In the wake of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal campaign that nearly wiped out the Jews from across Europe, the world community vowed to never let history repeat itself. It promised to “never again” remain silent in the face of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass persecution and other crimes against humanity. Indeed, one of the main reasons that the United Nations came into being was to prevent such crimes against humanity.
Yet, an indifferent world has seen this commitment broken again and again, from the Middle East to the killing fields of Rwanda and Darfur to the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It’s the same chilling apathy coupled with helplessness that you see over the murderous campaign that Myanmar has unleashed against its Muslim minority — the Rohingya.
Rohingya Muslims have long been the target of worst possible oppression and persecution, both at the hands of Buddhist extremists and the military. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are easily the most persecuted religious minority in the world.
Many had hoped that the situation would improve once the country embraced political reforms and democracy under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even the Rohingya, who are not considered citizens and not even human by the state and the Buddhist majority and thus not allowed to vote, had hoped and prayed for her victory in the 2015 elections. Yet, under the democratic pretensions of the dispensation led by the charismatic democracy icon — feted and financed by the West — things have gone from bad to worse for Myanmar’s Muslims. The ongoing pogrom in the Rakhine province, unleashed by the military in the name of fighting terror, has triggered unspeakable horrors on an utterly helpless people.
The military crackdown has been so overwhelming that thousands of terrified Rohingya have spilled over the border into neighbouring countries. At least 30,000 Rohingya have taken shelter in Bangladesh. The survivors have spoken about gang rapes, torture and mass killings by Myanmarese troops. Analysis of satellite images by Human Rights Watch (HRW) shows that hundreds of buildings have been razed. Between November 10 and 18 alone, 820 buildings were destroyed in five villages in the remote state. The damage is in addition to earlier reports of around 430 buildings being demolished, along with evidence of multiple fires.
Since 2013, HRW has repeatedly accused the Myanmarese authorities of “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya. The Maungdaw region in northern Rakhine is now seeing the biggest upsurge of violence against the minority in four years. According to Yale’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic research, sponsored by Fortify Rights and Al Jazeera, there is clear evidence that four acts of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide have been committed in Myanmar:
n Hundreds of Rohingya, who have their own distinct language, culture and traditions, have been killed by security forces or by the Buddhist majority as troops watched.
n Many have been subjected to rape, torture, arbitrary detentions and other crimes.
n Inflicting conditions seeking to wipe out the group.
n Preventing births within the group as well as restricting and/or blocking marriages.
This week, UN’s Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned the crackdown saying Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya could be “tantamount to crimes against humanity”, reiterating the findings of a June report. “The government has largely failed to act on the recommendations made in a report by the UN Human Rights Office … (that) raised the possibility that the pattern of violations against the Rohingya may amount to crimes against humanity,” the OHCHR said in a statement.
More than 120,000 Rohingya have been crammed into displacement camps since violence by Buddhist mobs in 2012. They are denied citizenship, health care and education and their movements are heavily curbed besides being routinely attacked and abused.
Yet, the democratic government in Yangon curiously lives in denial. It has lashed out at media reports of mass rapes and killings and even lodged a protest over a UN official who said Myanmar was carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims. Foreign journalists have been banned from accessing the area to probe the claims.
The biggest disappointment in this unfolding catastrophe has been the role of Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy. It’s hard to believe that people around the world had all cheered for the pro-democracy icon and her powerful movement. The fact that she spent nearly 15 years under house arrest and took on one of the most ruthless military juntas with great dignity and resolve fascinated us no end.
This is precisely why she had been chosen by the wise men of the Nobel Committee for their highest honour. Many protested in solidarity with the people of Myanmar, reeling under the tyranny of one of the last surviving dictatorships in the region. Yet, long after the dawn of democracy under Suu Kyi’s leadership, the long and dark night of oppression and tyranny hasn’t ended for its Muslims. We all understood the silence of Suu Kyi and her NLD over the persecution of Muslims under the junta. Surely, they had no power to stop it then. Today, however, when they are in power and in authority, their silence and inaction is not just indefensible, it is criminal.
True, Suu Kyi still does not head the government — she is the Foreign Minister — and the military remains immensely powerful. Yet, all said and done, this is her party’s government and it’s about time she took responsibility for its actions — or lack of them.
The US and European Union (EU), which have shown unseemly haste in lifting international sanctions on Myanmar following its promise of political reforms, must push the government in Yangon to rein in the troops going on the rampage in Rakhine. Myanmar must open the Rakhine province to international media and allow the UN to probe the widespread abuses and crimes against humanity. The US and EU as well as Myanmar’s big neighbours China and India, with their allure of billions of dollars of investments, swing immense clout in Yangon. It’s time these countries used some of that influence to stop the unfolding Rohingya genocide.
As British journalist Yvonne Ridley argues: “Myanmar is still susceptible to international pressure and the threat of suspending an ambassador in London will send a chill wind through the corridors of power. The last thing the corrupt generals want is a threat to their money-making enterprises overseas.”
Although the goings-on in Myanmar have sparked helpless rage among Muslims in the neighbourhood, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, where massive protests have been held — Malaysian Prime Minister Najeeb Razak led one such demonstration last Sunday — much of the Islamic world remains blissfully unaware of the Rohingya tragedy.
This needs to change if we are to see any improvement in the lot of this most oppressed of people. A little nudge from 57 Muslim countries representing 1.7 billion people could rescue the community teetering on the brink. This could very well make the difference between life and death for the Rohingya.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.