Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Rohingya Genocide

"The inaction of world leaders in the face of mass slaughter goes back well before the holocaust, and genocidal leaders have taken note" - Daniel Goldhagen

Over the last century more than 100 million civilians have died in genocides. The Turks killed over a million Armenians during World War I. The Japanese, Communist China and the Nazis killed tens of millions more. More than eight million have died in the Soviet gulags. Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge killed 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s. Genocides have occurred in Bosnia, Darfur, Congo, Guatemala, Rwanda and many other nations - the list goes on and on. According to the Genocide Watch website, mass killings are currently occurring in nine nations, and concerted campaigns to marginalize and demonize ethnic or religious groups exist in many more.

One of these nations is Burma, re-named Myanmar by the military junta that kept the internationally celebrated Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for fifteen of the twenty-one years from just before she won democratic elections in 1990 until her most recent release in 2010. Burma has been a hot topic in the world media recently for ostensibly positive reasons: an opening-up and democratization of the nation, most clearly symbolized by the allowing of what the nation calls a free press as sixteen independent newspapers were given operating licenses for the first time after almost fifty years of state censorship.

However, despite these positive signs, there has been a campaign of targeted and organized violence (mass killings, rapes, mass arrests, ill-treatment of detainees etc.) aimed initially at the Rohingya people that has spread to other parts of the nation, with other ethnic Muslim groups now targeted.

From an article at the Progressive Press:

As The Progressive Press has been reporting, for the past month in Burma (Myanmar), there has been "escalating daily violence against minority Muslims by Buddhist mobs. Initially focused on the Rohingya, the mob violence has now spread further throughout the country, with attacks coming against other ethnic Muslim tribes as well as to those simply appearing to be of Indian or Southern Asian [descent]." (typo corrected)

Daniel Goldhagen's harrowing documentary on genocide, 'Worse than War', sheds light on factors common to all genocides:

Leaders choose to initiate the killing.

Ordinary people make a conscious choice to participate.

Killers can be friends and neighbors.

Genocide is always the decision of one leader or one small group of leaders. Leaders' goals vary depending on time, place and circumstances.

Killers frequently believe the victims will come to kill, enslave or dominate them if they do not strike first.

Other common themes: target population is expelled from the country, herded into camps, and subjected to planned rape and slaughter. Cruelty is a key element. Victims are often 'brutalized in a way that far exceeds what is needed to kill them'.

Genocide is never just about killing. Perpetrators want to eliminate all or a substantial part of the group. After all, if the purpose is just to wipe people out, why do we see so much cruelty and murderous passion, especially against women and children?

Genocidal leaders have learned that, in the main, the international community rarely intervenes (at least not until it is too late) and therefore that they can act with impunity.


Gregory H Stanton, Research Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia, United States and President of Genocide Watch wrote a report entitled 'The Eight Stages of Genocide'. The report is summarized briefly here but it should be read in full as it also contains suggestions of preventive measures at each stage of the cycle. The eight stages of genocide are:

1. Classification: An 'us and them' mentality in which there is little or no common ground

2. Symbolization: Target groups are given specific names or distinguished by colors or dress.

3. Dehumanization: One group dehumanizes the other, comparing them to 'animals, vermin, diseases or insects'. This helps overcome the natural human revulsion toward killing. Hate propaganda vilifying the target group is found throughout various media.

4. Organization: Genocide is always organized, usually at the state level, with local militias often used in order to aid in government denials of responsibility.

5. Polarization: Groups are driven physically apart by extremist groups. Moderates from the perpetrators' own group can be targeted and killed as they are the main threat to the genocide proceeding at this stage.

6. Preparation: Victims are identified and separated out; death lists are drawn up; property of victims is expropriated; victims are segregated or deported into ghettos or camps - or confined to famine-stricken regions and starved.

7. Extermination: Mass killing begins - called 'extermination' by the killers because they see victims as less than human. It is sponsored and organized by the state but security forces often work with local militias to kill. If the victims are organized or have access to weapons, this can result in bilateral genocide. At this stage, only rapid and/or large-scale intervention can hope to end the cycle of killing.

8. Denial: Perpetrators dig up mass graves, burn bodies, intimidate witnesses and/or attempt to cover up evidence. Crimes are denied and the victims are often blamed. Official investigations are blocked and perpetrators continue to govern until removed by force.


Human Rights Watch published a report into the violence aimed at the Rohingya in Arakan State, Burma. The strongest possible language is used to describe these actions, with documentation of 'ethnic cleansing', 'mass arrests' and 'ill-treatment' of detainees, 'destruction of homes and mosques' and 'collusion and coercion to forcibly displace Muslims'. The paper states that the attacks are 'coordinated' and contains reports of direct involvement of security personnel in killings, as well as beatings and other abuses. Mass graves at Yan Thei Village, Mrauk-U Township and outside the Ba Du Baw IDP Camp as well as another mass grave on Thackabyin Road and bodies taken by state security forces are also reported on. The report documents the mass flight of the Rohingya from the area, especially into neighboring Bangladesh, which - like Burma - does not recognize the citizenship of the Rohingya people.

