Genocide in Myanmar

The dramatic “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people continues to unfold in southeast Asia. Many are calling it genocide.

Myanmar (also known as “Burma”) has been carrying out a campaign of mind-numbing violence against the country’s Rohingya minority.  Although reliable figures are difficult to come by, the number of Rohingya who have been forced out of their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and into neighboring Bangladesh is believed to be around 700,000. The International Rescue Committee also estimates that the number of internally displaced in Myanmar approaches 600,000; the vast majority of those are Rohingya.

Though the Rohingya claim to have inhabited the region for centuries, the Burmese government sees them as foreigners; Buddhist leaders refer to them as “Bengali”, labeling them as immigrants from Bangladesh. They constitute a Muslim minority in a primarily Buddhist country, and have long been victims of religious and ethnic persecution by the Burmese military and other groups (including militant Buddhist monks).  On August 25, a group of Rohingya militants attacked a small police outpost, sparking a new wave of escalated violence against the Rohingya, a coordinated retaliatory campaign of rape and terror.

According to various news outlets, the Myanmar military’s “clearance operations” have burned Rohingyan villages and killed thousands of civilians. The essentially stateless Rohingya denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, along with all right to education and healthcare — are the target of what United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de-facto leader, has been harshly criticized by journalists, Pope Francis, and human-rights advocates for her silence and inaction. Suu Kyi, who received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” in what was previously known as Burma, has been called upon by U.N. representatives to put an end to the violence. On October 4, the city council of Oxford stripped Suu Kyi of the Freedom of the City of Oxford honor given her in 1997.

In an open letter addressed “My dear Aung San Suu Kyi”, the Reverend Desmond Tutu, recipient of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, implored Suu Kyi to change her course: “My dear sister: if the political price of your ascension to highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”.

The U.N., in a statement from September 26, says it is “alarmed by the Government’s apparent acquiescence in incitement of hatred and the condoning of intimidation and attacks against Rohingya families by other ethnic and religious groups,” and is asking Myanmar to “provide uninterrupted humanitarian access to international organizations to assist tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of internally displaced people in Rakhine State.”

The political situation in Myanmar is complicated.  The country’s constitution, adopted in 2008, allows for the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, to act unchecked, and for a military takeover if the State Councilor oversteps her boundaries. Suu Kyi, the current State Councilor, controls only the legislature; she has no power over the military.  Further, the cleansing operations may have an economic motive; the military has been taking resource-rich land from its Rohingya owners without compensation since the 1990s.  Much of the government-owned land in Rakhine is slated for corporate development in industries like timber, mining, and agriculture.

Suu Kyi, who did not attend the U.N. general assembly in New York last week, has claimed that no clearance operations or conflicts have taken place since September 5 but the BBC published photos of burning villages and columns of smoke dated September 7 and September 14. On September 29, Myanmar’s national security advisor U Thaung Tun told the U.N. that “there is no ethnic cleansing and no genocide in Myanmar”.

Various international leaders, including U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, are calling for all countries to stop providing weapons to Myanmar.  On October 2, after a previously scheduled visit was canceled due to “bad weather”, U.N. officials visited Rakhine state, and Myanmar proposed taking back more than 500,000 Rohingya people who are refugees in Bangladesh.

by Tim Mainella  (Well, The Netherlands)