Vol. XLI No. 04 January 22, 2017

Myanmar: Looming Genocide!

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community in Myanmar's Rakhine state is ongoing despite pleas by the international community and neighbouring countries. Satellite images have shown conclusive evidence of destroyed villages and mass dislocation. There has also been incontrovertible proof of children being killed and women being killed by rampaging soldiers. Aid workers have been refused permission to visit the affected areas. A new wave of Rohingya refugees have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. The United Nations human rights agency has said that the abuses against the Rohingya could classify as crimes against humanity.

The former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who was on a fact finding mission to Myanmar in late November had issued a call for “unimpeded humanitarian and media access and strengthened efforts to defuse tensions and promote harmony” in Myanmar.  Annan heads an advisory commission to study the situation in Rakhine state. It was created on the orders of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in August, 2016 “to promote concrete measures for improving the welfare of all people in Rakhine state”. The commission has six members, three of whom are from Myanmar. None of them however are Rohingya and instead represent the majority Buddhist community. Many observers are of the opinion that the commission operates with its hands tied as it is mandated to function in accordance with a 1982 law that effectively stripped the Rohingya off their citizenship rights on the grounds that they were not a recognized “national race”. In 1982, after the military ousted the civilian government of the day, a law was enacted removing the Rohingya from the list of 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Burma.

When questioned about the Rohingya issue on her visits to foreign capitals, Suu Kyi has said that she is concerned about human rights violations but has refused to blame the security forces for the widespread human rights violations. “We have been very careful not to blame anyone until we have complete evidence about who has been responsible”, Suu Kyi said during a state visit to Japan in November. The targeting of the Rohingya Muslims started in a big way in 2012 after communal clashes broke out in the state. Near the town of Sittwe, more than 100,000 Rohingya live in internment camps after their houses were demolished and property confiscated. Back then, the military was running the government in Myanmar.

Observers of the region thought that the situation would improve after Suu Kyi assumed major responsibilities in the government following the sweeping victory registered by her Party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the elections in 2015. Though she still has to share power with the military government, Suu Kyi is today in a position to decisively influence government policy. Earlier, when she was on the campaign trail, she tried to explain away her silence on the Rohingya issue, by claiming that she did not want to rub the powerful military establishment the wrong way and jeopardise her Party's chances at the polls. Her party, the NLD, did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 elections. She had however promised to look into the root causes of the Rohingya crisis.



The Rohingya, more than a million of whom stay in western Myanmar, have been denied citizenship and other basic rights, despite having lived in the country for generations. They first came to Myanmar in the 19th century when the whole of South Asia was under British colonial rule. Many Rohingya fought alongside the British during Second World War while most of the Burmese in Rakhine state preferred to side with the occupying Japanese forces.

The latest round of violence started in the second week of October, after nine police officers were killed by lightly armed Rohingya men. Some Rohingya have resorted to violence in the face of the large scale discrimination and atrocities their community faces. The army retaliated by targeting peaceful Rohingya communities and burning their villages. The Rohingya are among the most destitute of the ethnic groups in the country as a result of government policies. Since the latest army action began, thousands of Rohingya have been forcibly displaced. The army in its campaign had even used helicopter gunships against the unarmed civilian population.

More than 10,000 Rohingya have managed to flee to Bangladesh in the last two months despite stringent border controls. Bangladesh already hosts a big number of Rohingya refugees from earlier conflicts. After one particularly horrific attack by the army in 1978, 2,00,000 had fled to Bangladesh. The government in Dhaka is aware that the Myanmar army would like nothing better than forcing the Rohingya to move en masse into Bangladesh. The head of the UN refugee agency in Bangladesh told the media that the security forces in Myanmar were “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river” into Bangladesh. Many have died while trying to cross the river that separates the two countries.

The special adviser to the UN secretary general on Myanmar, Satish Nambiar, has issued an appeal to Suu Kyi to visit the area and “reassure the affected population that they would be protected”.  But now, despite the loud pleas from the international community, the Nobel Peace laureate still refuses to speak out against the atrocities being committed against the Rohingya. For long years, the international community had viewed Suu Kyi an exemplar of democratic values and human rights. Her continued silence on the targeting of a religious minority has prompted many civil society groups to question her commitment to human rights for all the people in the Buddhist majority country. Suu Kyi prefers to call the Rohingya, “Bengalis”, in an apparent effort to emphasise their foreignness.

The Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, led a huge rally in the capital Kuala Lumpur, to protest against what he called “genocide” in Myanmar. There are more than 56,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. The country's foreign ministry in a statement said that it has an obligation to halt the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya and ensure stability and security in the region. Malaysia and Myanmar are both members of the ASEAN grouping which has a long standing policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs. Malaysia's stance is in marked contrast to that of the United States. In September, the Obama administration lifted all the remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar, citing the new government under Suu Kyi's leadership's focus on bringing “respect of human rights to its people”.



Though Suu Kyi is not in full control of the government, she has given the impression that she is in agreement with the actions carried out by the security forces. The army is still in charge of three powerful portfolios – defense, home and border affairs. These three ministries are supervising the anti-Rohingya ethnic purge. A spokesman for Suu Kyi said that his leader has been kept in the loop by the army leadership about the ongoing anti Rohingya operations. Suu Kyi's office has rejected the accusations against the military, saying that they “are absolutely not true”. The ministry over which Suu Kyi presides has refused to issue travel permits to aid workers to visit the troubled areas. Around 30,000 Rohingya, among them women and children, are in desperate need of aid.

The UN expert monitoring the events in Rakhine state, Yanghee Lee, said that the “security lockdown” imposed by the state on the affected areas was “not acceptable” in the light of credible reports of rape, summary execution and torture, along with the destruction of mosques and houses. She also expressed skepticism of Suu Kyi's recent statement that the government's response to the events in Rakhine state was based on the rule of law. “I am unaware of any efforts on the part of the government to look into allegations of human rights violations”, Lee said. “It would appear on the contrary that the government has mostly responded with a blanket denial”.

Meanwhile, the government is pressing ahead with its “Rakhine Action Plan”. Under the Plan, Rohingya who cannot meet the stringent requirements for naturalised citizenship being demanded by the government or refuse to be designated as “Bengali”, will be placed in camps to be eventually deported. The Rohingya have been denied permission to participate in the national census under legislation introduced in parliament in 2016. Parliament also proposes to pass a law soon that will prevent the Rohingya from voting in elections. Another proposal the Myanmar parliament is seriously considering is the banning of inter-faith marriages. This move is aimed at further polarising the country on a religious basis. The government is busy stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in the ongoing efforts to justify its treatment of the Rohingya. A spokesman for the Rakhine state government has said that the action plan was necessary as the Muslims birth rate posed a threat to the Buddhist majority.

Last year, boat loads of Rohingya had left Myanmar, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. That exodus had grabbed the attention of the international commission. The last thing the West wants is another international refugee crisis. Indications are that many hapless Rohingya are preparing for another exodus, encouraged and many a times abetted by the authorities in Myanmar. Investigative reports have revealed that the Thai Navy also played a role in shuttling Rohingya refugees into the country's sea food industry, where they are used as virtual slave labour.