The social process of genocide of the Rohingya has been taking place for decades, and has now escalated to the point where physical destruction and cultural loss have reached a crescendo. CREDIT: ALLISON JOYCE / GETTY IMAGES
Myanmar's Rohingya crisis has hit the headlines in recent weeks due to an extraordinary number of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar into Bangladesh.
It is estimated that in less than three weeks, up to 400,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar.
They are fleeing mass human rights violations and atrocities, including: the burning of villages and crops, using petrol and rocket launchers; executions by shooting, stabbing, beating or burning; beatings; and sexual violence.
But the Rohingya refugee crisis is not new. For decades, the Rohingya have been persecuted in Myanmar, with almost one million fleeing Myanmar since the 1970s.
Previous waves of displacement and return have been marked by violence and growing suspicion towards Rohingya by the Rakhine Buddhists and the national (military and civilian) governments.
The crimes being committed in the past weeks against the Rohingya are also not unusual. They have only escalated in intensity and number, with the perpetrators no doubt spurred by the impunity with which they have been able to commit such atrocities for so long.
UN officials such as the Secretary General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have called the current situation "ethnic cleansing." The UN has avoided the term "genocide" - however, it is genocide that is taking place. Myanmar's military government has systematically sought and acted to remove the Rohingya minority from Myanmar and overall, from existence.
Rohingya are a minority group living in Rakhine state of Myanmar, located on the western coast and along the border with Bangladesh and close to India. Rohingya are referred to as "Bengali" - a derogatory term - and, despite evidence of their residence in Myanmar for centuries, are denied citizenship and the participatory rights that come with that privilege such as participating in the public service.
Rohingya's freedom of movement is restricted (they are even herded into detention camps and ghettos), their employment rights and options severely limited, and they are denied access to food, healthcare and education. In addition, long-term mass violence has been carried out, including instances of organised massacres accompanied by sexual violence.
The dimensions of genocide
Under the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the definition of genocide is the destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Thus, when genocide is committed, it is done so for the purpose of eliminating (in whole or in part) a group of people based on their nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. Rohingya are targeted because of their ethnicity, categorised as not Burmese, and therefore undesirable.
In international law, the focus of this destruction has been on physical destruction, but there is an increasing push to acknowledge a broader concept of "destruction," where a group is destroyed socially. Scholars have posited that killing a group is not about killing multiple individuals, but rather killing more than the sum of the individuals in the group. This is based on the fact that the genos in genocide must be a collective object - a dynamic relational network. Committing genocide completely restructures and destroys those social relations, creating a social death where a group loses its context and identity.
In addition, the initial identification of a group being targeted is in itself a cultural, not physical, identification. Nationality, ethnicity, race and religion are all cultural concepts that can be altered, removed and destroyed. The very existence of a group as a group is social.
In the Krstic case, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) specifically noted that the goal of genocidaires (those who commit genocide) is "to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions provide." In other words, it is the group as a cultural concept, a social structure, that perpetrators seek to eliminate.
International and domestic case law has specifically referred to the bonds of group members as a defining element of the group, "as well as such aspects of the group as its members' culture and beliefs," hence the ICTY has also held that the "intent to destroy ... cannot sensibly be regarded as reducible to an intent to destroy the group physically or biologically." Thus, genocidal destruction of a group is not only a physical but also a social process - a process of denying a group the right to exist as their particular, unique group bound by specific and distinct cultural and social ties.
For the Rohingya, the destruction has certainly been both social and physical. The denial of education, as well as the ability to practice their cultural rites fully, including religious rites, has meant that the Rohingya culture is disappearing. Rohingya are denied the ability to educate in their own language. A more in-depth retention of the language and the culture that is transmitted through such education is thus impossible. This disappearance of language and culture is also caused by the dispersal of Rohingya to many countries in the world as refugees, fracturing the Rohingya as a group and thus disrupting and ending their ability to be a cultural group.
Many Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, but with a lack of support networks there, they have also moved on to further regions, such as Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. In most of these places, persecution and discrimination continue. While Rohingya are persecuted in Myanmar for their ethnicity, their Islamic religion is also a factor in discrimination, exclusion and desired destruction of their group. Religious practice in Myanmar has become restricted and difficult with the emphasis on the "national religion" (Buddhism), and reproductive rights have been curtailed on the basis of religion. Even monks promote anti-Rohingya sentiment and participate in violence, under the guise of "religious purity."
This denial of religious freedom and culture has driven hundreds of thousands Rohingya into exile, and importantly, continues in other countries. For example, there are suggestions that India wants to expel its 40,000 Rohingya refugees because they are Muslim.
Rohingya in Malaysia
In Malaysia, meanwhile, Rohingya expect sanctuary because they see Malaysia as a Muslim (majority) country where they can freely practise their religion. However, Rohingya have not been able to establish themselves as a self-governing and self-sufficient refugee community in the eyes of either the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or the Malaysian government. Attempts at integration have been short lived. Rohingya remain stateless and therefore illegal in the eyes of Malaysian immigration law, and thus subject to discrimination and harassment by state authorities.
