By Ishtiaq Ahmed
August 30, 2018
Once again, the world is witness to horrific crimes against humanity against a hapless people by a state fired by ethnic nationalism. United Nations (UN) investigators have found overwhelming and conclusive evidence of the Myanmar army carrying out raids on Rohingya villages raping women, mutilating babies, killing young and old men and women indiscriminately and then burning the corpses and villages. The UN report has charged the head of the Myanmar army Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and five other generals with genocide.
Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a heroine to all of us when she resisted military dictatorship, has now become the biggest disappointment in recent history. Her apathy and indifference towards the suffering of the Rohingyas is appalling. It seems she is a stone-hearted nationalist who wants to stay in power at all costs. Nothing destroys human beings more than ethnic and religious nationalism, and in Myanmar both coincide to create a diabolical military dictatorship which continues, with the façade of a civilian government head by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Now, charging a state and its officials with genocide entails a process whereby the state whose agents are charged with genocide must cooperate in surrendering the culprits. We know how the Serbian state resisted that pressure, but ultimately, they were arrested, tried and punished by an international tribunal. The same has happened in Rwanda. However, many other cases of genocide have not been pursued by the international system.
And now: what is genocide? Genocide is the wilful mass murder of a people, aiming to annihilate them. Under international law, genocide is a crime against humanity which requires that the culprits be tried by a tribunal and the state accused of genocide must cooperate in the capturing and surrendering the culprits to the tribunal.
There is some confusion as to whether genocide and ethnic cleansing are synonyms. Many writers use them interchangeably. However, I have at length discussed in my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, that the two concepts are quite distinct. Genocide is the wilful mass murder of a people with the intention to exterminate them, while ethnic cleansing is the wilful intention to cleanse state territory of unwanted minorities.
In practice, however, both can be mixed. Ethnic cleansing carried out by planned and concerted violence by state agents to rid state territory of an unwanted minority can result in genocide if the target minority cannot escape to safety to some other state or states. The Jewish Holocaust originally started as ethnic cleansing by the Nazis, but when European states refused to accept Jewish refugees, the Nazis carried out their mass murder in gas chambers.
When European states withdrew from their colonies, the presumption was that decolonised states would adopt inclusive policies and thus the majorities and minorities will live in peace as equal citizens. The reality however turned out to be very different
I have visited one such camp in 1996, hidden up in the hills above Strasbourg. I remember I could not breathe while inside one of the gas chambers. Ironically, I found the identity card of a Tartar Muslim among those killed in that gas chamber. It must have been a Soviet Tartar soldier captured by the Nazis who they treated as an unwanted minority just as they killed hundreds of thousands of Roma (formerly called Gypsies) in those gas chambers.
Returning to the Rohingya tragedy, we notice that confusion exists about their actual numbers. Figures of 7 million, 3.5 million and 1.5 million have been mentioned. Most studies talk about 1 million, however. The Rohingyas are mainly the offspring of Bengali Muslims from Chittagong region of Bangladesh who went along as service people with the British who once ruled over Burma (now called Myanmar), which was part of the British Empire. They settled mostly in Rakhine province. However, some believe they have been in that country much longer.
The systematic suffering of the Rohingyas started when the issue of citizenship was taken up by Myanmar. Ultra-nationalist Buddhists began to assert that the Rohingyas were not natives and therefore not entitled to citizenship.
From the 1970s, attacks on the Rohingyas began to take place which over time became more frequent and better organised and masterminded by the army. The Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, but were treated as unwanted refugees. The government put them up in refugee camps, which were strictly isolated from Bangladeshi society in general. I supervised a doctoral thesis on this topic at the National University of Singapore during my stint there from 2007-2010.
Small communities of Rohingyas have sought refuge in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as well. Some ventured to come to Pakistan and Afghanistan where they were drafted into the Mujahideen and thus radicalised. The radicalised Rohingyas have been responsible for terrorist attacks on police stations and the Myanmar army posts. As always, such terrorism has been met with overwhelming force and crushed, but as a result the persecution of the Rohingyas has only intensified and forced them to flee, mostly to Bangladesh. The latest was in 2017 when the biggest army action against the Rohingyas took place and nearly half a million crossed the border into Bangladesh.
The tragedy of the Rohingyas needs to be understood in the context of the larger tragedy of minorities all over the world. When the former colonial powers — the British, French and Dutch — left their colonies in Asia and Africa they left behind states which did not correspond to religious or ethnic homogeneity. The presumption was that the states will adopt inclusive policies and thus the majorities and minorities will live in peace as equal citizens. The reality however turned out to be very different.
May I appeal to Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan to provide leadership on the Rohingyas issue? Rather than being drawn into the cartoon controversy and blasphemy and thus playing into the hands of some individuals in the Netherlands who are hell-bent on creating trouble for the Muslim immigrants settled in Western Europe, we need his leadership to set an example by accepting many Rohingya refugees.
The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League only talk and do nothing. Why should we not demand that Saudi Arabia open its borders to all the persecuted Muslims in the world? It has the holiest shrines of Muslim and the biggest oil reserves in the world. Should not all persecuted Muslims find refuge in that country and other rich Arab states and emirates? However, Saudi Arabia itself is accused of crimes against humanity in Yemen. So what is all this empty tall talk about the Ummah and so on? Where is the proof of real solidarity?
Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards.