EVERYDAY I receive dozens of e-mails. Most of these e-mails, at least 30, are about Myanmar’s inhuman treatment of the minorities. It is simply depressing to read the sad stories of their extermination, aptly termed the slow-burning genocide by Dr Maung Zarni, a fellow human rights activist.
Who would have thought that in a Buddhist country, run by Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel prize for peace, these unfortunate minorities — mostly Muslims — will continue to be victimised for total annihilation simply because of their different religious and ethnic identity? Obviously, non-violent messages of Siddhartha Gautam Buddha have miserably failed to humanise the Buddhists of Myanmar. They remain mortgaged to their past of extreme intolerance that had terrorised their neighbours for centuries.
I am aware that in the post-9/11 era, some world leaders are willing to look the other way or excuse the inexcusable crimes of Suu Kyi’s government to stopping genocide of the Muslim minorities. But genocide is a serious matter that deserves our serious attention. It would be utterly irresponsible to overlook this grievous crime simply because the country is now run by an elected, popular lady, a practising Buddhist who was the poster lady for democracy, and not a hated military junta that she successfully replaced.
The United Nations in 1948 defined genocide to mean any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including: (a) killing members of the group (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
As I have repeatedly mentioned since the mid-2000s, what is happening with the minority Muslims, in general, and the Rohingyas of Myanmar, in particular, who mostly live in the Rakhine state (formerly Arakan) bordering Bangladesh, is nothing short of genocide. The overwhelming verdict of the subject matter experts, since at least 2012, has also been the same. The destruction of the Rohingyas — politically, culturally and economically — is a complete one that is carried out both by Buddhist civilians backed by the state and perpetrated directly by state actors and state institutions. I have been calling it a national project that is scripted and directed by the state since the days of General Ne Win enjoying the full cooperation, collaboration, contribution from, and execution by the Buddhist majority — monks, mobs and the military.
As noted by Dr Maung Zarni and Alice Cowley in their seminal work ‘The slow-burning genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya’, both the state in Myanmar and the local community have committed four out of five acts of genocide as spelt out by the 1948 Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide.
What is so disturbing with the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya and Muslim minorities in Myanmar is that it is happening in our time, some 69 years after the UN convention. For the sake of argument, one may find some excuses for the major perpetrators of genocidal crimes of the pre-1948 era saying that they did not know better (this is not to excuse their horrendous crimes!) but what is the excuse for Suu Kyi and her predecessors within the military?
Our human history has repeatedly been tarnished by genocidal crimes of the few. But rarely do we see genocide as a national project with full participation of all to annihilate the ‘other’ people. And yet, such is the reality in today’s Myanmar!
Buddhist monks, businessmen and politicians influence the general public on the need to purify what they call the ‘Buddhist motherland’ from any vestige of ‘outsiders’, the kalar (kala) — Islam and Muslims; false rumours are spread like wildfires to create unfathomed animosity; they stage demonstrations demanding that the government should go tough with the already marginalised targeted group, to put them in concentration camps or to kill them unprovoked creating the urge for the victims to get out of this ‘den of extreme intolerance’ if they still want to survive; cordon off or surround Muslim neighbourhoods with guns, pistols and machetes, and terrorise the victims with all the devious methods known to mankind — scorched-earth policy of burning their homes, businesses, educational, social and religious institutions, arresting, and detaining, harassing and killing innocent people, especially. anyone below the age of 50, and finally, using rape as a weapon of war to dehumanise the victims. And the list of such evil measures goes on with full participation from all the segments of the Buddhist people of Myanmar. It is a complete project of elimination of the Rohingya and other minority Muslims.
Otherwise, how can we explain the ongoing crimes of the Buddhist people and government of Myanmar? It is no accident that Suu Kyi wants to cover Myanmar’s heinous crimes by disallowing any investigation from the international community and using the kangaroo parliament to condemn the efforts and reports of the UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee. For such crimes, I need neither to go to the history of ethnic cleansing drives of the 1930s and 1940s of the British era nor even those of the newly independent Burma. Just the current events in the past week are enough to understand the gravity of the situation and the monumental crimes of the Buddhist Myanmar against the minority Muslims.
A 45-year-old Rohingya man was brutally killed by Rakhine extremists, aided by Myanmar security forces, inside the premises of the Sittwe University on August 5 around 9:30am. The victim was identified as Mohammad Abul, son of U Ali Ahmad of Kone Dagar (Konka Fara) Rohingya IDP camp, Sittwe (formerly Akyab). Commenting on the brutal murder, a Rohingya rights activist lamented the fact that under Suu Kyi’s watch and tacit encouragement the ‘Rakhine extremists are trying to eradicate all Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar systematically. The Buddhist community’s mission is ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority.’ On the same day, a Rohingya youth Eliyaz, 26, son of Mohammed Hassan from the village of Ohn Taw Gyi, is feared to have been killed by Rakhine extremists in the village of Aung Dain.
In the early hours of August 3, a group of about 30 Buddhists armed with sticks and swords attacked the Muslim-majority Sakya Nwe Sin neighbourhood in the former royal capital, Mandalay. A local administrator said that two young Muslim men were injured.
Mandalay residents told Reuters the incident had stirred fears of a repeat of deadly communal violence that hit the same neighbourhood in 2014.
Mandalay and other central towns have seen sporadic outbreaks of hate crimes against the minority Muslims since Myanmar’s transition from a full military rule began in 2011.
