The events unfolding in Myanmar at present have all the worst ingredients of a tragedy after which we will solemnly intone “Never Again”. A complex history, a world distracted by other things, and, worst of all, geographical distance – which is a tactful way of saying that since neither the victims nor the perpetrators are European, the violence will probably be allowed to burn itself out, leaving only a gaping hole where the Rohingya should be.
Though its government disputes this, the Rohingya have lived in the area of western Myanmar called Arakan for centuries. The first mention of them in western sources was by the East India Company in 1799. Rohingya were central to the administration of Myanmar (or Burma, as it then was) until 1982, when the military dictatorship removed them from the list of “official” nationality groups. Since then their conditions have steadily deteriorated. As the organisation Global Citizen puts it, they are “unable to claim citizenship in a country that refuses to recognise them.” Forced Migration Review explains how forcing statelessness on people violates both the 1956 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the reduction of Statelessness. But we have known what statelessness means far longer than that. As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, statelessness means that people are consigned either to the law of exception or complete lawlessness. “Since [the stateless person] was the anomaly for whom the general law did not provide, it was better for [him] to become an anomaly for which it did provide: that of the criminal.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have both called for action amid growing concern since October, though some sources highlight that there has been violence since at least 2012. A United Nations report from February did not pull any punches. Based on interviews with more than 200 of the approximately 66,000 refugees to Bangladesh, the evidence they collected was clear.
“According to the testimonies gathered, the following types of violations were reported and experienced frequently in that area: Extrajudicial executions or other killings, including by random shooting; enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention; rape, including gang rape, and other forms of sexual violence; physical assault including beatings; torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; looting and occupation of property; destruction of property; and ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution.” (p. 40)
What this means on a human level is, as always, perhaps beyond description if not beyond words. Even the bald breakdown of the testimonies makes for hard reading:
Extracts from a few of the testimonies follow. Please be warned, they are not subtle, though these are some of the least graphic. Page references are to the OHCHR Report.
“The day the army attacked my village, my father and I had just come out of prayers, when we heard sounds of shooting. We had just walked to a farm, where we were sitting and talking to the owner of the farm. While the firing was still going on, my father stood up, which is when a grenade came and exploded close to us, killing my father, the farm owner’s son, and severely injuring me and the farm owner.” (p.14)
“I was in front of [my grandmother’s] house, playing with some other boys when the helicopter came. I was shot from the helicopter, other boys were too. Six or seven of us were hit by bullets from the helicopter.”
“When my two sisters, 8 and 10 years old, were running away from the house, having seen the military come, they were killed. They were not shot dead, but slaughtered with knives.”
The report is equally blunt about the possibility that the statistics derived from these testimonies are just the tip of the iceberg. They emphasise not just that they are only reporting what they have testimony to support, but also that the sexual nature of the crimes means many victims are too traumatised or ashamed to speak of what has happened to them.
In terms of perpetrators, the report is clear that they include members of the Myanmar armed forces, border guards and police, along with ‘irregular’ units of armed locals, sometimes wearing borrowed uniforms. As is depressingly standard in such cases, witnesses knew some of these to be civilians because they were their neighbours.
The response from Aung San Suu Kyi, the former dissident, Nobel laureate and human rights activist who now de facto leads the civilian administration, has been disappointing, to say the least. In a conversation with Turkish President Erdogan, she blamed “fake news” and in a press conference she claimed the government was still trying to decide “how to differentiate terrorists from innocents.” A place to start might be asking them their age.
The UN report stops short of terming the persecution genocide, though it makes clear that the events constitute “[what] has been described in other contexts as ethnic cleansing.” (p. 42)
Definitions are both problematic and essential. For us to respond, we must name what is happening, thus fully bringing it into reality. By naming a crime, we identify it and can prosecute it. Genocide and ethnic cleansing, because they are definitions devised partly in order to suspend the normal rules of sovereignty, are likely to be applied too late: we only know for sure with the dreadful clarity of hindsight. Though one should always remember the macabre evasions of the Clinton White House during the Rwandan Genocide of 2004. A particular exchange between Press Secretary Christine Shelley and reporter Alan Elsner has acquired almost iconic status (some readers may recognise the dialogue from an episode of The West Wing). There is video of the exchange on YouTube.
In fact, a State Department document very clearly stated “Be careful … Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually ‘do something.'” As we know now, the cost of the ‘formulations’ was between 500,000 and 1,000,000 deaths in just under three months: a rate of killing which outstripped that of the Nazi death camps. At that rate of slaughter, all of the 2,000,000 Rohingya could be dead in six months. In Rwanda, the bodies of men, women and children clogged rivers as the world debated definitions. As a survivor who spoke to the playwright J.T. Rogers for his play The Overwhelming prophesied, the cycle of violence has not stopped: “Now it is two hundred percent safe here. But until when, I don’t know. Rwanda is like a fire underground: the killings will come again.”
There are always (frequently craven) reasons not to intervene. There are always (weak) arguments for waiting. There is no defence, however, for saying nothing. The preoccupation of British politics with the EU withdrawal process is crowding out any other discussion. This must stop. Sign the petition. Demand action. When the petitions committee reconvenes this month to start a new session, I’m going to start a parliamentary petition (if an NGO doesn’t get there first) to demand that our elected representatives are at least forced to consider what they refuse to act upon. For now, there is a change.org petition gathering signatures and a letter from the All-Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma. We know more than enough, about both genocide in general and this crisis in particular, to expect more than the silence the Prime Minister has so far responded with.
I want to finish with some words from the Nobel Lecture by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012. Remember her acceptance of the prize in 1991 was made by her son: her lecture was made possible by the pressure from governments and thousands of individuals to free her from house arrest:
“To be forgotten. The French say that to part is to die a little. To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity. When I met Burmese migrant workers and refugees during my recent visit to Thailand, many cried out: “Don’t forget us!” They meant: “don’t forget our plight, don’t forget to do what you can to help us, don’t forget we also belong to your world.” When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me they were recognizing that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognizing the oneness of humanity. So for me receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.”
A door in the heart should not wait for definitions to be confirmed before opening once again. Words will never be enough. But they may be a start.
Postscript: like many of us, I’m guilty at times of the delusion that things only happen when I’m looking. A friend of mine, a passionate advocate of and activist for peace, wrote this and I thought it should be attached to this piece: a reminder that terrible things are happening all the time and that the work of trying to stop them is constant.