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Genocide They Wrote

Aman Ullah
RB Opinion
July 13, 2016

“What is being prosecuted in Rakhine State is an effort to remove the Rohingya from the area.” Benjamin Zawacki

The Burmese successive Military Regimes, its armed forces and other armed groups under the state patronization, are committing gross human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities such as extrajudicial killings, torture, and forced labor are prevalent; rape and sexual abuse by the armed forces are rampant; and shows a complete disregard for the principle of distinction, intentionally targeting civilians with impunity.

All Burmese citizens are subject to government oppression. However, the above crimes appear to be targeted primarily at five ethnic groups: the Karen, Shan and Karenni in eastern Burma, and the Rohingya and Chin in western Burma. While international actors have focused on the repression of the pro-democracy movement by the military government, crimes perpetrated against ethnic minorities for years have received little international attention and show no signs of subsiding. 

Among these ethnic groups, the Rohingya are the most oppressed minority in Burma. Military operations in 1978 and the early 1990s resulted in mass arrests and torture which led hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh. Of all the ethnic, racial, and religious minorities in the world, wrote the Economist last year (2015), the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, may well be the most persecuted people on the planet. 

In the recent Washington Monthly Newsletter, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote that, “Today nearly two million Rohingya live in western Myanmar and in Bangladesh. Inside Myanmar they have no formal status, and they face the constant threat of violence from paramilitary groups egged on by nationalist Buddhist monks while security forces look the other way.” 

In June 2012, in the aftermath of the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by few members of the Rohingya community, all hell broke loose. By invoking medieval conception of justice of punishing everyone for the act of a few errant members, not only did the Buddhist Rakhines inflicted disproportionate harm on the Rohingyas, on occasions induced and led by the monks; the Burmese state too instead of providing protection to the victims became an active party in the carnage. 

Since then, Muslim communities across Burma have suffered horrific violence, whipped up by hate speech preached by extremist Buddhist nationalists. Every aspect of their lives, including marriage, childbirth and ability to work, is severely restricted. Their right to identity and citizenship is officially denied. They have been systematically uprooted.

By the result, about 200,000 held in internal displacement camps and unknown thousands have taken to sea as refugees. The UNHCR estimates that more than 86,000 people have left the area by boat from the Bay of Bengal since June 2012. The government even denies humanitarian agencies unfettered access in their internal displacement camps. Their homes, businesses, and mosques have been destroyed. Amid the destruction, many Rohingyas have been unfairly imprisoned, with some tortured to death while behind bars. 

Anti-Muslim violence is a constructed consequence of the government’s “institutionalized discrimination and deliberate failure to intervene and enact legal accountability”. It is in fact widely believed internationally and in many parts of Burma that anti-Muslim violence is a state- driven movement “to generate chaos in an attempt to derail reforms, to maintain . . . political/economic power, and/or to provide an opportunity for the army to maintain its position in society.” 

The UN and all the international governments, regional bodies, and human rights groups, were roundly condemned in their statements to these violence. Even the United Nations has acknowledged the role of Burmese authorities in “widespread” and “systematic” attacks against Muslims that “may constitute crimes against humanity.”

However, The Burmese majority are in a state of denial that Burma now displays the early warning signs of genocide, “ethnic cleansing” or “crimes against humanity.” By rejecting the use of the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the attacks on Rohingya Muslims there, these people have become both active and passive accomplices to the crimes. The criminals enjoy safe haven, continuing to pursue a situation where full-scale mass killings are possible. They run the risk of staying silent while all the warning signs are there.

But internationally-recognized definitions are broader. The 1948 Genocide Convention defines genocide as constituted by acts committed with intent to destroy an ethnic, racial or religious group. Physical as well as mental injury is included in the definition, as is preventing births and transferring children to destroy a group’s existence.

These violations perpetrated primarily by state actors on a widespread and systematic basis, rise to the level of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes - three of the four crimes states committed themselves to protect populations from in endorsing the responsibility to protect (R2P) at the 2005 World Summit.

In March 2015, staff of the Simon-Skjodt center for the prevention of genocide traveled to Burma to investigate the threats facing the Rohingya, who has been subject to dehumanization through rampant hate speech, the denial of citizenship, and restrictions on freedom of movement, in addition to a host of other human rights violations that put this population at grave risk of additional mass atrocities and even genocide. 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide is mandated to monitor early warning signs of genocide and other atrocities and catalyze international action to prevent those crimes. According to them Burma deeply concerned that so many preconditions for genocide are already in place. With a recent history of mass atrocities and within a pervasive climate of hatred and fear, the Rohingya may once again become the target of mass atrocities, including genocide.