On August 2, small groups of Buddhist monks with dozens of lay supporters set up two ‘boycott camps’ close to country’s most important Buddhist site, the Shwedagon pagoda, and at a Mandalay pagoda just blocks from scene of the mob attack later that night.
Behind banners accusing Suu Kyi’s administration of failing to protect Buddhism, the monks upturned their alms bowls, a traditional symbol of defiance against the country’s rulers.
Since August 1, the minority Rohingya community — composed of some 650 people — living in the village of ‘Zaydi Pyin’ in Rathedaung Township have remained surrounded by state-backed Rakhine extremists. Their access to food and to roads, forests and rivers are cut off with barbed wire fences erected by the government-backed extremists, thereby restricting their movement and forcing starvation on them. Unless the blockade is removed immediately, many Rohingyas may die.
A human rights activist said, ‘The main reason behind such a blockade is to make them starve and die; and eventually force them to leave their homes once and for all. So, the Myanmar government can tell the world that the Rohingyas are leaving their homes on their own.’
On July 30, a group of military and the BGP raided Yedwin Pyin village, northern Maungdaw and fully demolished some Rohingya houses, looted their property such as money, jewellery and other valuables and left the immoveable things destroyed. Then the military and the BGP gang-raped three Rohingya women from the village.
Nearly 1000 Rohingyas died and tens of thousands were displaced in 2012 in Rakhine state. Genocidal violence against the Rohingya people escalated there in 2016 after attacks on border posts allegedly by Rohingya militants. The military operation sent an estimated 75,000 people across the nearby border to Bangladesh, where many gave accounts of serious abuses. A United Nations report issued earlier this year said that Myanmar’s security forces had committed mass killings and gang-rapes against the Rohingyas during their campaign against the insurgents, which may amount to crimes against humanity.
The European Union has similarly proposed the investigation after the UN high commissioner for human rights said that the army’s operation in the northern part of Rakhine State, where most people are Rohingyas, likely included crimes against humanity.
Reuters was among international media escorted to the area in the past week in a tour closely overseen by security forces. Rohingya women told reporters of husbands and sons arbitrarily detained, and of killings and arson by security forces that broadly match the accounts from refugees in Bangladesh. Typical of genocide deniers, Suu Kyi’s government continues to deny such accusations and says most are fabricated.
In several recent cases, local officials have bowed to nationalist pressure to shut down Muslim buildings that they say are operating without official approval. Two madrassahs were shuttered in May in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.
Local media reported the closure of a mosque and another Islamic school in Oatkan, on Yangon’s outskirts, recently.
Authorities in Kyaukpadaung, central Myanmar, famed for not accepting non-Buddhist residents, in July agreed to demolish a structure that was falsely suspected of being a mosque.
In a letter to Suu Kyi on August 3, 20 groups working on human rights in Myanmar said that the government needed to do more to protect Muslims, who make up 4.3 per cent of the population. ‘The Burma government must not appease the ultra-nationalists who are utilising hate speech, intimidation, and violence to promote fear in Muslim communities across the country,’ said the letter. ‘It is extremely alarming to see how anti-Muslim sentiment has spread beyond Rakhine state, where the Rohingya Muslim minority has been harshly persecuted and isolated, even to major cities like Yangon.’
On August 4, responding to mounting reports of violence in northern Rakhine state, including the deaths of villagers in the past week, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific James Gomez said: ‘The alarming reports of attacks in northern Rakhine state underscore the need for everyone operating in the area to refrain from violence before it spirals out of control. These latest attacks underscore the need for the Myanmar authorities to cooperate fully with the UN fact-finding mission and allow them unfettered access to all parts the country. The people of Myanmar and the international community deserve to know the truth. The authorities’ pledge to respond to the latest killings in Rakhine with “intensive clearance operations” is particularly worrying, given the scorched-earth tactics Amnesty International has documented during these operations in the past. While the Myanmar authorities have the duty to maintain law and order and investigate these attacks, they must ensure that these investigations are conducted in a fair and transparent manner, in accordance with international human rights law.’
In Myanmar, Rohingyas face extinction. They are denied all the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Myanmar’s nationality law, approved in 1982, denies Rohingya citizenship. Rohingyas are not recognised among the 134 official ethnicities in Myanmar because authorities see them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. They are subjected to forced labour, have no land rights and are heavily restricted by the government. They have no permission to leave the camps built for them, have no source of income and must rely on the World Food Programme to survive, which is often restricted to them. The local Buddhists are forbidden to supply food or do any business with them.
Adolf Hitler’s instruction to his army commanders on August 22, 1939 read: ‘Thus for the time being I have sent to the east only my “death’s head units’ with the orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the vital space that we need.’
We falsely assumed that after the fall of Nazism, we shall never again see a repeat of such grievous crimes. The fact, however, is Suu Kyi’s government, like her predecessors, has perfected such criminal policies to wipe out the Rohingya and minority Muslims.
Despite growing evidence of genocide, the international community has so far avoided calling this large scale human suffering genocide because no powerful member states of the UN Security Council have any appetite to forego their commercial and strategic interests in Myanmar to address the slow-burning Rohingya genocide. Dr Zarni quotes Terith Chy, a Khmer criminologist, said, ‘The world is watching and does nothing to end the sufferings of the Rohingya. This is much like what happened in Cambodia and Rwanda. The world stands by. It keeps on watching, watching, watching….’ (Genocide, Documentation Centre of Cambodia)
I wonder how long shall we just watch and watch, and do nothing to stop the genocidal crimes of the Myanmar government!
Dr Habib Siddiqui is a peace and rights activist.
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