Preventing the Next Genocide

Burma's Rohingya minority could fall victim to full-scale genocide if the international community doesn't intervene.

Andre Malerba/Getty Images
Andre Malerba/Getty Images

In conflicts that have potential to produce the worst of human atrocities, states and international actors must take action to identify the precursors of mass killing and stop it from ever happening. That’s precisely what is needed now in western Burma, where the Rohingya minority faces attacks so violent that state crime experts fear a full-on genocide is in the making. The Muslim minority, numbering around 1 million, shares the state with Rakhine Buddhists, who consider them to be illegal Bengali immigrants. The Burmese government, which shares this view, denies them citizenship as well as limiting their access to education and healthcare. Organized mob violence in late March, which wrecked the entire aid infrastructure serving 140,000 displaced Rohingya, was only the latest in a series of incidents in recent months that qualify as one of five commonly accepted indicators of a genocide.

The Burmese government’s apparent reluctance to intervene in the situation — it took the state three weeks and persistent warnings to allow some aid groups to return — should be of pressing international concern. It signals a disregard for the lives of hundreds of thousands of people that can only be influenced by strong global condemnation.

The violence of late March was clearly planned, as were the resultant effects: The mobs effectively cut off access to life-saving medicine, destroyed warehouses storing food donations, and dismantled boats and vehicles used to transport those donations to Rohingya camps. The attackers clearly intended to sever the assistance on which displaced Rohingya rely. In the aftermath, aid workers have reported dozens of preventable deaths just three weeks after the attack, showing that victims of persecution can be made to suffer as effectively by indirect assaults on the support systems as by direct physical attack. (The photo above shows an injured Rohingya woman whose doctor is unable to help her due to a lack of medicine and medical equipment.)

For the Rohingya, deprivation of food and aid, rendered more powerful by isolation, has received little domestic sympathy. But this attack marks the start of a dangerous process: Those Rakhine complicit in the violence have signaled that Rohingya aren’t worthy of the essential support mechanisms that a highly vulnerable population requires for its survival. The significance of this dehumanization process isn’t just known to academics and political leaders — it is felt by all involved, on both sides. And it is one stop on the path, short or long, to genocide.

In April, the government, with funding from the United Nations, carried out Burma’s first census in more than 20 years. But the project was marred by reports that the census enumerators required Rohingya to identify as Bengali, or otherwise would not count them at all. Both options entailed denial of the ethnic group’s existence.

The campaign of vilification is nothing new. Two major pogroms were carried out in 1978 and 1992, each time pushing more than 200,000 Burmese Muslims into Bangladesh. Dhaka has refused to register the vast majority as refugees and therefore provide them with assistance, fearful that doing so would act as a pull factor for those in Rakhine State now denied basic human rights. Thus, those Rohingya who have fled Burma since the first major wave of violence in June 2012 have largely done so by boat, with hundreds drowning. Local media, politicians, and Buddhist monks have been active in circulating vitriolic rhetoric to dehumanize the group. Burma’s former consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, referred to the minority in 2009 as "ugly as ogres," while a headline in the popular domestic Weekly Eleven in June 2012 described Rohingya as "prowling around" outside the Rakhine capital of Sittwe. The inference is clear: When an Associated Press journalist last year requested that her government minder arrange an interview with Rohingya, the minder asked why she wanted to meet with "dogs."

The dehumanization process changes the mind of the perpetrators of genocide. The Rakhine may not know that they are at deploying a common tactic that often precedes, and helps normalize, mass killing: the depiction of minority groups as animals. We saw this in Rwanda, when the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines station repeatedly called on Hutus to "exterminate the cockroaches," and we are seeing signs of it now in Burma. Dehumanization allows humans to overcome their normal revulsion towards murder. As Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, who escaped the noose at Nuremberg, commented on historic incidences of mass killing: "In such periods there are always only a very few who do not succumb [to complicity in genocidal crimes]. But when it is all over, everyone, horrified, asks ‘For heaven’s sake, how could I?’" The Burmese state has had decades to "rationalize" violence against Rohingya. An editorial in the November 2012 issue of the influential Rakhine Nationalities Development Party’s magazine, the Progress, commented on the violence between Rohingya and Rakhine communities: "In order for a country’s survival … crimes against humanity or inhuman acts may justifiably be committed as with Hitler and the Holocaust…. We will go down in history as cowards if we pass on these issues [Rohingya] to the next generation without getting it over and done with."

