Potential for disaster in Myanmar
In May of this year, a series of violent acts set in motion a chain of events which threatens to bring an ethnic conflict with an appalling history to a tipping point. Wars with ethnic overtones are generally nasty and despicable affairs, however, when one side takes as its aim the elimination of the opposite group, and moreover, is potentially capable of striking that target, it becomes necessary for otherwise uninvolved parties to consider the wider implications of quietly condoning this violence through our inaction. The following article will analyze the deliberate dispossession of the Rohingya people and the fiery rhetoric applied to justify withholding their claim to citizenship and their legitimacy as an ethnic group.
The Rohingya were essentially kidnapped and exported from Bangladesh to Myanmar in the 19th Century by British colonialists to increase the labor force. Myanmar’s government only recognizes as official ethnic groups who can trace their ancestry in Myanmar to pre-colonial times, thus the great shadow of imperialism still hangs over the Muslim Rohingya. Bangladesh has similarly abandoned any claim to these people who now languish as refugees in a country they consider home, deprived of basic human dignities and ignored by most of the world.
Since the late 1980’s the government of Myanmar has, with not inconsiderable success, systematically stripped basic human freedoms from the Rohingya people. An official state document from 1988, uncovered by Al Jazeera, helps to illuminate the broader objectives. The plan calls for, among other things, restricting their freedom of movement, limiting access to secondary education and the nefarious policy of controlling the birth rate. Rohingya need to part with $750 USD if they wish to be married in the eyes of the state, the privilege of child bearing runs an additional $150 USD. In a country where the average income is $1300 USD per year, it is not hard to imagine this policy being prohibitive to population growth. The penalty for violating either of these laws is five years imprisonment. Sometime in the mid-1990’s the military government quarantined the two northernmost townships in Rakhine State, effectively isolating a sizable chunk of the Rohingya population from contact with the outside world. Al Jazeera snuck a hidden camera into this area where there are no schools open and attendance at Mosques is strictly limited to five people at a time, ostensibly to prevent congregation or collusion. Additionally there are the NaSaKa, a quasi-military police whose objective includes monitoring the behavior of Rohingya, and whose headquarters loom ominously along the border with Bangladesh1.
Undoubtedly, this history has colored the perceptions of contemporary Rakhine who disparagingly refer to Rohingya as ‘Bengali’, or the even more derogatory ‘so-called’ Rohingya. There is an emergent body of literature mocking their history as ‘fictitious’ and which characterizes their presence in Myanmar as a ‘virus’. This view is not limited to fringe extremists but is represented in statements made by prominent politicians, community leaders and religious figures. Even while President Thein Sein has urged conciliation in forums where western media is likely present, he is also on record confirming his belief that, ‘it is impossible to accept those Rohingya who are not our ethnic nationals’. Likewise, the taciturn stance taken by Aung San Suu Kyi, the darling of Myanmar’s independence movement, is unfortunate. As disappointing as the silence of otherwise noble individuals is, vehement condemnation by prominent local figures is far more troubling.
In July, the Rakhine National Party (RNDP) released an official statement advocating that ‘Rohingya be relocated to suitable places…in order not to mix with the Rakhine’. One person interviewed by Al Jazeera claimed he had evidence that the leader of the RNDP Dr. Aye Maung is communicating with other RNDP members to coordinate attacks on Rohingya. The same Dr. Maung has been placed in charge of a commission to investigate the recent violence. The commission includes no Rohingya members. Although Dr. Maung uses less incendiary language than others in his interview, his underlying belief that Rohingya manufacture evidence of their plight is apparent. This mirrors commentary from some religious figures who claim that the June 9 torching of a Rohingya village outside of Sittwe was merely a response to violent demonstrations by Muslims chanting ‘this is Muslim country like Pakistan or Bangladesh’. This chronicle suggests that the Rohingya burned their own homes and shops while fleeing on boats in the middle of the night, orchestrating a conspiracy to vilify the Rakhine and gain international sympathy, reenforcing the narrative that the Rohingya are a deceptive, untrustworthy people. While it is certain that Muslim crowds have gathered to vent their frustration, it is equally clear that they are doing the lion share of the suffering and dying. Moreover, there is compelling testimony that Rakhine citizens have been joined by armed government forces who colluded to massacre Rohingya and dump the bodies into mass graves.
Rakhine State has also implemented broader restrictions of Rohingya freedoms. In Sittwe, Rohingya are now confined within a two block space, quartered off from the rest of the city, they are prohibited from leaving the camp. Women are banned from the markets and men forbidden from working the fields. Occasionally there are food drops but people in the camp say that long periods of starvation are routine. Religious practices are periodically restricted and with no official recognition as a people, they have no voice in government or the media. Government policies have already been successful at hoarding the population together in isolated, impoverished, destitute conditions and there is a largely successful campaign to deny them historical legitimacy. This has the markings of a conflict which may descend into a highly illogical and destructive circle of violence, the insularity of the region making it all the more likely that further atrocities would escape the attention of the international press.
Although there has been scant notice of this in the outside world, some officials have spoken out. The United Nations Under Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valeria Amos has called the refugee camps housing Rohingya the ‘worst she’s ever seen’. In all but the most extreme instances, large scale violence is a deplorable thing and it is not my intention to marginalize any amount of human suffering. That being said, it is important to be aware of those rare conflicts which attempt to deny a group its right to live somewhere, to educate themselves, to reproduce, to work or feed themselves and which defies all rational expression of human emotion. We call these rare instances genocide and it is properly regarded as the extreme of insanity. Admittedly, casual use of the term diminishes its influence, but as Professor William Schabus has noted with respect to this crisis, ‘I don’t think that there’s much difficulty in asserting that in the case of the Rohingya that we’re moving into a zone where the word [genocide] can be used…when you see measures preventing birth, trying to deny the identity of people, hoping to see that they really are eventually no longer going to exist, denying their history, the legitimacy of their right to live where they live, there are all warning signs that it’s not frivolous to envision the use of the term genocide’. I hope that cooler heads prevail in Myanmar and that we begin to see the tides flow away from injustice, however if this trend continues, the entire world ought to consider deeply the consequences of our silence.
1) Al Jazeera claimed that NaSaKa was organized specifically for the purpose of controlling the Rohingya but didn’t offer supporting evidence, it appears safe to assume that this is at least part of their modus operandi