Some excerpts from the report follow. It is easy to note the close similarities (emphasized in bold) to the common themes of all genocides cited by Daniel Goldhagen and Gregory Stanton earlier in this article:

Beginning in June 2012, Arakanese political parties, local monks’ associations, and Arakanese civic groups made public statements and issued numerous pamphlets that directly or indirectly urged the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Arakan State and the country. The statements and pamphlets typically deny the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity, demonize the Rohingya, and call for their removal from the country. Most were issued following public meetings that national officials should have understood to be clear warning signs of imminent and serious violence.

The two groups most influential in organizing anti-Rohingya activities in this period were the local order of Buddhist monks (the sangha) and the locally powerful Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), a party founded in 2010 by Arakanese nationalists. The RNDP currently holds 18 of the 45 seats in the state parliament, or hluttaw, and 14 seats in the national parliament. The RNDP is the dominant party in the Arakan State parliament, making it the only political party in Burma to have more seats at the state level than the ruling Union State and Development Party (USDP).


A statement by the Buddhist monks' association in Mrauk-U:

"The Arakanese people must understand that Bengalis [Rohingya] want to destroy the land of Arakan, are eating Arakan rice and plan to exterminate Arakanese people and use their money to buy weapons to kill Arakanese people. For this reason and from today, no Arakanese should sell any goods to Bengalis, hire Bengalis as workers, provide any food to Bengalis and have any dealings with them, as they are cruel by nature.

Further:

The RNDP also played an instrumental role in stoking fear and encouraging isolation of and violence against the Rohingya. A public statement released by the RNDP on July 26, attributed to RNDP chairman Dr. Aye Maung, says “the present Bengali population causes threats for the whole Arakan people and other ethnic groups." The party statement denies the existence of the Rohingya and refers to a “fabricated history,” stating the "Bengalis" are “damaging Arakan people and national sovereignty.” Finally, it urges a “complete solution,” including a call to“temporarily relocate” Rohingya “so that they do not reside mixed or close to Arakan people in Arakan State territorial towns and villages,” and to “transfer non-Burmese Bengali nationals to third countries."

In some cases, the RNDP issued warnings and threats against Arakanese found to be aiding or associating with Rohingya in any way. Two photos of unknown provenance have emerged online showing Arakanese men who were found providing food to Rohingya. The men are shackled and in one photo, a homemade sign is placed around the neck of an Arakanese detainee in custody that states, "I am a traitor and slave of kalar." In the other photo, a shackled man is wearing a woman’s garment on his head, which is considered highly humiliating and culturally shameful for an Arakanese man.[15] Before these photos emerged, local Arakanese sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya explained to Human Rights Watch that it would be extremely dangerous for them to go near the Rohingya IDP camps, let alone provide aid. They feared they might experience violence from their own community that would regard their actions as “traitorous.”


Note: 'kalar' is a derogatory term for Muslims.

An al-Jazeera documentary on the plight of the Rohingya was broadcast in late 2012 and was strongly condemned by the Burma government for 'exaggerating and fabricating the incidents in Rakhine State'.

This, of course, would be the last of Gregory Stanton's eight stages of genocide: denial. Stanton points out in his report that denial is the surest indicator that further mass killings will ensue, and so they have, with reports of the violence now spreading to other parts of the country and other ethnic Muslim groups.

In the documentary we learn that the Rohingya people must pay money (around $150) to the authorities when a baby is born. In order to marry, a couple must apply for permission and pay $750 (other accounts online say between $1,500 and $2,000). Failure to do this results in five years in prison for the couple. Note that a Burma prison is unlikely to be a pleasant place for any Muslim. Al-Jazeera also says it obtained a 1988 secret memo drawn up by Rakhine nationalists which contained plans to restrict movement, limit education and control the birth rate.

Why is this happening? I asked Jamila Hanan (@JamilaHanan on Twitter), a human rights activist who is campaigning on behalf of the Rohingya, for her view:

The hatred against the Rohingya has been stirred up by government sponsored propaganda. It has been their fascist policy for decades to cultivate a policy of pure religion to support their dictatorship. The hatred is real, but as I said has been stoked up, and would not lead to ethnic cleansing without state support. The move towards 'democracy' is a farce - the old regime is playing a new game, talking a modern language, but their mentality is no different. They have a vision for Burma, as a new empire, without Muslims - they don't fit. They are also living in strategically important redevelopment zones and are likely considered a security risk to the new Shwe oil and gas pipeline. Than Shwe, their previous dictator, had been trying to wipe out the Rohingya for a long time - some consider him to be still pulling at the strings in the background, still very much in control, and I suspect he has the largest shares in most of the assets and investments taking place at the moment. If you look into his character you will see he fits the typical profile of a genocidal mastermind. The silence of the international community is largely due to conflicting interests where new business deals and a struggle for influence in the area (particularly over China) take precedence over human rights.

