By Aijaz Zaka Syed
December 02, 2016
In the wake of Hitler’s genocidal campaign that nearly wiped out Jews from across Europe, the world community vowed to never let history repeat itself. It promised itself to ‘never again’ remain silent in the face of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass persecution and other crimes against humanity. Indeed, one of the main reasons that the UN came into being was to prevent such crimes against humanity.
And yet an indifferent world has seen this commitment broken again and again, from the Middle East to the killing fields of Rwanda and Darfur to the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It is the same chilling apathy coupled with helplessness that you see over the murderous campaign Myanmar has unleashed against its Muslims.
The ethnic and religious minority has long been the target of worst possible oppression, tyranny and persecution both at the hands of the Buddhist majority and the military-ruled Southeast Asian state. The Rohingya Muslims are easily the most persecuted religious minority in the world, according to the UN.
Many had hoped that the situation would improve once the country embraced political reforms and democracy under the leadership of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even the Rohingya, who are not considered citizens and not even human by the state and the Buddhist majority and thus not allowed to vote, had hoped and prayed for her victory in the 2015 elections.
Yet under the pretensions of a democratic dispensation led by the charismatic democracy icon – much loved, feted and financed by the West – things have gone from bad to worse for Myanmar’s tormented Muslims.
The ongoing pogrom in the Rakhine province, unleashed by the military in the name of fighting terror – what else? – has unleashed unspeakable horrors on an utterly helpless people.
The military crackdown has been so overwhelming that thousands of terrified Rohingya have flooded over the border into neighbouring Bangladesh. At least 30,000 Rohingya have fled their homes and taken shelter in Bangladesh, despite the fact that they are hardly welcome there and are being turned away from an insensitive government in Dhaka.
The survivors have talked of gang rapes, torture and mass killings by Myanmar’s brave troops. Analysis of satellite images by Human Rights Watch shows that hundreds of buildings in Rohingya villages have been razed.
Between November 10 and 18 alone, 820 buildings were destroyed in five villages in the remote state. The damage is in addition to earlier reports of around 430 buildings being demolished, along with evidence of multiple fires.
Since 2013, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly accused the Burmese authorities of “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya. The region of Maungdaw in northern Rakhine is now seeing the biggest upsurge of violence against the minority in four years.
According to the analysed research of Yale’s Allard K Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, conducted by Fortify Rights and Al Jazeera, there is clear evidence that four acts mentioned in the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide have been committed in Myanmar:
• Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, who have their own distinct language, culture and traditions, have been killed by security forces or by the Buddhist majority as troops watched;
• Many have been subjected to rape, torture, arbitrary detentions and other crimes;
• Conditions have been created which seek to wipe out the group;
• There have been attempts to prevent births within the group as well as to restrict and/or block marriages.
This week, the UN’s Office of Human Rights Commissioner condemned the crackdown saying Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims could be “tantamount to crimes against humanity,” reiterating the findings of a June report.
“The government has largely failed to act on the recommendations made in a report by the UN Human Rights Office… (that) raised the possibility that the pattern of violations against the Rohingya may amount to crimes against humanity,” the OHCHR said in a statement.
More than 120,000 Rohingya have been crammed into displacement camps since the violence unleashed by Buddhist mobs in 2012. They have been denied citizenship, healthcare and education and their movements are heavily curbed besides being routinely attacked and abused.
Yet the democratic government in Yangon curiously lives in denial. It has lashed out at media reports of mass rapes and killings, and even lodged a protest over a UN official who said Myanmar was carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims. Foreign journalists and independent investigators have been banned from accessing the area to probe the claims.
The biggest disappointment in this unfolding catastrophe has been the role of Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy. It’s hard to believe now that people around the world had all cheered for the pro-democracy icon and her powerful movement.
The fact that she spent nearly 15 years under solitary house arrest and took on one of the most ruthless military juntas with great dignity and steely resolve fascinated us no end.
This is precisely why she had been chosen by the wise men of the Nobel Committee for their highest honour. Many protested in solidarity with the people of Burma, reeling under the tyranny of one of the last surviving dictatorships in the region. Yet long after the dawn of democracy under Suu Kyi’s leadership, the long and dark night of oppression and tyranny hasn’t ended for Rohingya Muslims.
We all understood the silence of Suu Kyi and her NLD over the persecution of Muslims under the junta. Surely, they had no power to stop it then. Today, however, when they are in power and in authority, their silence and inaction is not just indefensible, it is criminal.
It’s true that Suu Kyi still does not head the government – she is the foreign minister – and the military remains immensely powerful. Yet all said and done, this is her party’s government and it is about time she took responsibility for its actions – or lack of them.
The US and the European Union, which have shown unseemly haste in lifting international sanctions on Myanmar following its promise of political reforms, must push the government in Yangon to rein in the troops going on the rampage in Rakhine. Myanmar must open the Rakhine province to international media and allow the UN to probe the widespread abuses and crimes against humanity.
The US and the EU nations as well as Myanmar’s big neighbours, China and India, with their allure of billions of dollars of investments swing immense clout in Yangon. It’s time they used some of that influence to stop the unfolding Rohingya genocide.
As British journalist Yvonne Ridley argues, “Myanmar is still susceptible to international pressure and the threat of suspending an ambassador in London will send a chill wind through the corridors of power. The last thing the corrupt generals want is a threat to their money-making enterprises overseas.”
Although the goings-on in Myanmar have sparked helpless rage among Muslims in the neighbourhood, especially in the Subcontinent and Indonesia and Malaysia, where massive protests have been held – Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak is to take part in one such demonstration – much of the Islamic world remains blissfully ignorant of the Rohingya tragedy.
This needs to change if we are to see any improvement in the lot of this most oppressed of people. A little nudge and diplomatic pressure from 57 Muslim countries representing 1.7 billion people could rescue the community teetering on the brink. This could very well make the difference between life and death for the Rohingya.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East based columnist.