Malaysia, like Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention or its Protocol, which means that all refugees are deemed illegal immigrants by Malaysian authorities. Malaysia relegates all refugee status determination, registration and support to the UNHCR and civil society actors. However, UNHCR refugee registration can take years and their offices remain underfunded and unable to provide crucial support to refugees, such as education, health or shelter.
As a result, Rohingya must find work themselves, pay for medical and education expenses and blend into society as best they can to go unnoticed. This is a survival strategy in Malaysia, where police corruption and violent gangs target vulnerable people like refugees.
In the city, they face daily challenges as non-citizens, such as rent-seeking by authorities - police and immigration authorities target refugees as they know their illegal status precludes them from reporting such incidents. Police regularly demand bribes from refugees because they know where they live and when their paydays are. The police call it duit kopi - coffee money - and it is an integral ploy whereby to bolster their own meagre wages.
Reports of extortion, bribes and threats of violence as well as beatings are daily occurrences in the refugee community. Thus the deep fear of authorities and other communities in Myanmar continues to haunt Rohingya in Malaysia.
These fears are real, as refugees also face the threat of incarceration in detention centres and "'soft deportations' have been known to take place along the Thai-Malaysia border where refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants have been unofficially refouled, or deported from Malaysia, often into the hands of smugglers and traffickers."
Large-scale raids are periodically conducted in urban centres to "weed out illegals", often for domestic political gain for the ruling coalition in government. On more than one occasion, refugees have died in the process of trying to evade authorities in such circumstances. Furthermore, in the last two years alone 118 people died in immigration detention centres - more than half of the dead were from Myanmar. At the end of 2015, 2,498 Rohingya were incarcerated in detention centres in Malaysia.
"There we are nothing, here we are nothing"
We argue that genocide as social practice against Rohingya continues in Malaysia, not just in the form of physical harm as evidenced by the harsh conditions in Malaysian detention centres, but also in more insidious ways. In order to avoid the detention centres, Rohingya have to quickly assimilate into Malay(sian) society.
The first step in assimilation is to speak Malay as much as possible, especially in public. This results in a focus on Malay, with no ability for education in the Rohingya language. Consequently, the Rohingya language is dying out.
The second is to find work to support oneself and family members. Thus most Rohingya refugees in Malaysia eek out a living as migrant workers out of necessity. In 2016, I (Gerhard) visited a group of Rohingya men living cramped together in shipping containers on a parking lot. Each one had a small mattress as their sleeping and living quarters. The container had a second floor fitted, which meant each man had only about a metre of headroom and little room to move. Their employer, a company that maintained the verges of motorways, provided this form of housing. All Rohingya refugees worked as road sweepers and were part of a maintenance crew entirely made up of Rohingya men.
Among the men was one 10-year-old boy, who shared his father's bed. All refugees were working to support their extended families in Myanmar and Bangladesh, where many of their families resided in refugee camps or as urban refugees in destitute. They did not have the funds to send for their families, otherwise they would have. Some were scared of the traffickers that had brought them across the treacherous Andaman Sea and did not trust them to bring their wives and children on this dangerous trip. Instead they worked and sent remittances back to their families.
While many Rohingya refugees can find work in the Malaysian shadow economy, they are used and sometimes abused for their cheap labour, but not allowed to make Malaysia a home. One Rohingya man captured the impasse of having no home and no prospect of acceptance either in Myanmar or Malaysia by simply exclaiming: "There we are nothing, here we are nothing."
As Rohingya are made to assimilate, work and focus on their daily survival, they have little time or space to focus on the cultural, social or linguistic survival of their group identity.
Few Rohingya know or study about their culture, shared identity, beyond that they are marginalised because of it. Focal points are religion and Rohingya become subsumed by Malaysian Sunni Islam without their own mosques, religious leaders or sermons in their language. Culture, which was already eroded by decades of persecution and loss of educational opportunities in Myanmar, is further eroded by having to fit into the dominant Malay culture. Indeed, in many rural areas, many Rohingya have integrated as best they can into Malay society by wearing Malay clothes, speaking Malay and becoming Malay - all without any legal protection or meaningful social inclusion.
I have worked with one community organizer and writer who is interested in recovering the history of Rohingya people and disseminating information about Rohingya identity to the community. However, most of the talks he has given, thus far, were to the NGO sector, to service providers and concerned Malaysian citizens, not Rohingya. There are many reasons for this skewed information flow: chief among them is that it is simply not very important to most Rohingya at present.
Rohingya are preoccupied with their and their families' daily survival. Beyond that most Rohingya I spoke to emphasized their Rohingya identity, but the main aspect of importance to them was Islam - because that is the main difference between them and the Buddhist Rakhine peoples. They placed little emphasis on culture or social aspects; in many cases, because they had grown up in refugee camps or in a state of displacedness, not in a stable home(land), where traditions had time to flourish before a calamity displaced them.