After the Holocaust, the United Nations created a new term — genocide — and defined it as any of the following actions committed with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: 

Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The term genocide was coined by the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, who wrote that “By genocide we mean the destruction of a nation or ethnic group". Lemkin went on to argue that “Genocide has two phases one, the destruction of the national identity of the oppressed group, the other, the imposition of the national identity of the oppressor." The distinctive feature of genocide, according to Lemkin, is that it aims to destroy a group rather than the individuals that make up the group. The ultimate purpose of genocide is to destroy the group's identity and impose the identity of the oppressor on the survivors. 

In 2008, the U.N. Security Council expanded the definition of genocide with the passage of Resolution 1820 noting that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”

The specific “intent to destroy” particular groups is unique to genocide. A closely related category of international law, crimes against humanity, is defined as widespread or systematic attacks against civilians.

Myanmar’s Rohingya minority population is in “the final stages of a genocidal process” comparable to that in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and Rwanda in the 1990s, and attacks against them are planned at the highest levels of government, according to a new report from a British research institute.

With just weeks until the country holds its landmark elections, the report, the result of an 18-month investigation by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University of London, found “compelling evidence” that Rohingya face “mass annihilation” by the government of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and that a genocide has been taking place for three decades.

The 106-page report includes evidence from leaked government documents and detailed accounts from witnesses about the severe lack of food and employment opportunities; difficulties trying to obtain health care; and discrimination and violence from Buddhist monks and non-Muslim villagers.

The Rohingya, a roughly 1.1 million-strong Muslim minority group living in Myanmar, are denied basic human rights in the country, where officials are working to remove their presence from the country’s history, according to the report. Human rights violations against the Rohingya include rape, torture, killings, arbitrary detention and confiscation of land, while ghettoization, sporadic massacres and limits against their freedom of movement amount “to a longer-term strategy by the state to isolate, weaken and eliminate the group,” the report says. The Rohingya are not recognized as a minority group in Myanmar, Rohingya babies are not issued birth certificates, and the Rohingya won’t be able to vote or stand for office in next month’s elections.

“It’s really important to construct genocide as a social process, because if we don’t, we can never intervene before mass killing takes place,” Penny Green, a professor of law and globalization at Queen Mary University of London and lead researcher of the report, tells Newsweek. She added that the elections “reinforce the elimination of the Rohingya from the political realm of responsibility of Myanmar.”

Green says it’s not a stretch to make a comparison between Myanmar and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or Rwanda in the early 1990s, when around 800,0000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed in a matter of weeks. She added that “the apartheid system in Myanmar is worse than that in South Africa” in the 20th century. The Rohingya are portrayed as illegal immigrants and terrorists, and they face “campaigns of race and religious hatred” from nationalists in Rakhine state—the western region where most Rohingya live—and Islamophobic monks, according to the report.

“You don’t need to engage in mass killing to obliterate an ethnic group. You can do it by other means,” says Green, who spent four months on the ground in Rakhine as part of her research. Green and her team of researchers were denied access to northern Rakhine state by the government. “You can make life so intolerable that they leave, and those remaining have no agency and are effectively in detention camps,” says Green. “You create a very fragmented diaspora around the world.”

Attacks against the Rohingya intensified in 2012, partly triggered by the rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman that was blamed on Rohingya men. The violence killed hundreds of Rohingya and displaced tens of thousands more to detention camps, ghettos or prison villages, says Green. Muslim businesses and mosques were torched in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, and Muslim students were banned from attending schools or universities in the city. Green says she saw evidence of malnutrition among children in the camps, where people are dying from treatable conditions like diarrhea and cannot access emergency health care.

The Rohingya are now two steps away from all-out genocide, having already been subjected to four stages: stigmatization, harassment, isolation and systematic weakening, according to the ISCI. There is evidence that the remaining two stages—extermination and “symbolic enactment,” or erasing the group from Myanmar’s history—are already well underway, says Green. The systematic weakening of the group has been so successful that the Rohingya’s rights have been “effectively destroyed” and “those who can, flee, while those who remain endure the barest of lives,” the report says.

