This magazine has published at length articles about the situation of the Rohingya people of Myanmar. According to the U.N., they are the most persecuted minority in the world at the moment. But awareness of their issue by the international community is uneven. A number of U.N. agencies and global NGOs are monitoring the situation very closely and have been vocal advocates on behalf of the group. Yet in an international news agenda dominated by the affairs of the U.S., China and Russia, as well as the rising tide of Islamist violence in the Middle East and worldwide, the “internal affairs” of a country like Myanmar, which has never really been in the international spotlight, is not something likely to capture global attention. Even when the issue did come to the fore in the spring of 2015, the international media presented it as the South East Asia migration crisis, but the underlying causes of the migration — the desperate conditions that Rohingya face in the country of their birth — were largely glossed over.
I am publishing a book about the Rohingya. My main finding is that they face a slow-motion genocide. And it is at this exact moment in time that this issue needs to be brought to the attention of the international community. This slow-motion genocide may tip over into a complete massacre at the slightest trigger. In the coming months, there will be an abundance of possible triggers. This time, we need the international community to act pre-emptively. If it buries its head in the sand on this, we will have another Rwanda on our hands. There is solid evidence that a full-blown genocide is imminent and that the world’s leading powers would rather pretend this problem does not exist — just like they did with past genocides.
In my book, I provide ample comparative analysis of the role that the international community plays in these situations. When a minority group such as the Rohingya is as hated and feared as they are in Myanmar, often it is only the international community’s opinion that can keep would-be perpetrators of genocide in check. Much of this analysis bears repeating here.
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Genocide and mass murder stem from a complex set of circumstances that collectively legitimizes violence against a specific group. But these circumstances still need to be quite extraordinary. Despite the claims of ethnic or religious ideologues, intergroup harmony has in fact been the norm for most of human history. Yes, group differences on the grounds of ethnicity or religious belief can, and often do, lead to tensions between communities. If sufficiently serious and if no external authority intervenes, these tensions can spill over into localized acts of violence. But even when such local acts of violence flare up, they rarely produce something that could be defined as genocide.
A good example comes from northern India. This area sees regular acts of communal violence on religious grounds, but these acts are highly localized. The grievances generally look more like typical village feuds that may then also take on an ethnic or religious dimension. That is why violent clashes in one village or local area hardly ever spill over to the next, and the neighboring areas that have the same kinds of ethnic and religious mix remain perfectly peaceful.
India more widely provides a good set of comparisons. While these situations are easily contained in northern India and especially areas around Kolkata, the story is different in Mumbai. Such tensions do in fact show a pattern of spiraling out of the usual communal confines and spilling over into neighboring communities. What seems to be the crucial difference between the two, otherwise very similar contexts, is the contribution of political leaders to the conflicts. In Kolkata, local politicians either do not get involved in the conflicts or they engage with the parties as mediators. In Mumbai, by contrast, local politicians often try to exploit these conflicts for their own electoral purposes. They take sides and usually help inflame ethnic and sectarian feelings so their own communities rally behind them at the next election (Varshney, Ashutosh. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life. New Haven, Yale University Press. 2002)
The role of local and national political leaders in Myanmar in stoking anti-Rohingya sentiment is equally important to the situation there. Historically, the Rohingya became a target group as a convenient “enemy within” for a succession of leaders of the military junta, which governed the country for most of its history. In World War II, Japan invaded the area. The Rohingya remained loyal to their British colonial overlords, while many Burmese nationalists — many of whom would go on to form the Burmese military after the country gained independence — sided with the Japanese in their struggle for national emancipation. After the war in 1947, but before Burma gained independence in 1948, many of the Rohingya who had fought for the British in the war formed a separate army and sought to incorporate the state of Arakan into the newly independent East Pakistan to the north. This painted them as traitors to the Burmese state in the eyes of the military for many decades afterward.