This prolonged life in limbo, in a condition of not being part of a larger social fabric and community, has undoubtedly had a profound effect on many Rohingya and their sense of being Rohingya.
One elderly Rohingya man, Ahmad, who I interviewed in a small Malaysian town in the countryside, had been living in Malaysia since the 1990s. He couldn't remember which year he had arrived in Malaysia, nor could he remember which year he was born. All he would mention is that he was an elder (which among Rohingya can mean anyone over 40). He left Myanmar:
"because Burmese authorities supplied our cows, our land to Rakhine people and there is no justice for us and we are now recognized us foreigners, as Bengali and not recognized as citizens of Burma."
He has made a life for himself in Malaysia and recounted that when he arrived he was a bit of a novelty: "No-one knew about Rohingya back then!" He married an Indonesian woman who was a migrant worker and who, like many, has stayed on in Malaysia illegally. They have both lived in Malaysia illegally, which means without documentation, for several decades. This means their children are not allowed to go to school and they could be deported or arrested at any moment. Living in a small town for such a long time they have managed to integrate somewhat into local Malay society.
However, the price has been complete assimilation. When we meet, he is wearing a worn-out sarong, which only Malays wear in village settings. He could not speak the Rohingya language any longer, having become proficient in Malay years ago. He conversed with his wife, his children and his neighbours in heavily locally inflected Malay. Culturally, too, he had become more Malay, assimilating to local customs and even his worldview was informed by the local Malay centric customs and lifeworld.
What did it mean to be Rohingyan to him? "It's where I was born - Arakan, and I am Rohingya, I am proud to be Rohingya!" But what does it mean to be Rohingya? There was silence, then a thoughtful sigh: "To be alive!" Further thought delivered more nuance: "Being Muslim, that too." Ahmed is thus the very embodiment of the genocide of the Rohingya: as an individual, he is no longer part of the sum of the group that existed as the Rohingya. Instead, he has become reduced to one key identity marker that he has been able to retain, being Muslim.
Ahmed is one of thousands of Rohingya experiencing this physical dislocation and cultural destruction. It is not just long-time residents who have lost their Rohingya identity - most Rohingya face this loss, because they have been subjected to systematic exclusion from education in Myanmar, which is prolonged in the diaspora, whether in Bangladeshi refugee camps, where many Rohingya have spent some time, or in Malaysia.
The destruction of a people
Back in the container housing one of the Rohingya road sweepers I chatted to was the father of the 10-year-old-boy we already mentioned. The boy does not go to school, as he is not yet registered with the UNHCR. He therefore lacks the protection a UNHCR card may provide, and so leaving this workers' compound puts him in danger of being arrested and detained. But even if he was able to leave the compound, Rohingya refugees only have access to refugee community schools, run by Malaysian NGOs or Rohingya organisations. There they learn the basics of what is necessary to survive in Malaysia: Malay language, basic mathematics, sometimes some English and other basic skills. It prepares Rohingya for a life in low skilled jobs in Malaysia, not for a hopeful future.
The main issue preventing Rohingya from organising and finding a stronger voice in Malaysia (and other countries where Rohingya refugees have fled) is weak and fractured leadership. However, leadership of a community is nearly impossible to create when that group is dispersed across multiple countries and struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. This is coupled with the few resettlement places each year going to the small number of better-educated and English-speaking Rohingya, diminishing the community's capacity further. Capacity to organise, maintain culture, identity and hope thus becomes diminished.
Crimes being committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar include acts that cause serious bodily or mental harm, imposing measures intended to prevent births, and forcible transfer of children. These are all crimes of genocide, conducted as part of the Burmese desire to destroy the Rohingya people.
Such destruction is carried out within Myanmar, but the process continues when victims become refugees. As refugees, they are rendered stateless and without a cohesive social unit that is their group - namely, the Rohingya. This is no more evident than in the example of Malaysia, where we have seen that the Rohingya no longer exist as a cultural entity, separated as a group and individually subsumed within a different culture and social network.
A loss of language, culture and education, as well as pressure to assimilate and to survive may occur in Malaysia and other destination countries, but this loss is only taking place because of the need for the Rohingya to flee Myanmar, escaping physical destruction.
The social process of genocide of the Rohingya has been taking place for decades, and has now escalated to the point where physical destruction and cultural loss are reaching a crescendo. The distinct identity of the Rohingya as a group is disappearing, and to some extent, has already disappeared.
Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a senior lecturer in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. His research focuses on refugee and immigration policy, spiritual and existential security, as well as religion and the state. From 2014-2017 he was the recipient of an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Award to conduct research with urban refugees in Malaysia.
Melanie O'Brien is a research fellow in international law in the T.C. Beirne School of Law and researcher in the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on human rights and international criminal law. Melanie is the Second Vice-President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
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