Racist talk is part of racist action. In January, the U.N. reported that a massacre of 40 Rohingya men, women, and children in the northern Rakhine state town of Maungdaw was carried out by Buddhist mobs, assisted by Burmese security forces. The government repeatedly denied the massacre and has sought to take punitive action against witnesses. When the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) went public about its treatment of 22 survivors, the government took immediate action and expelled the NGO from the state. This has had long-term repercussions: MSF, the largest provider of healthcare to displaced Rohingya, was not among the NGOs allowed to return to Rakhine state at the end of April. The group was the lead provider of medical care in Rakhine State, with a patient count of around 700,000. It estimated that in the three weeks after its expulsion, 25,000 consultations were not carried out. The effects of this loss of healthcare were acutely compounded by the destruction of food stocks in late March. Signs of starvation are clear.

Rohingya in and around Sittwe are confined to camps and barricaded ghettos, surrounded by a population that, spurred on by influential politicians and monks, has been vocal about its wish to maintain these segregationist measures — if not to force the Rohingya out of the country altogether. Even President Thein Sein in July 2012 has unsuccessfully asked for U.N. help in resettling the entire Rohingya population abroad.

The situation has been allowed to fester — and actively encouraged — for too long. What were once horrible but sporadic bursts of violence have become sustained and deeply sinister. The government has done little to help and much to harm the conditions in Rakhine state. It has rendered the Rohingya stateless, impeded aid, failed to punish perpetrators of violence and hate-speech, and thereby created an environment that allows violence to flourish. But all the while, it maintains the pretense that the mobs are operating on their own whim, and that the violence is purely communal. The tactic is familiar to state crime scholars: Policies are devised by leaders at the top, and delivered by those on the ground, with the puppeteer’s strings rarely visible. Now tensions are at a point where even small disputes are erupting into mass violence, with attacks on Rohingya occurring because of who they are, and not what they have done. All leaders in Burma must know that this is the mental state that enables genocide. And they also must know that once the genocidal mindset is free to act, it is rarely possible to stop, save by another greater force.

Sadly, however, Burma’s leaders, across the spectrum, have remained silent. In a BBC interview last year, Aung San Suu Kyi commented that "Muslim power is very great" around the world, and referred to the "many moderate Muslims in Burma who have been well integrated into our society." This suggests that she, too, considers Muslims a foreign presence. Despite her substantial leverage, the Nobel Laureate has not given voiced opposition to the violence. She is playing the long game, and risks losing support from voters if they believe she is attempting to heal the rifts between Muslims and Buddhists. The international community, meanwhile, is all talk. Though the United Nations was the first to cite the involvement of national security forces in the Maungdaw massacre in January, it has yet to sanction Burma in any way. It maintains its invitation to Burma to send troops around the world as U.N. peacekeepers, a questionable move to begin with, given the ongoing conflict in the northern and eastern borderlands.

Next year marks the 20-year anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. That genocide was forecast from within the United Nations by the non-aligned group leader Diego Arria, who forced his way into Srebrenica. There he discovered that the international community had misrepresented the seriousness of the situation there, laying bare its unwillingness or inability to act. In 1993, he spoke of a slow-motion genocide. Two years later, the state’s army killed over 8,000 men and boys in the course of two days. The international community avoids telling the truth of what happened for fear of having to bow its head in shame at its failure to prevent what had been foreseen. Will this be the lot of today’s United Nations? Are thousands of unknowing Rohingya doomed to join the 8,000 souls of Srebrenica as forgettable victims of international indifference?

All Burma’s politicians must put electioneering aside to finally address the criminal killing of a significant section of Burma’s population. To do nothing — to fail to join hands on this issue and remedy those minds that are already turning to violence — would be to risk complicity in the world’s worst crime.

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