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On Tuesday, Burma’s lame duck government led by President Thein Sein and backed by the country’s military is holding a national conference ostensibly to foster peace. The dialogue will bring together the Burmese military and the representatives of the eight ethnic armed groups that agreed to the partial ceasefire agreement in October.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi – which will come to power at the end of March – has officially declared that “establishing peace with minorities will be the single most important goal” for her government.
However, neither the most powerful stakeholder, namely the military, nor Suu Kyi’s NLD will address the need to end the systematic persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living in their own ancestral borderlands between Burma and Bangladesh, whose persecution has repeatedly hit international news headlines.
Already, her top deputy on the Central Executive Committee, the ex-army officer Win Htein, has made it clear that ending the suffering of the Rohingya – estimated at 1.33 million in western Arakan State and an equal number in diaspora – is not on the party’s agenda.
By all indications so far Suu Kyi’s government shares with the Burmese military a racist view towards the Rohingya Muslims. They will most likely continue the current policies of systematic persecution and discrimination.
Their shared indifference is deeply disturbing in light of the growing consensus worldwide about the genocidal nature of Burma’s abuse and persecution of the Rohingya.
Over the last several years, academic and non-academic researchers have raised a very real possibility that Burma is, as a matter of national policy, engaged in initiatives designed to destroy the Rohingya as an ethnic people. Among the organisations that have sounded this alarm are Fortify Rights, Human Rights Watch, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, ASEAN Parliamentary Human Rights Caucus, Al Jazeera Investigative Unit, Yale University’s Human Rights Law Clinic and the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London.
Suu Kyi’s studied silence
Noteworthy is the fact that Suu Kyi’s culpability in the state-directed persecution of the Rohingya goes beyond her silence, which has been roundly criticised. Suu Kyi routinely offers Islamophobia as an explanation, and denies any systematic wrong-doing while dismissing the genocide and ethnic cleansing accusation as simply “exaggerations”.
Never mind that seven of her fellow Nobel Peace laureates including Mairead Maguire and Desmond Tutu, as well as her long-time supporters such as George Soros and Amartya Sen, have come to view Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya as nothing less than a slow genocide.
George Soros, who escaped the Nazi-occupied Budapest as a Jewish teenager in 1944, took the trouble of visiting a Rohingya neighbourhood in Arakan State a year ago. After having witnessed the conditions in which the Rohingya were forced to live, Soros was moved to draw what he called an “alarming” parallel between the Nazi genocide and Burma’s Rohingya persecution. Last year Ms Suu Kyi also travelled to Arakan State to gather Arakan votes for her party. She did not bother to pay a brief if unpopular visit, out of compassion, to the Rohingya refugee camps and “Rohingya ghettos”, as Soros put it, in the vicinity. Her calculated avoidance goes back to the beginning of the anti-Rohingya mass violence in June 2012.
As a Burmese researcher and activist I joined Suu Kyi on the Rule of Law Roundtable at the London School of Economics (LSE) on her first visit to UK in a quarter century. Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, her visit’s official sponsor, informed the panel chair Professor Kaldor that our guest of honour was “in listening mood”, that is, she wasn’t willing to speak on the hottest topic of the day. Only a week or so before the LSE panel, the Rohingya had suffered violence perpetrated by the sword-wielding local Arakan mobs, organised and backed by the state. I was pre-assigned to handle any question about the persecution of the Rohingya as she maintained the studied silence on the grave and domestically unpopular subject.
A year later, on her second visit to UK in 2013, Suu Kyi was put on the spot on Radio Four by the host Mishal Hussain who front loaded the violence against Muslim Rohingya. Suu Kyi actively denied that Burma was committing “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya. In her own words: “No, no, it’s not ethnic cleansing. It’s a new problem…these problems arose last year. This is due to fear of both sides (Buddhists and Muslims). I think you will accept that there is a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great. Certainly, that’s a perception in many parts of the world, and in our country too…”
On the eve of Burma’s elections, which her party won a crushing landslide against the incumbent military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, her position shifted decidedly from a calculated silence to an active dismissal of any systematic wrong-doing. Human Rights Watch refers to what is happening to the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing. The Queen Mary University and Yale Law school researchers call it genocide.
In a rare press conference held at her residence in Rangoon on 5 November, Anthony Kuhn of US National Public Radio asked her about the accusations of mass atrocities. She responded by saying, “Don’t exaggerate the problems [of the Rohingya]” before noting that some of the ‘boat people’ of last year’s Southeast Asian migrant crisis were from Bangladesh.
In her rhetoric and lack of action, Suu Kyi has has evidently chosen to ignore a mountain of irrefutable official and historical documentation which backs the Rohingya’s claim to identity, history and citizenship in Burma.
Deep historical ties
In sharp contrast to the official and popular portrayal of the Rohingya as merely the descendants of farm ‘coolies’ imported by the British Raj to develop the fertile wet rice land of Western Burma adjacent to the then East Bengal (or present day Bangladesh), ethno-linguistic fieldwork going back to AD1799 – a quarter century before the British annexation of Western Burma – establishes the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Islamic faith.
The claim of the historical presence of the Rohingya is further reinforced by stone inscriptions from AD 1440 unearthed and interpreted by none other than two of the leading founders of the historical studies of pre-colonial Burma, namely the late Gordon H. Luce and his most distinguished pupil the late Professor Than Tun of Burma Historical Commission.
During the period of British colonial rule (1826-1947), Burma’s pre-colonial ethnic groups with their self-chosen identities were lumped under broad categories informed in part by anthropologists and in part necessitated by the administrative needs of the colonial bureaucracy.
Following the country’s independence from Britain in 1948, the Rohingya reasserted their ethnic identity and historical presence in the borderlands between the new nation-states of Muslim Bangladesh and Buddhist Burma successfully. By 1954, Burma’s national leaders fully embraced them as an ethnic group of the Union of Burma. The Ministry of Defence was directly involved in negotiations with the Rohingya leaders in terms of the state granting the official recognition of Rohingya ethnicity as integral to the Union of Burma.
In 1992, the late Brig. Aung Gyi, the second in command of the Burmese Armed Forces under General Ne Win, recorded in writing his first-hand knowledge of the emergence of the state-recognised official Rohingya ethnic identity.
In those days, the War Office had to pay a very close attention to Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships, just like today’s War Office is paying a close attention to the border regions with Thailand. Eventually, the Rohingya warriors (Mujahideens) gave up their armed rebellion. In the discussion that ensued during the Surrender Ceremony, they made a specific request to the army representatives: that we don’t address or refer to their people in ways they consider racist and derogatory. Specifically, the Rohingya leaders asked us not to call the Rohingya [pejorative terms such as] ‘Khaw Taw’, nor ‘Bengali’, nor ‘Chittagonian Kalar’ nor ‘Arakan Muslims’. Instead they said their preferred and self-referential ethnic name was the Arabic word Rohingya (meaning the Easterners – east of the old Bengal). In terms of the administrative name of their region, they proposed a completely secular term devoid of any religious connotations, namely Mayu after the river Mayu.
The War Office agreed to organise the two majority Rohingya towns – Buthidaung and Maungdaw – into a single administrative district which was to be directly commanded by the War office (Ministry of Defence) as part of the Tatmadaw’s wider strategic border affairs paradigm (where ‘development’ was pursued as a tool to combat ethnic rebellions). This arrangement by the War Office was subsequently officially approved by the Cabinet, thus having given birth to the Administrative Region of Mayu and resulting in the official recognition of the Rohingya as an ethnic group and name.
By May 1961, Burma government established a Rohingya language service on the country’s sole national radio station and by 1964, the Rohingya were given an official entry in the government’s Burma Encyclopedia, recognising the two Northern Arakan townships as the predominantly Rohingya ancestral pocket.
Betrayed by the Junta
After the military coup in 1962, General Ne Win, the deceased founder of the country’s former junta, turned on the commercially successful segment of Burmese society made up of people of Indian sub-continental origin. Over 300,000 Burmese of Indian origin were effectively expelled from the country. Han Chinese too suffered. The new military state confiscated their businesses, properties and bank accounts. Nothing was spared. A decade later, Uganda’s Idi Amin replicated the Burmese military’s model of dealing with successful ‘foreigners’ as he expelled the entire community of people with Indian sub-continent ancestry.
This is what has been happening to the Rohingya of Burma albeit at an excruciating slow pace since the late 1970s, when the military leaders decided to frame the Rohingya – and Muslims – as a threat to national security, and proceeded to devise strategies of disenfranchising them and destroying their economic and legal foundations. Campaigns of physical violence, mass arrest and de-ethnicisation have been coupled with the enactment of laws and regulations which have encoded Rohingya and Muslim persecution.
The Rohingya have borne the brunt of this racist campaign centrally developed and directed simply because all of the different types of Muslim communities, the Rohingya are the only one with a brief history of armed revolt against the newly independent state of Burma, having their own ancestral geographic pocket adjacent to one of the most populous Muslim countries – Bangladesh.
In October 2012, the second bout of organised mass violence, arson and looting drove over 140,000 Rohingya from some of the most commercially lucrative neighbourhoods in Arakan State. While these Rohingya languish in internments surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by security troops, their old neighbourhoods – burned to ashes in a matter of days – have been marked for the development of Special Economic Zone. That joint venture between the Burmese military and a Chinese corporation is worth US$17 billion.
The popular misperception manufactured and encouraged by the government views the Rohingya as greedy, desperate ‘Bengali’ economic migrants, or ‘leeches’ ‘parasites’ ‘ogres’, from across the western borders. The reality for the Rohingya is that the Burmese government has effectively completed the process of not only stripping them of official and historical ethnicity and legal citizenship but of successfully destroying the economic and social foundations to sustain life as a cohesive ethnic community. Burma’s decades-long policy of targeted destruction of the essential conditions of life for the Rohingya as a group is the driving force behind the mass exodus of the group from the country’s west. Those desperate waves of people then make easy prey for human traffickers and people smugglers.
Suu Kyi must be pressed
For Aung San Suu Kyi to be echoing her former captors’ official portrayal of the Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ migrants assuming a false and non-existent identity is devastating to the Rohingya who had high hopes of the NLD government ending their sufferings.
On the contrary, Suu Kyi should be paying close attention to Amartya Sen, her supporter and former teacher at Delhi University, who sounded the alarm on the plight of the Rohingya when he said in 2014:
The term ‘slow genocide’ is an appropriate fit here because you deny people health care and nutritional opportunities. You deny people opportunities to work and earn an income and make a living to feed themselves and their family members. You deny people having medical care and expel the only organisation(s) providing health care like Médecins Sans Frontières, and don’t allow them to return. That is killing people. And in that sense it is a genocide. It is a slow genocide.
As Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to take over the reins of the new government, the international community – of diplomats, world leaders, journalists, human rights researchers and world citizens – needs to press the Burmese leader to reflect critically on her stances on the Rohingya. There has been a talk of inter-faith and inter-communal reconciliation efforts at the grassroots level between the Rohingya and the Arakan Buddhists. However laudable, these communal efforts can go only so far in ending what effectively is a state crime. As the incoming head of state, the moral and political responsibility to end the slow genocide in Burma will fall squarely on Suu Kyi’s shoulders.
Maung Zarni is research scholar with the renowned genocide Documentation Center of Cambodia (Sleuth Rith Institute) and publisher of the forthcoming Rohingya Calendar 2016-17. (http://www.rohingyacalendar.com/)
**Editors note: This article has been amended to note that on 5 November, Aung San Suu Kyi said that some Rohingya attempting to travel to Thailand and Malaysia by sea were from Bangladesh. She did not insinuate that all Rohingya were from Bangladesh.