But this was also very convenient for the military establishment. The perceived constant threat from enemies within, such as the Rohingya but also many other more belligerent border tribes, as well as from enemies without, where every powerful country in the world is actively feared, has sustained the oppressive and otherwise not very popular military administration in power since 1948 for most of Burma’s history.
Of all the “enemies” of the Burmese state, the Rohingya are perhaps the most unlucky because they are the most visible minority: They are the largest Muslim community in a country that is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but they also have darker skins than any other ethnic group in the country. These factors contributed a lot toward the way in which the paranoid narrative that the military pushed caught on with the rest of the population. Slowly, the fear of existential threats crystalized around the Rohingya as the ultimate enemies in the minds of significant portions of Burmese society. Today, many consider the Rohingya to be some kind of vanguard of an international Islamist conspiracy to convert everyone to Islam and destroy Myanmar’s Buddhist heritage. The Rohingya have attracted all this fear and loathing even though they have been one of the least violent and troublesome of the country’s minority ethnic groups since 1948. Many other border tribes, such as the Shan, have been in almost constant rebellion since 1948 and would certainly constitute more plausible threats. Yet because of their faith and race, the Rohingya elicit much more fear and distrust in the popular imagination.
Politicians and military leaders from the central government no longer drive the narrative of fear and hatred toward the Rohingya. Rather, it is driven primarily by local politicians in Rakhine state (previously known as Arakan) from the Rakhine ethnic group, as well as by a strong contingent of local Buddhist monks, especially those associated with the 969 Movement, who seem intent on removing the Rohingya from the land of their birth both on ethnic and religious grounds. Yet the political leaders of the central government continue to be at least passively complicit with these efforts, largely on the assumption that attacks on the Rohingya are by now quite popular with the people of Myanmar.
Producing the conditions for genocide requires a cultural shift to slowly legitimize and normalize the framework used to justify systematic discrimination, and eventually systematic murder, on the basis of identity, while the perpetrators test the limits of what the wider population deems acceptable at regular intervals. Thus genocide never emerges from an individual outburst of rage and violence. It requires long-term development of cultural and institutional conditions to organize and sustain violence on a large scale. Furthermore, it takes very special conditions for the wider population to stomach that level of violence and not rise up against the perpetrators. This is why genocide is rare, because in most situations, these necessary conditions cannot be met. People may have periodic tensions and conflicts with their neighbors, but almost always simply revert back to living with them with the usual degree of give and take. These interactions inevitably deconstruct the ideological myths about the “other,” as normal human empathy takes its course and builds bridges across chasms of mistrust.
Unfortunately in Myanmar, all these cultural conditions are already in place. The chasms of hatred and mistrust between communities are wider than ever, with local politicians and extremist monks pushing them even wider. United to End Genocide observed in a 2014 report, Marching to Genocide in Burma, that Myanmar fits almost all the preconditions for genocide, more than any other place on earth. The situation has since gotten worse, as 2015’s migration crisis amply demonstrated.
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There is very little in the internal political dynamics of Myanmar to give us hope that the situation could get better any time soon. In fact, if there is a direction of travel, it is farther down the road toward genocide. But international opinion does not acknowledge this. Partly, this stems from a basic ignorance of the situation of the Rohingya, and also of its underlying historical causes. And partly, this stems from the recent parliamentary election success of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2008, after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and an internal political crisis, the military establishment was forced to change the constitution and start moving toward a democratic system. Although progress has been painfully slow, the main opposition to the military establishment for almost three decades has finally managed to win a quasi-democratic election for parliament in 2015 and form a majority government.
This may prompt us to assume that things will get better, that a democratic government in Myanmar must be like Western governments, and thus could not possibly allow the dire oppression of the Rohingya to continue unabated, and that Suu Kyi would certainly stand up and protect these people as the effective leader of the new civilian government. This is what Western political leaders seem intent on believing. Unfortunately, this is just wishful thinking.
