August 27, 2018; Vox
After several years of escalating ethnic cleansing and violence, including a military “crackdown” that is estimated to have killed “a minimum of 6,700” since last August, as well as driving 688,000 people to abandon Myanmar for Bangladesh, the United Nations has finally issued a report of its own recommending that military officials in Myanmar be investigated and prosecuted for carrying out a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslim people. The report, from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, will be formally presented in Geneva in September.
For decades, Myanmar has explicitly excluded the Rohingya from citizenship and interfered with their basic human rights to housing, education, safety, and more. NPQ has reported before on this bitter sectarian conflict, which traces some of its origins in sociopolitical divides created or exacerbated by British colonial rule. Myanmar has excluded journalists, aid groups, and human rights monitors, even providers of UN humanitarian assistance, from the country. The report was gathered from interviews with refugees and aid groups in other countries, satellite images, and other research conducted outside Myanmar’s borders.
The UN commission’s report explained,
Notably, under military rule the concept of “national races” has gradually become the key criterion for membership in Myanmar’s political community, creating a common “other.” […] All others, regardless how many generations have lived in Myanmar, are considered outsiders or immigrants. This includes the Rohingya.
The “othering” and exclusion of the Rohingya has been touted by the ruling military officers, known as the Tatmadaw, as an effort to protect national safety and unity. The Tatmadaw have also helped foster violence and distrust between the Rohingya and the Rakhine, another Muslim ethnic group in the country that does not face the same exclusionary attitudes, with whom the Rohingya had previously enjoyed a peaceful relationship.
The report explains, “The Rohingya were labelled ‘illegal immigrants,’ ‘terrorists,’ and portrayed as an existential threat that might ‘swallow other races’ with their ‘incontrollable birth rates.’ In November 2012 the [Rakhine Nationalities Development Party] cited Hitler, arguing that ‘inhuman acts’ were sometimes necessary to ‘maintain a race.’”
In successive waves going back over a decade, Rohingya have been shot, burned, raped, and tortured, their villages burned and razed, their mosques destroyed. One refugee told the report’s authors, “That day felt like the last day of this world, as if the whole world was collapsing. I thought judgment day had arrived.”
These disasters were not unknown to the United Nations. The report states, “Myanmar has been a country of interest to the United Nations for 30 years, with resolutions condemning its human rights situation since 1991. For three decades, successive Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar concluded that patterns of human rights violations were widespread and systematic, linked to State and military policy.” In at least two places, the report mentions planning and troop placement that conceals a deliberate intent to perpetrate these violent campaigns. Yet so far, no moves of appropriate scale have been made by the Security Council, the International Criminal Court, or other bodies charged with protecting human rights.
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Alice Cowley and Maung Zarni of the Middle East Institute wrote in 2017,
Myanmar’s rights abuses in Rohingya regions of Western Myanmar weren’t seen as something that demanded special attention…As Rohingyas in Northern Rakhine wait and their diasporic relatives post desperate calls for U.N. peacekeepers and intervention on Facebook, “Never again!”—the foundational myth of the United Nations—must sound bitterly hollow.
NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez made a similar point in May, saying,
It’s interesting, however, that [Kofi] Annan, who has made a career of getting the world to respond to genocides, told the BBC in December 2016, in response to rumors of escalating violence and outright ethnic cleansing and questions of whether we should call what’s happening in Myanmar genocide, “I think there are tensions, there has been fighting, but I wouldn’t put it the way some have done.” The BBC notes that Annan cautioned “observers should be ‘very, very careful’ in using the word genocide.” But why? Are these just the machinations of politics? How does this align with the stance of “No Bystanders”?
The word genocide is finally being used, along with “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” to describe the Tatmadaw’s campaign.
Noor Ilyas, a refugee in a camp in Bangladesh, wrote for the Guardian, “When the brutal military set fire to the villages of Duden and Lambaguna, which are near Singgri Para, we could see the smoke. We finally decided to go to the border. It was a difficult journey.” Noor joined hundreds of thousands of compatriots fleeing the country. At least forty percent of Rohingya villages have been destroyed, with infrastructure or villages for other ethnic groups built on the ruins.
The UN report calls out other parties for their role in the terrible violence. The authors criticize Facebook for their role in perpetrating hate speech. A group of civil society organizations in Myanmar published a letter to Mark Zuckerberg in April, saying that hate messages “spread in an unprecedented way, reaching country-wide and causing widespread fear and at least three violent incidents in the process” and Facebook’s responses were inadequate. Additionally, the report criticized State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to use either her government position or her moral authority to stop the violence. NPQ has reported that the Holocaust museum revoked Suu Kyi’s Elie Wiesel award; a petition online to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize has nearly half a million signatures.
In May, there was a tentative repatriation agreement for the Rohingya, some of whom said they would not wish to return without a guarantee of full citizenship rights. However, the report pointed out that “while the Government has, in principle, committed to Rohingya repatriation, nothing thus far indicates this will be in a manner ensuring respect for human rights, essential for a safe, dignified and sustainable return….The security forces who perpetrated gross human rights violations, with impunity, would be responsible for ensuring the security of returnees.”
In the end, the UN report acknowledges the failure of the agency to respond to the ongoing crisis, saying, “The United Nations as a whole failed to adequately address human rights concerns.” But as we remember Rwanda, Darfur, and other situations in which the UN did not intervene until tens or hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, we are somewhat unimpressed with the gesture in this situation until it is followed by meaningful action. Being among the last to call this square a square when lives are at stake is not a moral victory.—Erin Rubin