The exact number of Rohingya in Myanmar is unknown because the term Rohingya is not featured in the census. They have the option to call themselves Bengali—the government believes the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—but few do so, according to the report. The government of Myanmar refuses to recognize the term Rohingya and will not attend any conferences that include the name, therefore turning them into a non-people, says Green.

On Nov. 8, 2015, NLD win landslide victory and from government which started ruling the country from 1st April of this year. In her first speech the democratic icon leader of ruling party, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced that, “This victory should be for the whole country not a particular party or individual”. However, a fundamental question for the Rohingya is whether her vision of “the whole country” includes the Rohingya, who were systematically excluded from voting this election. 

In the recent report of UN Human Rights Office on the human rights situation for minorities in Myanmar, stated that “a pattern of gross violations against the Rohingya... (which) suggest a widespread or systematic attack... in turn giving rise to the possible commission of crimes against humanity if established in a court of law.” The report also criticizes the new government steered by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party. There were huge expectations that Suu Kyi, after assuming power, will work to improve the plight of Rohingyas, but she has refused to act. The report lists a number of violations committed against the minorities, which include summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment. The report says the new government has “inherited a situation where laws and policies are in place that are designed to deny fundamental rights to minorities, and where impunity for serious violations against such communities has encouraged further violence against them.” 

Now, it is democratic government led by Daw Suu but the Rohingyas problems remain the same as previous regimes. According to UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, “The home ministry and the Special Branch of the police are the same people from the past government, that is why things have not changed…Old habits die hard.” Hatred and mistrust between majority Buddhists and religious minorities, especially Muslims, have been simmering for several years and often boils over into violence.

Ms Lee urged the government of Myanmar to make ending what she calls "institutionalized discrimination" against Muslims an urgent priority. She said government reluctance to crack down on perpetrators of religious violence out of fear that it would lead to more tension sends the wrong signal.

In her statement she said, “The recent establishment of the Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine [Arakan] State signals the priority given by the government to addressing the complex challenges facing both communities”. She also added that, “Nevertheless, my visit to Rakhine State unfortunately confirmed that the situation on the ground has yet to significantly change”.

In 2005, governments around the world unanimously agreed to the principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P), which holds that all states have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide and mass atrocities, that the international community should assist them to fulfil this duty, and that the international community should take timely and decisive measures to protect populations from such crimes when their host state fails to do so. R2P is committed to peaceful interventions including assistance, peaceful persuasion, and financial sanctions. The nature of collective action must exhaust the possibilities of “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means” before ‘forceful means’ can be considered.

UN officials, Nobel Peace laureates, and human rights organizations have thus recognized the applicability of R2P and the need for an independent investigation. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for a prompt, independent investigation into crimes in Arakan State since June 2012. Twelve Nobel Peace laureates echoed and expanded Pillay’s call in June 2013, after violence spread beyond Arakan State, calling for an “independent investigation of the anti-Muslim violence in Burma” on the grounds that “some within Burma are propagating a politics of division—and using violence as a tool to manipulate feelings of fear and insecurity.” 

Moreover, holding the Burmese government accountable through an independent investigation is imperative to address the government’s culture of impunity and end mass atrocity crimes, which defy national reconciliation. While difficulties will doubtlessly arise in maintaining strong relationships with top government leaders, these relationships have proven inadequate at ending abuses of power and fulfilling the overarching rights-based U.S. policy goal to support a peaceful, stable Burma.

An investigation into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law with respect to Muslims is imperative because Burma routinely and injudiciously uses violence as a mechanism to control, terrorize, and suppress its people. Similar mass atrocity crimes in other nations have prompted the United States to support international, independent investigations, and providing an external forum of accountability for anti-Muslim violence is a natural articulation of U.S. policy.

This government defiance is the status quo. Far from pursuing justice, the government has persistently denied allegations of human rights violations against Muslims, and has “strongly rejected” human rights reports from the United Nations and other organizations. These public refutations of violence demonstrate how the Burmese government has not only intentionally failed to provide justice; it has also become emboldened by the lack of international pressure to stop the violence. Further international calls to stop violence would thus be redundant and ineffectual

As repression in Burma continues unabated, it is reasonable to expect that calls for intervention will continue to be heard from around the world.

The willingness and ability of the international community to get involved will continue to be crucial elements in resolving Burma's problems. The political will of the UN must be regarded as a particularly important factor in determining how and when Burma will finally shed the burden of repressive rule. The creation of an independent international commission on intervention would be a promising move, and Burma should certainly be one of the first cases to receive careful consideration and study.

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