country has led many Rohingyas to conclude they are being forced out of Myanmar.
Naturally, a government spokesman managed to justify this exclusion: “They are holding household cards stating that they are Bengali even though they self-identified themselves to be Rohingya, which is not allowed, so we did not accept that and instead classified them as ‘unidentified’”.
However, the destruction of the last vestiges of their participation in civil life has not just been a product of the census. The persecution of the Rohingyas continues to be a factor in the interaction between the USDP, the NLD and the extremist Buddhist organisations. For example, in late 2013 the USDP had supported the idea that the holders of so-called “white cards” (that is, Rohingyas who lack normal citizenship) would be able to vote on constitutional reforms, but Buddhist nationalists immediately protested the move and the USDP was forced to back down.
Thein Sein later declared that all white cards would expire in March 2015 and armed groups of security personnel carried out the removal of the last official documents from the possession of the Rohingyas. The loss of the last identity documents is critical as it means the Rohingyas are no longer entitled to travel or work outside the designated refugee camps.
In addition, Muslims in general have been removed from the electoral process by a re-interpretation of electoral law. In particular, the MaBaTha and 969 Movement have forced the regime to pass further discriminatory laws about citizenship and civil rights, for example restricting marriage between Buddhists and other religious groups. Not only do the new laws add to the wider repression of the Rohingyas but, under pressure, the government has removed more than 100 possible Muslim candidates from the electoral list.
Among them was Shwe Maung, on the grounds that his parents were not citizens. This effectively eliminated the last Rohingya voice in parliament. Tun Min Soe, who was planning to run for the NLD, has also been rejected, a decision that provoked a mild rebuke from the NLD, with their spokesman Nyan Win stating, “the rejection of candidates based on the citizenship of their parents is in my opinion an infringement upon the equal rights of citizens”.
However, the electoral commission has cited two related laws in justifica-tion of its decisions: one barring people from running for office if their parents were not Myanmar citizens at the time of their birth; and another requiring candidates to have lived in the country for the past ten consecutive years.
The forced displacement of the Rohingyas into internal camps, and the removal of their last vestige of democratic rights has led some observers to call Myanmar an “apartheid state”.
In consequence, the Rohingyas are now excluded both as electors and in terms of representation and they are an easy (and shared) target for all the represented political camps. The implication is clear: failure to gain any political voice to speak for their interests in the 2015 elections means that, as a Rohingya activist put it, “the whole Rohingya will be a sort of degraded or persecuted community, and that cannot continue for long”. The inevitable result is that “the Rohingyas will disappear from Rakhine State. It is sure Rohingya will disappear”.
Excerpted with permission from The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, Azeem Ibrahim, Speaking Tiger.