I also asked Ms. Hanan why Aung San Suu Kyi has not spoken up on behalf of the Rohingya, who are now clearly victims of the most serious human rights abuses possible:

ASSK is silent because of politics. Speaking out for the Rohingya is a vote loser. Plus some say that she is misinformed - genuinely thinking this is an immigrant issue. The media in Burma really has brainwashed even the educated. She spoke out recently a bit following a conversation with William Hague - he had called her and asked her to speak out the week before she did.

Another expert's view:

"Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this," Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, told the Associated Press. "She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She's a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote."

The silence of Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to baffle her hundreds of millions of admirers around the world, people who believe she is truly a cut above the average politician and actually puts human rights before her own political career and fortunes. This could in fact make things worse for the targeted Muslims in Burma as people are more likely to believe that there can't be anything really serious happening if a human rights defender possessing her saintly reputation remains almost completely silent.

From an article on the issue:

Treating this native-born population as invaders is roundly condemned around the globe. The Rohingya, like many persecuted groups before them, have pleaded for support from Aung San Suu Kyi. The 67-year-old parliamentarian, beloved for challenging Myanmar’s despotic generals, is traditionally seen as a voice of Myanmar’s oppressed.

But in an interview with GlobalPost, the Nobel Peace Laureate’s spokesman and confidante, Nyan Win, confirmed that Aung San Suu Kyi has no plans to champion the Rohingya cause despite criticism swirling around her silence on the crisis.

“So many people blame The Lady,” said Nyan Win, using a nickname for Aung San Suu Kyi made popular during Myanmar’s police state era, when speaking her name in public could attract unwelcome government attention.

“For example, in the Rakhine case, she very rarely says anything about this. She says she was forced to speak about the Rohingya group,” Nyan Win said. “She believes, in Burma, there is no Rohingya ethnic group. It is a made-up name of the Bengali. So she can’t say anything about Rohingya. But there is international pressure for her to speak about Rohingya. It’s a problem.”


This, if true, is extremely worrying. It also demonstrates the depressingly familiar mindset of officials - all officials, almost without exception - under pressure: more concerned with their own problems than what should be a human rights issue that trumps all other considerations.

Is it a genocide? In the al-Jazeera documentary, Professor William Schabas, an internationally respected expert on human rights law, the death penalty and genocide, stated:

"I don't think there is much difficulty in asserting, in the case of the Rohingya, that we're moving into a zone where the word ('genocide') can be used. When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of a people, hoping to see that they really are eventually...that they no longer exist...denying their - denying their - history, denying the legitimacy of their right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean it is not frivolous to envisage the use of the term 'genocide'."

The record of the international community and the UN is, frankly, woeful on the issue of genocide. A general propensity to wait and hope for problems to go away is a recurring theme throughout history. If the international community had acted three years earlier in Bosnia, at a time when activists had already long been desperately trying to force action, thousands upon thousands of people would still be alive today, mothers would still be with their lost sons, fathers their disappeared daughters, children their murdered parents. The international community needs, as the Rwandan justice minister says in the 'Worse than War' documentary, to 'go back to the drawing board' and understand that prevention and deterrence are the key issues, not just stampeding in with the cavalry several years too late for the thousands who are tortured, raped and killed.

Empathy on the part of ordinary citizens around the world is also vital. Don't think about the Rohingya as just another oppressed ethnic group on the other side of the world that you've never heard of. It is absolutely essential to stop dividing humans into subcategories of race, ethnicity, sexuality or whatever else. Each man, woman or child who is raped and killed at the hands of the Burmese security forces is a person just like you and your children. They have hobbies and interests; they like sport and music just as you do. They hope one day to be doctors or teachers or even just to have a family - just as every human should have the right to. Imagine your anguish if such things happened to a member of your own family.

And if this can happen to them, you'd better understand that it can also happen to you and yours. History shows that genocide can happen to anyone, anywhere - developed nation or not, rich or poor - making a mockery of the all-too-apparent conceit that some human lives are more valuable than others...we only have to see the way the Western media counts casualties of war to understand that - every Western soldier who dies is counted and honored, but not the nameless (read worthless) civilians unfortunate enough to be caught up in a war zone.

Do not allow yourself to be brainwashed in this way. The loss of any life anywhere is a tragedy - maybe not to you personally, but that person has a mother, a father, kids...close friends...who will all be devastated. The strength of human emotion does not vary by race - it is the same for everyone, and infinite in scope.

Burma is not the only place where genocide is occurring, or where human misery is complete (as in - among other places - West Papua). Educate yourself on this most tragic of human rights issues and do something. Politicians sometimes act if you put pressure on them. Inform your friends, write a blog, sign petitions, follow activists on social media for up-to-date information, call officials directly, message influential or high-profile people on Twitter and Facebook, hell...go to the offices of politicians in person.

And keep in mind that helping others begets happiness for both parties, and sets an example to others that may encourage them to act selflessly also. Such actions can only help society as a whole. And isn't that what it's all about?

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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