First, there is the issue of Suu Kyi herself. She is keenly aware that much of her political capital comes from the very good international press she has received over the years. But on the issue of the Rohingya, she has long been evasive. Whenever international journalists have pressed her on the issue, she has given boilerplate responses and platitudes about the need to look after the rights and interests of all minorities in Myanmar. For example, in an interview with The Washington Post in June, she said: “The protection of rights of minorities is an issue which should be addressed very, very carefully and as quickly and effectively as possible, and I’m not sure the government is doing enough about it.” But elsewhere, and especially when talking to a home audience, she conforms with the narrative imposed by extremists: She would not even speak the word “Rohingya,” and instead refers to them as “Bengalis,” thus acquiescing to Buddhist nationalist propaganda that the Rohingya are not an indigenous people, but rather illegitimate immigrants who should be deported to Bangladesh, or any Muslim country that would have them.
Secondly, there is the issue that Rakhine state politics are different from national politics. In part there is a greater degree of direct military rule. But also, the effective political opposition to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is not the NLD but an extremist regional party, which changed its name multiple times, from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) to the Rakhine National Party (RNP), and finally now to the Arakan National Party (ANP). This regional party, in all its incarnations, was heavily implicated in the 2012 and 2013 massacres of the Rohingya and has regularly called for their expulsion. According to its political platform, it aims to “represent the interests of Rakhine people in Rakhine (Arakan) state and the Yangon region.” In other words, it is a self-declared ethnocentric, xenophobic and racist party. And it hates the Rohingya with a burning passion — for having a different skin color, and most of all, for having a different religion (Islam). Throughout 2012, party leader Dr. U Aye Maung prominently called for the segregation and then expulsion of the Rohingya, just as the first waves of mass violence enveloped Rakhine state. His party demanded that “Bengalis must be segregated and settled in separate, temporary places so that the Rakhines and Bengalis are not able to mix together in villages and towns in Rakhine state.” He subsequently argued for the arming of the Rakhine community so they can protect themselves from the supposed threat posed by the Rohingya. The ANP now controls 22 of 47 seats in the local legislative chamber of Rakhine state, and it is by far the largest party. There are 12 military appointees, and the third-largest party is the NLD with nine seats.
Lastly, Suu Kyi is politically allied with many leaders of the ANP and the 969 Movement who instigate and lead the attacks on the Rohingya. The democratic opposition movement in the late 1980s that gave birth to the NLD started out as an alliance of monks and students opposed to the excesses of the military regime. Many of those monks are the same Buddhist nationalist hardliners who are driving the animosity toward the Rohingya today. As long as the military considers the Rohingya a convenient “enemy within” and uses them as scapegoats for many of the country’s problems to shore up its own power base, it won’t have an interest in permanently removing the Rohingya from Myanmar. The Rohingya can only serve the enemy image purpose while they are still around and a plausible threat. But this restraint does not apply to the extremist elements of the pro-democracy movement. They are not using the Rohingya as a convenient enemy to rally support. They simply hate the Rohingya with a burning passion and want to see them completely removed from Myanmar. In this, the monks coordinate well with the extremist Rakhine ethnic elements, who, as nominally opposed to the military regime, also come under Suu Kyi’s wider political alliance.
When all these factors are taken into account, we see that the recent election success of the NLD does not in fact bode well at all for the Rohingya. In light of the internal political dynamics, the power shifts in the wake of the recent elections may in fact have removed the last few constraints on those who would seek to get rid of the Rohingya for good.
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In situations such as this, international intervention is crucial. There are important lessons that need to be learned from history. The most important is that when the internal political constraints to mass killing have all but gone, the opinion of the international community may be the only thing that can keep the situation in check. But when the international community chooses to ignore the warning signs, genocide becomes almost inevitable.
In my book, I look closely at four paradigm cases of genocide in the 20th century: the Armenian genocide by the disintegrating Ottoman Empire in 1915 to 1918, the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, the Soviet purges of the Turkic people of Crimea and the Caucasus in 1941 to 1943 and the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Each case demonstrates the importance of international partners in restraining, or providing a free hand, to a state on the verge of committing genocide.
