In the photo, a Rohingya refugee from Burma carries the body of a six-month-old boy who died in a Bangladeshi refugee camp on November 26. Photo credit: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Last fall, Burmese voters elected their first democratic government in half a century. That inspired hope that the country’s long history of violence and oppression was finally taking a turn from the better.
Now, just one year later, that promise has given way to dread. In a small pocket of western Burma, a new phase has begun in what threatens to become the genocide of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Government security forces have responded with widespread violence to a series of coordinated attacks by militant Rohingya on police outposts since October 9. The military has created a 20 kilometer-square “operation zone” barring all independent journalists from the area. Despite the restrictions, numerous reports have emerged of rapes, torture, and extrajudicial killings of Rohingya civilians by the police and army as they sweep through villages in search of militants.
The Rohingya have been refused citizenship by successive Burmese governments, who assert they are illegal Bengali immigrants. Control measures applied only to Rohingya have, for years, severely limited their access to healthcare and education. More than 120,000 already live in displacement camps following waves of violence in 2012 and 2013 in which ethnic Buddhist Rakhine razed their neighborhoods across Rakhine State.
A recent escalation in the latest violence has raised the official death toll since the October crackdown to 134, although Rohingya advocacy groups put it at more than 420. Despite Bangladesh’s refusal to take refugees, several hundred are believed to have fled to camps there. A number who crossed the Naf River separating the two countries in the middle of November were gunned down mid-river. While a number of security personnel have been killed in skirmishes, the overwhelming majority of deaths have been Rohingya. The government has claimed that all are militants, but with independent media completely barred from the region, the claims have been impossible to verify.
In recent decades, scholars of genocide have identified several likely indicators of mass killings.
In recent decades, scholars of genocide have identified several likely indicators of mass killings. Several of those signs are now clearly in evidence in western Rakhine: The systematic dehumanization of the target group; their isolation inside camps and barricaded ghettos; and violent attacks on them involving the participation of security forces. These trends have intensified in recent weeks with the amplification of a narrative that singles out the Rohingya as a menacing alien presence in Burma. The new civilian government, elected in April amid jubilation that Burma was finally charting a passage towards democratic rule, has shown a worrying tolerance toward these ominous developments — at times borderingt on outright complicity.
The blanket exclusion of independent journalists from the area in recent weeks has created a black hole in which security forces can attack villages, carry out arbitrary arrests, and block the movements of Rohingya, who are unable to leave their homes to access markets or to reach medical care. Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch shows that 1,250 Rohingya buildings in five villages have been destroyed by recent arson attacks. The government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has responded by saying that the Rohingya are burning their own homes to garner international sympathy.
Presidential spokesman U Zaw Htay told journalists in late October that the government had initially deliberately blocked aid to Rohingya who had fled police and military sweeps to force them to return to their villages, where they could be investigated for possible involvement in the October attacks. This appears to be an attempt at starving them into submission, and suggests that the government believes all Rohingya to be suspects.
This latest eruption of violence fits uneasily with the optimistic narrative of a changing Burma. In April 2016, the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, was sworn into government. She immediately renewed efforts to broker ceasefires with warring ethnic armies in the north and east of the country, and later appointed former UN chief Kofi Annan to head an advisory commission to investigate and address human rights violations in the violence-torn Rakhine State.
Despite the worsening crisis, Suu Kyi continually refuses to be drawn on the plight of the Rohingya. At best, she calls repeatedly, but vaguely, for rule of law to be respected in Rakhine State. She asked the U.S. Ambassador to Burma in May 2016 to refrain from using the word “Rohingya” lest it imply recognition of a group that the state in Burma long ago deemed to be an illegal presence in the country, and to whom it has refused citizenship and all associated state protections.
The growing volume of criticism directed at the Nobel laureate’s position mirrors the increasing dangers facing the Rohingya. Since the violence of 2012 and 2013, when Rohingya and ethnic Buddhist Rakhine attacked each other in bouts of vicious bloodletting, Rohingya have been increasingly contained inside villages, camps, and barricaded ghettos. Their 1.3-million-strong population is allowed access to only one adequately equipped hospital in the state, and is completely barred from attending higher education. The latest violence will ensure a further tightening of those restrictions, with the UN warning that 160,000 Rohingya have been without aid since October 9.
It was hoped that Suu Kyi’s government might improve conditions for the Rohingya, but recent events cast doubt on this. Demanding greater security for the maligned group would be politically costly. The ultra-nationalist Buddhist lobby in Burma has repeatedly branded the Rohingya as “terrorists” and “Islamizers,” and public opinion is pitched wholeheartedly against their being granted greater protections. Any criticism from Suu Kyi of the military’s actions in Rakhine State would be interpreted as a sign that she sympathizes with the Rohingya, and her support could fall. Accordingly, her National League for Democracy has made no attempt to rein in the hate speech. Nor has it called publicly for any control measures on the group to be removed.
Meanwhile, rhetoric from officials has grown more ominous. It has dehumanized Rohingya in precisely the ways that, as we now know, historically pave the way for mass violence against marginalized groups. The Home Affairs Minister Kyaw Swe recently described the Rohingya presence as “an invasion” of “rapid Bengali breeders,” language that cast them as animals. When Aung Win, head of a governmental commission set up to investigate the October 9 attacks, declared that “all Bengali villages are military strongholds,” he cast the group as outsiders deserving of attack. Later he told the BBC it was highly unlikely that troops had raped Rohingya women on the grounds that they “are very dirty.”
State media has weighed in too. On November 26 an opinion piece in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper warned that the country was “facing the danger of the human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench and for sucking our blood.” The Nazis had used the analogy of “fleas” to describe the Jews. An earlier opinion piece on November 1 was entitled “The Thorn Needs Removing If It Pierces!” It went on to speak of “trespassers” on Burma soil, and similarly warned of the threat they allegedly pose to the country’s sovereignty. This lightly veiled call, in print, for the cleansing of the Rohingya — published without government disapproval — suggests an alignment between the civilian government, the military, and ultra-nationalist Rakhine groups that will tolerate the very worst of humanitarian excesses against the Rohingya.
By attacking the police outposts, a small fraction of the Rohingya population may have sealed the fate of the entire community. Punishment of the Rohingya has always been collective, despite the fact that collective punishment is illegal under international law. Groups tend to resort to armed conflict when institutional channels for negotiating grievances are closed off, and the decision to attack may have reflected a sense of resignation that, even in a democracy, the Rohingya would forever remain a pariah group. The response by the government and security forces — the targeting of an entire identity, rather than individuals who may have committed wrongdoing — marks a key stage in the turn to mass violence.
Today we know enough about the conditions that give rise to genocide that no one in power can justifiably claim ignorance. An understanding of these processes is assumed among all modern leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi included. The democratic mandate handed to her civilian government a year ago has resulted in that most pernicious of democratic outcomes — a tyranny of the overwhelming majority against which a small and vulnerable population is now bracing itself. Rather than providing a pathway to harmony after decades of conflict, Burma’s transition has unleashed popular hatreds that no institution in the country seems either able or willing to rein in. Suu Kyi should know that inactivity in the face of genocidal actions can carry moral, legal, and even criminal responsibility.
© 2016 Foreign Policy