Many expert observers believe the persecution of the Rohingya of Myanmar is not only “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” but also a genocide. Those who have publicly recognised it as such include the foreign minister of Bangladesh, the president of France, eight Nobel Peace laureates, the international panel of judges at the People’s Tribunal on Myanmar. Less than two weeks ago, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein pointedly asked a special session of the UN Human Rights Council, “Can anyone – can anyone – rule out that elements of genocide may be present?”
How did this horror arise? Myanmar’s military has allied with an extremist movement working to promote Bamar and Buddhist nationalism, demonising the Rohingya Muslim minority as alien and less than human. Unfortunately, this “Ma Ba Tha” Buddhist movement has increasingly influenced the thinking of the public, and even many former pro-democracy activists now support the military repression of the Rohingya. This is one reason much of the public now supports the military’s latest and most dramatic escalation, beginning in August 2017, despite seeing pictures of over 6,30,000 men, women and children fleeing their burning homes.
As Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has not made any effort to normalise the Rohingya; in fact, she has gone out of her way to deny the fact of mass atrocities. State propaganda has tried hard to depict the Rohingya, and Muslims in general, as a threat, and the military’s Chief General Min Aung Hlaing has even falsely and brazenly alleged that the Muslims are committing their own genocide. Although “military investigations” have concluded that there have been no abuses by soldiers, numerous reports from international agencies, satellite photos, and Rohingya survivor testimonies make it clear that mass atrocities have been taking place.
Today, as news of the arrest of two well-regarded Reuters reporters in Myanmar reaches us, one thinks of all the journalists, local and foreign, who have struggled over the years to enlarge the space for civil society in that country. One such journalist is the indefatigable Bertil Lintner. He was interviewed in Scroll.in on Human Rights Day, December 10. Sadly, some of his answers, to clear and well-informed questions, made for troubling reading.
Despite Myanmar’s apartheid policies of ethnic cleansing and displacement, Lintner does not frame his analysis around human or international rights. He emphasises the security frame, which is also used by both Burmese and Indian establishments to divide and control their diverse populations. One problem with this politicised security narrative is that it actually makes the problem worse. Lintner fails to properly address the root causes of the crisis, and is sceptical of the Rohingya identity, suggesting it is largely manufactured. A better approach to solving the crisis would be for Myanmar to delink ethnicity and citizenship entirely, and eliminate the root causes of radicalisation and mass suffering.
We should also take his unproven assertions about the scope of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army with a grain of salt, not least because they too neatly appeal to Islamophobic perspectives so widespread today. Of course, the attacks by the Rohingya militia were counterproductive, but it is important to bear in mind that most large ethnic minorities in Myanmar have organised militias to resist the Tatmadaw and its abuses. They have killed many more Tatmadaw soldiers than ARSA, but these non-Muslim groups are not demonised as terrorists. Security messaging is so deeply, essentially politicised.
Working towards coexistence
At Burma Task Force, the human rights group I work with, we saw last August’s military build-up in Rakhine state as alarmingly provocative. As did other observers such as Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States Congress, and Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur to Myanmar. Observers noted that the military blockade of villages was causing hunger and that mass arrests were angering residents. It is this provocative military action that led to the disastrous ARSA attack which became the pretext for the military’s “clearance operation”, just hours after the introduction of a long-awaited plan for coexistence by the Kofi Annan’s Rakhine Commission.
Despite the propaganda of their government, one must hope that most Burmese will eventually reject the divisive and dehumanising rhetoric and choose coexistence. Identity is complex enough as a social construct, even before it is politicised. One should also bear in mind that the current policies of exclusion and displacement are based in economics – Rakhine state has gas and mineral reserves that China and other nations seek to control and exploit.
The displacement of the Rohingya, meanwhile, remains a regional challenge. Many of the countries they have fled to, including India, have not treated them well. Indeed, the Indian government even wanted to expel all the Rohingya refugees. Threats by a local Chamber of Commerce leader this summer resulted in a Rohingya camp in Jammu being burnt to ground. One of the Rohingya groups that escaped that experience ended up in Sri Lanka, where they were again attacked. The Rohingya refugees and migrants in Muslim nations too are not granted full rights and remain effectively stateless. At a time when there are 65 million displaced people in the world, housed in open air prisons for an average of 17 years, it is increasingly popular to blame the victim.
Given this context, not to mention international law, it is disappointing that Lintner promotes third country settlement instead of proper Rohingya repatriation as a solution to the crisis. Of course, he is right that the repatriation pact between Myanmar and Bangladesh appears to be theater. It is quite unworkable as it stands now; it must be linked to the restoration of Rohingya rights, return of land and property as well as safety guarantees. Still, the UN and others should be allowed to build a multi-lateral mechanism to enforce a meaningful process of integration and coexistence. Perhaps, peacekeepers will be accepted eventually, as per the suggestions of Malaysian government and professionals like Romeo Dallaire. As commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in the early 1990s, Dallaire had warned that genocide was imminent but was ignored.
What can be done to stop the cruelty of Mynamar’s government and the suffering of the Rohingya? People with some access and influence like Lintner can try to prevail on Suu Kyi to do more, even towards normalising the Rohingya in subtle ways as he suggests. In my country, the US, despite the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow apartheid, popular culture has played a role in normalising and integrating African-Americans. Civil society can help if it is not harassed by the government.
Finally, India must stop selling arms to the brutal Tatmadaw. So should Pakistan, Russia, China and Israel. We have the right and obligation to demand this action – and now.
Adem Carroll, a human rights advocate, is the New York and United Nations Program Director for Burma Task Force USA.