Has a genocide just started in Myanmar?
By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
November 7, 2016
Often quoted as “the most oppressed people in the world,” the Rohingya Muslim minority of Myanmar may well be on their way to being the victims of a genocide. And all under the watchful eye of Myanmar’s newly democratically elected leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Yet for all they have endured over the last decades, and especially in the last few years, the scariest part of their lives is not that as many as half of them have been displaced from Myanmar, the country of their birth, and many of the rest are now in internally displaced people’s camps inside the country, in appalling conditions. The scariest part, rather, is what might happen next.
Decades of propaganda by the succession of military juntas that have governed the country since 1962 have been absorbed into the political culture to the point that hostility towards this minority is now a democratic consensus - even as the country has now started gaining democratic freedoms. And ultra-nationalists and Buddhist extremists are fanning the fires of that hostility into open violence at any given opportunity. That is why it is feared that the Rohingya are now teetering on the edge of outright genocide.
They have been ever since the outbursts of communal violence in 2012 and 2013 which have caused the largest amount of damage to their communities and triggered the regional South East Asian Migration Crisis last year. And ever since, we have been dreading what might happen if some random event triggers a new wave of violence from their Buddhist nationalist neighbours in their native state of Rakhine/Arakan, or indeed, from the police and security agencies of the state.
Such a trigger may have just been pulled. Nine police officers were killed and several others injured in attacks on border guard posts near the border with Bangladesh on Sunday, 9 October. And the Rohingya were collectively declared guilty for the attacks, despite there being no evidence that the attackers were, in fact Rohingya. Nevermind which individuals, Rohingya or otherwise, might have been the actual perpetrators. The collective punishment heaped on the Rohingya by state institutions such as the police and army was swift. Twenty-four innocent Rohingya were killed just on Monday, and the numbers seem to be escalating as we speak.
What is worse though, while these extra-judicial killings have been carried out by local state agencies, the federal forces of the government of Aung San Suu Kyi are not intervening to stop them and re-establish the rule of law. And if the Rohingya finally give up hope that anyone else might stand up to defend them, they may well end up taking their defence in their own hands. At which point, this can only escalate into an orgy of violence at least as bad as 2012, and perhaps even the outbreak of all-out inter-communal fighting. Not that the Rohingya have the resources to fight such a fight - such a fight can only have result: outright genocide.
The tragedy is that all this is happening just as things finally started looking more hopeful. Ever since Aung San Suu Kyi came to power late last year, human rights observers, Western leaders, and even the Rohingya themselves looked to the woman they affectionately call “Mother” to end their systematic oppression and help them re-integrate in Burmese society. Indeed, just this summer her government was persuaded by the international community to establish a Commission on the situation of the Rohingya headed by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.
Yet this is a woman who still refuses to even acknowledge that the Rohingya exist as a distinct, and indigenous ethnic group: she calls them “Bengalis,” deeming them illegitimate immigrants in the country of their birth. She is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who supposedly had to be pressured by the international community to even establish the Kofi Annan Commission. She is a woman who seems to have no desire to expend political capital to fight the entrenched hostility of so many of her countrymen towards the Rohingya.
And ultimately, she may be a woman who no longer depends on Western approval for her political power. The prestige she has garnered with the West as a democracy campaigner for her country was instrumental for getting her into power. But now that she is there, she can get by with support from China just as well as she could get by with support from the West. China is pouring billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure investment in the country as they are building trade routes to the Indian Ocean and they have no qualms about how their client states approach human rights issues. Is that why our leaders are standing by and ignoring the fresh upsurge of violence which may well leave us with another Rwanda on our hands?
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst Publishers & Oxford University Press).