Maung Zarni from London
Amid former Guatemalan Foreign Minister Gert Rosenthal’s shocking report about the UN’s leadership, policy and system failures in Myanmar the Southeast Asian member state has for all intent and purpose accomplished its ongoing national project of cleansing the strategic border region of Northern Rakhine off Muslims — most specifically ethnic Rohingya people.
Other ethnic communities like Kachin, Mon, Karen, Chin, Wa, and Shan also inhabit border or “peripheral” regions of Myanmar. While the Myanmar rulers are willing to assimilate them, the military leadership have reversed earlier policies, they had adopted in the 1950s and early 1960s, which officially accepted Rohingyas as one of the country’s national minority integral to the Union of Burma.
According to ex-General Khin Nyunt, Myanmar embarked on the demographic engineering on racial and religious lines, of Western Myanmar state of Rakhine in 1966. It singled out the Rohingya Muslims as the target group. Nyunt is the former chief of military intelligence services (1981-2004) and one of the living architects of Myanmar’s genocide against Rohingya. He was the key executioner on the ground in Northern Rakhine that led to the first wave of violent deportation in 1978, until he himself was purged in 2004. In his book “Myanmar’s Western Gate Problem” (2017), written in the Burmese language, the former spy chief spelled out the historically revisionist view shared by both Rakhine nationalists and the Myanmar generals — that Rakhine or Arakan was originally “purely Buddhist” until the British arrived in the province in 1824.
The historical evidence, however, tells a different tale: Western Myanmar’s coastal region in the Bay of Bengal was culturally and religiously diverse, of all geographic regions that came to constitute the present-day Myanmar.
Former military officer Khin Nyunt described this revisionist nationalist project as “Myanmar’s Western Gate Problem”. The current Myanmar military strongman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the project — which he openly calls an “unfinished business” — was in line with the military’s other nationalist (racist) projects adopted in the formative years of military rule in the 1960s. Among them was the wresting Myanmar’s commercial sector from the grip of people with foreign ancestries, such as Chinese, Indian, Europeans and Eurasians — all considered “guests” — irrespective of how many centuries or decades they have been in the country or how well-integrated their communities were into the Burmese society at large.
Under Myanmar’s military dictator General Ne Win, who ruled the country from 1962-88, the mission of ethno-nationalizing the economy was fully accomplished by enacting the “Economic Nationalization Act” in 1964. The patron of Khin Nyunt, Ne Win effectively triggered the “voluntary” and peaceful exodus of hundreds and thousands of entrepreneurial ethnic families from Indo-Burmese, Indian, Sino-Burmese and Euro-Burmese origins to India, Pakistan, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan or the Republic of China, U.S. U.K. and Canada.
After ending the “foreign” economic dominance, the military leaders turned their attention to Rohingya. Rohingya, in the generals’ eyes, were the potential demographic proxy for the then East Pakistan (or since 1971, newly independent Bangladesh). This was despite the fact that Rohingya community had been in Western Myanmar centuries even before the country with its present national boundaries came into existence as a modern nation-state — thanks largely to the dissolution of the British Empire as the direct result of the World War II.
Nationalists bent on restoring the so-called Buddhist character
The Burmese and Rakhine nationalists have been hell-bent on restoring the so-called Buddhist characteristics to this culturally and ethnically rich coastal region of Arakan or Rakhine. The military’s initial method of this demographic engineering was a peaceful program, namely the state-supported transmigration, that is, Buddhist families from other parts of the country were enticed to relocate to Northern Rakhine where Rohingya constituted 70% of the local population.
A formerly Rakhine-based military intelligence colonel who served under Gen. Nyunt admitted in a social media post that Myanmar’s peaceful attempts failed as the result of other priorities and lack of adequate funding. This policy failure was hence addressed through several major waves of state-directed centrally-coordinated military operations and state-backed locally mass violence campaigns against the marked population of Rohingya. In addition, the perpetrating state authorities mobilized all organs of the state at this disposal including various legislatures, law, judiciary, religious affairs ministry, schools and civil servant training, with the sole purpose of stripping Rohingya of their identity, rights and citizenship and erasing their identity and existence from the country’s national consciousness.
The scale, the scope and the severity of organized assault on the Rohingya community resulted in de-populating Northern Rakhine of its predominantly Rohingya inhabitants. The Rohingya’s only crime is that they exist, as a distinct national minority with their own ethnic identity, on the vast stretch of land which Myanmar military and Rakhine nationalists consider “Buddhist only”.
Over past two years, it has become abundantly clear that the international community — the UN in particular — has not taken any effective measures to reverse Myanmar’s genocidal project, beyond non-binding resolutions, statements of condemnations, calls for largely symbolic accountability measures and ritual repetition of carefully crafted spin for repatriation littered with substance-less adjectives such as “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable”.
Right from the Security Council with its well-documented paralysis on global issues of significance, owing to the veto power granted to five permanent members – down to the technical agencies (such as the UNHCR, UNDP, UNICEF, UNESCO, ILO), it is all business-as-usual, irrespective of atrocities committed by Myanmar crimes that included the crime of genocide against Rohingya.
UN’s ‘impotence’, lack of coherent leadership
The Rosental report (dated 29 May 2019) states the UN was “obvious(ly) dysfunctional” in Myanmar. This was in the face of Myanmar’s ‘gravest crimes in international law” as the UN International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar put it in its 444-page report released on 18 September 2018.
Since 1992, the General Assembly has mandated a Special Rapporteur to monitor human rights situation in Myanmar because of the extremity of human rights crimes, particularly against the Rohingya in Western Myanmar. Like in the case of Sri Lanka with its bloody civil war that lasted for 10 years and ended in May 2009, the UN as a system has failed again in the face of Myanmar’s genocide.
A cursory glance at the staggering statistics speaks volumes about the enormity of Myanmar’s near-completion of the country’s genocidal persecution of Rohingya. Contrary to popular misperception that genocide denotes only mass killings, it is a process of intentional destruction, displacement, and deportation of a group of people with their national, ethnic, racial and religious identity, whatever the size of the group.
Today there are more Rohingya outside of Myanmar than in their own ancestral land in Rakhine. Violently deported in chronic waves of exodus since 1978, the total population of Rohingya in diaspora — that is largely made up of “illegals”, refugees, and migrant laborers — is outnumbered by the ratio of 4:1 – to fellow Rohingya who remain alive in their places of ancestral origin in Western Myanmar.
In a span of less than two years in 2017 and 2018, Myanmar violently deported over 1 million Rohingya — out of a total of estimated 2 million. The government has confined about 100,000 as “internally displaced persons” or “IDPs” since 2012 when the two bouts of state-condoned violence against Rohingya and other Muslims flared up. There are also estimated 400,000 in the township of Buthidaung, the only sizeable pocket of Rohingya left in their country of origin, where they live in constant fear of the next wave of genocidal violence. They have no basic human rights or citizenship, or access to any real health, education or social services, or meaningful opportunities for livelihoods.
Five years ago at an international conference at the Harvard University, Amartya Sen, and world’s leading scholar on famines, called Myanmar treatment of Rohingya over the decades “institutionalized killing”. In his words, “you deny people nutritional opportunities. You deny them economic opportunities to earn income. You deny people essential health and other services [to sustain life]. That is institutionalized killing.”
Destruction of Rohingya an act of policy
Myanmar has long commissioned the destruction of Rohingya as an act of policy. A decade before the 2018 genocidal attacks on Rohingya in 400 villages in Northern Rakhine township of Maungdaw — area that spreads around 60-70 kilometres (37-43 miles), Myanmar had called “security clearance operations” (against Rohingya “terrorists” led by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA). William Shabas, an authority on international criminal law published a research study in 2008 for the National University of Ireland at Galway, naming Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingyas “crime against humanity”.
Various studies including this author’s “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (2014)”, have since come to shed light on the genocidal nature of Myanmar’s policies of persecution of Rohingya. The 444-page study released by UN-mandated International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on September 18, 2018 has only reinforced and given further credence to the now widely accepted scholarly conclusion that Myanmar has commissioned the crime of genocide against the Rohingya people, which is a protected group under international law.
A determined internal intervention — including the military, UN-authorized or not — could have prevented Myanmar from climaxing with its genocidal mass-killing and mass-rape of thousands of women in the autumn months of 2018.
While the UN did end other genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in 1994, it has largely adopted a business-as-usual approach with Myanmar, deliberately mis-framing Myanmar’s international crime as a “humanitarian crisis”. The UN also chooses to confine the problem to a few bad apples in the military. This utterly disregard a universal feature of all genocides: they are state-directed international crimes involving both the state institutions and (ethnically, religiously or nationally dominant) civil society at large. The UN and its members continue to maintain a farcical rhetoric that Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian government are in a difficult position as they attempt to lead the country’s “fragile democratic transition”.
Activists who support Rohingya right to live in peace in their own land of western Myanmar continue calling for actions like targeted sanctions, arms embargo and international accountability and so on. International lawyers split their legal hair when powerful nations tend to defend or condemn Myanmar at world fora and media.
Even senior diplomats from the most Rohingya-supportive states in the Muslim world — not to mention western governments with their (largely anti-Muslim) War on Terror — conceal their indifference by serving up such intellectual non-sense that only a court of law or a judicial procedure could only determine the genocide regarding Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya.
Despite rhetoric and bilateral MOUs with Bangladesh, Myanmar has absolutely no desire, intention or will to take back 1 million Rohingya, let alone restoring basic human rights or equal and full citizenship. As a matter of fact, Myanmar Embassy in Bangladesh recently issued an official statement offering “alternative facts” — that only 500,000 fled Myanmar — not 730,000 as the UN has established, or not 1 million as Bangladesh government has claimed including in its tally the number of Rohingya who have been in various refugee camps before the largest bout of mass-slaughter and deportation of 2018.
A bleak — a very bleak — future lies ahead Rohingya as a persecuted national minority.