The nominal allies of the Ottomans in World War I — Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — had no interest in restraining the Turkish actions. Even though Armenians were largely Christian, similar to the European powers, the religious dimension was not something the belligerents were interested in. There are some reports of German liaison officers intervening in isolated incidents, but there was no official attempt to restrain the Ottoman regime.
The Soviet attacks on its Turkic minorities was similarly uncontested by American and British allies during World War II. The Soviets said these minorities were sympathetic to the Nazis and a potential security risk, and the allies either agreed with the Soviet analysis or simply did not care enough to challenge it. In the Soviet and Ottoman incidents, it is perhaps unlikely that co-belligerent allies could have made any difference to the outcome, but what is clear is that in neither instance was there an attempt at restraint, and so the perpetrators of genocide themselves showed very little restraint in the way they carried out their purges.
The Holocaust, on the other hand, was catalyzed by the shifting of alliances in 1941. The Nazi state had a policy of discrimination and repression against Jews, Gypsies and other “inferior” ethnic groups or groups of political dissidents that went back to 1933-34. For all his hatred of the Jews, Hitler was careful not to outrage American public opinion by carrying out any egregious attacks in the first two years of World War II. But as soon as the U.S. joined the war in 1941, there was no independent international opinion left to care about and the mass killings began.
The Rwandan genocide provides the most telling counterpoint and was a situation where the international community could have stepped in. International silence allowed intercommunal violence escalate to genocide. For their own individual reasons, major powers who had influence in the country decided to ignore the way the situation was degenerating and later pretended to have had no prior knowledge of what was being planned. Belgium and France had links to the existing government and were not prepared to criticize its actions. The U.S. had full awareness of what was about to happen but chose to focus its efforts on preventing the U.N. Security Council from designating the situation as a “genocide,” which would have required it to intervene. When the Hutu regime saw this response to its escalating violence against the Tutsis, it became confident there would be no immediate international response and initiated its full-scale attack on the Tutsis.
The situation in Myanmar at the moment is showing some depressing parallels to Rwanda. No international power looks like it would be willing to intervene militarily in the country. The U.S. and other Western nations are already worn out by wars and have repeatedly looked for any excuse to avoid intervention, even in situations they had previously committed to (such as U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2014 “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian conflict). China has a history of keeping its relations with other countries confined to economic cooperation. India is taking a similarly hands-off approach, especially since the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi has a similarly xenophobic attitude toward Muslims. And no neighboring Muslim country has the capacity or the will to intervene in Myanmar.
Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have raised the issue of the Rohingya, with Obama even mentioning it in a speech during his visit to Myanmar in 2014. Once. We have instead chosen to be very warm and congratulatory toward the political classes of Myanmar, to encourage their slow transition toward democracy, and especially their reintegration into the world economy. The country’s move to open itself economically will be worth billions to Western investors. But this deliberately unbalanced feedback may well turn out to have very grave consequences. Just as the Hutus kept escalating their level of violence against the Tutsis and found that they would meet with very little international censure, Rakhine and Buddhist extremists are finding that their own aggression toward the Rohingya has virtually no adverse consequences for Myanmar, and that even their celebrated Nobel laureate leader is studiously refusing to get dragged into the issue.
But the point stands. The wider international community is often the only obstacle to genocide in situations where a group of people is as feared and hated as the Rohingya are in Myanmar. Even authoritarian and insular states need to maintain at least some good relations with their neighbors and international powers. The freshly “democratic” and more economically open Myanmar needs these good relations perhaps more than at any time in its independent history if it is to emerge from the economic malaise that has plagued it for the past two decades and that has undermined the military elite’s grasp on power. The current transition may well be necessary for the continued existence of Myanmar as it is today. Even the military leadership seems to be sensing this. This potentially gives the international community considerable leverage to intervene on behalf of the Rohingya and prevent Myanmar from becoming another Rwanda. But we absolutely must be prepared to use that leverage. And the time is now — while there are still people left to save.
This article appears in the Winter 2015/2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.
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