In the age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, netizens around the world view on their mobile phones and tablets the deeply disturbing images of Rohingyas, children, elderly men and women, filing out of Western Burma (or Myanmar) as the result of Burma military’s “clearance operations” at the rate of 100,000 per week for 6 weeks. The power of such imagery has so moved national politicians and senior officials from such world bodies as UN and EU that they have publicly used such evocative, if non-legal term as “ethnic cleansing”.
Gregory Stanton, the renowned American genocide scholar and former U.S. State Department official, who heads the Genocide Watch, has gone so far as to say Myanmar is committing the crime of all crimes, namely a genocide. Stanton states that he is avoiding purposefully the journalistic “ethnic cleansing.” For he views rightly the now popular terminology as Milosevic’s “euphemism,” which is not considered punishable crime in international law.
Ethnic cleansing is a deplorable act committed by a U.N. Member State and its collaborating non-state actors in society, involving violent expulsion of a target population with their distinct ethnic and racial identity from a particular geographic region within the nation’s national boundaries. Burma’s latest round (each marked by its distinctive methods of expulsion and justificatory ideologies) in what has become a decades-old pattern or cycle of targeted violence and destruction against Rohingyas, is typically accompanied by their displacement and flight from the country.
This essay aims to highlight the scope and rhythmic nature of Burma’s persecution of Rohingyas the devastating impact on the Rohingya population. First, it sets out to describe and help readers understand the evolving pretexts given by the successive Burmese governments and the methods of group destruction and resultant waves — five in total — of the outflow of Rohingyas in large number. Then it attempts to offer an interpretive framework within which this cycle of violence-exodus-lull is best understood.
Burma’s Cycles of Terror-Expulsion-Destruction-Exodus-and-Lull
The diagram above captures both the periodic and cyclical pattern of cross-border forced migration of Rohingyas and the biblical volumes of fleeing refugees across Bangladesh-Burmese borders over the last almost four decades.
This pattern of slaughter, structures of severe repression, intervals of lull becomes cyclical since the military-controlled state developed the threat perception regarding the Rohingya population as demographic force of Islamic faith that pose a twofold threat to the country’s predominantly Buddhist character and as a proxy for terrorist groups such as ISIS.
Two striking features of the diagram are the fixed and instrumental role of the Burmese military as the most powerful perpetrator and the shifting nature of the pretexts on which the operations of violent expulsion (which force large numbers of Rohingyas to flee their homes on the Burmese soil) have been based.
In the first large-scale “terror,” as the then Hong Kong-based Fast Eastern Economic Review (July 14, 1978) put it, the campaign that was centrally organized and carried out by the military government of ex-General Ne Win resulted in the exodus of over 280,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh. Then as now, such large volumes of terror-fleeing Rohingyas forced their way into the neighbouring Muslim country within a short period of about eight weeks. The ostensible pretext of this campaign named “King Dragon Operation” was the “illegal immigration check” of Chittagongnians, that is, Muslim residents of Bangladesh’s Chittagong region that had illegally crossed the 170-miles-long, porous Burmese-Bangladeshi borders and settled in Western Burmese state of Rakhine.
Amid the strong protests and the veiled threat of arming Rohingya refugees by the then military government of Brigadier Zia Rahman in Dhaka, the exodus ended and the Myanmar side agreed to the U.N.H.C.R.-facilitated repatriation. Rangoon took back 180,000-190,000 of the total estimated number of refugees in the same year while many other Rohingya refugees found their way to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The Lull and the Emergence of the Structures of Apartheid
This first exodus was followed by 12-year lull.
More ominously for the Rohingyas, within four years after the violent crackdown on “Illegal immigration” on their ancestral land of Northern Rakhine, they were de-nationalized, that is, Myanmar’s military rulers, under the civilian façade of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, effectively declared them non-nationals who did not belong to Myanmar.
Where violence failed to expel them en masse, Burma’s generals and ex-generals found the blunt instrument in law reminiscent of Nazi-era Nuremberg race laws ...
Specifically, in a clever stroke of law enacted in effect as the decree, but rubber-stamped by the People’s Parliament, a paper-tiger, Rohingyas found themselves Myanmar’s Jews. Where violence failed to expel them en masse, Burma’s generals and ex-generals found the blunt instrument in law reminiscent of Nazi-era Nuremberg race laws which disenfranchised and reclassified German Jews as “non-nationals” of the Third Reich. While the Citizenship Act of 1982 never spelled out Rohingyas as their main target one of the two Rakhine members of the drafting committee, the late nationalist historian Dr. Aye Kyaw, made it unequivocally clear, the law was primarily intended to exclude Rohingyas from citizenship eligibility by requiring the non-existent documentation to prove their residency before the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. The first-ever printing press imported by the Christian missionaries, arrived in British Burma only in 1870’s. During the pre-colonial (pre-1824), the feudal Burmese society relied on dried palm-leaf as the medium of written language. The idea of documenting one’s residency was un-heard of.
In addition to Burma’s use of this tailor-made citizenship law, it was during this decade of lull, the military set up structures of repression complete with severe restrictions on Rohingyas’ physical movement, deprivation of property rights, establishment of the regimes of forced labour, extortion, control of population growth via stringent marriage restrictions, summary execution and sexual violence.
1991-92 Wave: The Resumption of State-directed Violence after 1988 Nationwide Uprisings