Official assurances and arrangements not honored
The Union of Burma as a state including the Armed Forces as one of its organs, formerly recognized Rohingya people to be an integral ethnic minority of the country with full and equal citizenship rights until the ruling military turned genocidal towards them beginning in the 1970s.
My own great-uncle was the deputy-commander of All Rakhine Troops in July 1961, when his boss Brig. Aung Gyi, the commander-in-chief and the second in command of in the army, officially told the Rohingya community in Maungdaw that gathered at the surrender ceremony of the last batch of Rohingya separatist fighters — that they (Rohingya) were a national minority, a part of Myanmar’s ethnic tapestry, and by exchanging arms for peace Rohingya were to enjoy full citizenship rights, equality before the law, non-religious discrimination and support for development.
Neither my close relative nor Commander-in-chief Aung Gyi is around anymore. The town of Maung Daw is pretty much a ghost town. One million Rohingya have been uprooted from their places of ancestral origin, and their history officially erased from the annals of the Union of the Republic of Myanmar.
A national state’s destruction of a targeted population with distinct group identity within the territories which the state controls is only half of a genocide, in terms of the essence of a nation-state’s genocidal project. This may not be the purview of the Genocide Convention of 1949 which Myanmar signed and ratified in 1956.
But according to the late Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer and a legal assistant at the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1945, who in effect gifted the post-WWII world with both the term genocide and the inter-state treaty known as “The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide”, after the genocide, the perpetrating state imposes its national patterns or preferences on the group of genocide survivors which remain inside the state’s national boundaries.
Myanmar’s insistence that the victims are “Bengali” — signifying that they don’t really belong in Myanmar, but in Bangladesh, or that the survivors will need to prove themselves as having ancestrally lived in the country before the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824 to be eligible for full and equal citizenship of Myanmar, or that the internally displaced Rohingya cannot move out of the barbed-wire-fenced IDP camps, where they have been held since 2012 “for their own safety” — are continuing acts of genocide.
The episodic killings that visit Rohingya villagers as they now find themselves caught between the two “Buddhist” national armies — Myanmar government troops and the Arakan Army (of Buddhist Rakhine nationalists). These two armed groups are fighting each other in Rakhine state.
Against this backdrop of Myanmar’s still-unfolding genocidal process, both the civilian leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and her military counterpart General Min Aung Hlaing thumb their noses at the outside world that seeks an end to Myanmar’s Rohingya persecution, with no real impact on either the policies of the perpetrating state or the behavior of these two senior most Myanmar leaders.
Having claimed that the killers had “no intention” to kill their victims, the Senior General released four military officers and three other ranks who were found to have massacred 10 Rohingya villagers in Inn Din village during the “security clearance operations”, and dumped their bodies in a mass grave.
Seeking investments on killing fields
Meanwhile, Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Suu Kyi had gathered about 600 foreign investors in Rakhine state and invited them all to invest in Rakhine state’s economic projects including agro-industry and special economic zone developed on the killing fields of Northern Rakhine.
Already, China is developing a multi-billion-dollar Special Economic Zone at Kyauk Hpyu port city on the seafront site, the very site where Myanmar slaughtered and burned alive thousands of Rohingya and other Muslim residents during the falsely labelled “communal violence” in 2012, according to UN Special Rapporteur on human rights Yanghee Lee, who interviewed Rakhine eye-witnesses.
There would be a global outcry if any entity declares the labor camps at Auschwitz are to be opened for a commercial activity. Imagine new Orientals, Ritz-Carltons or Shangri-La-s at Auschwitz! But that is precisely the moral equivalent of what Myanmar is doing with its fresh crime sites where 400 villages were burned to the ground. The home-grown military leadership with effective organizational command over the Armed Forces have done all the burning and subsequent bulldozing of these formerly Rohingya communities including residences, shops, places of worship and mass graves.
On her part, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi — known for her polished and smooth-talking — does the marketing of these killing fields now primed for sale or rent to the highest bidder. Despite her criminal responsibility or culpability in Myanmar’s international state crimes, as the de facto head of state, Suu Kyi continues to be feted in the genocide-indifferent countries with interests in Myanmar. Today Suu Kyi frequents Japan, Singapore, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the neighborhood and paid a state visit to Hungary and Czech Republic earlier this month.
Myanmar’s Rakhine state, a shared homeland of Rakhine and Rohingya — like other strategic border regions — is deemed strategically and commercially vital for corporates and governments from East and West. China and Russia may effectively defend the genocidal leadership of Myanmar. Asian investors may be the most significant actors in Myanmar’s military-controlled economy. They are not the only ones. Western governments and firms from Canada, U.S., Australia, Norway, Switzerland, as well as the EU countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany etc. — are in numerous partnership with the country’s civilian and military institutions. The World Bank’s latest proposal to give Myanmar $100 million in grants to develop Rakhine economically is just one of many signs that Myanmar has gotten away with its genocide.
Maung Zarni is co-author of Essays on Myanmar Genocide (2019) and coordinator for strategic affairs, the Free Rohingya Coalition.