Updated: Dec 1, 2020
By Seamus Bozeman
Image via UNHCR
The Rohingya, a people that continue to be forced from their homeland. As a one time Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues to commit ethnic cleansing, and acts of Genocide in one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II. The Rohingya's persecution silenced by censorship, the strict rules on freedom of the press, and Myanmar’s authoritarian regime, was hidden by a flailing attempt at Democracy which has slowly turned back into the dictatorship it once was. A lot of this turmoil and change between democracy and dictatorships can be directly linked to being rapidly decolonized by the British in 1947. In the years that followed, Myanmar split into a plethora of different ethnic sects, with 135 different groups vying for control in different domestic conflicts and skirmishes.
The Buddhists were the first to take control in a short-lived democracy, which was despised by the communist factions and other hardline religious opposition parties, contributing to the scattered collection of religious groups throughout Myanmar. Following the short democratic rule, a military coup in 1962 led to military control of the country, which has continued until the present day, as they still have some seats in Parliament, despite the landslide victory by the NLD (National League for Democracy). The NLD started in 1988 but was quickly dissolved, and Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest until elections took place in 2010. Her peace prize was awarded after her peaceful resistance to military rule in the nation but she now has lost her “human rights defender halo” as she has failed to properly deal with any of the human rights issues which has effectively tarnished her record as a beacon of democracy in a country that has been under military control for over sixty years.
“I think it is a very complicated issue that has been there for centuries, as well as the violence all across Myanmar”, said Zaw Tu Hkawng, a young man from Myanmar who I interviewed about his experiences and views on the crisis. Since 1948, there have been over a dozen separate “armed operations” directly targeting the Rohingya, specifically conducted by the Burmese army. More recently, the military has become even more brazen following purposeful exclusion from census counts and voting in November 2015, and the recent 2020 elections on November 8th, which has left the Rohingya stateless, and the Rakhine state, a pseudo-state of Myanmar. Polling stations were also shut down by the election commission in much of the country due to widespread conflict, likely disenfranchising over one million voters, and most of those areas were known to vote against the NLD in favor of independent candidates.
The many thousands of Rohingya who have fled the terrible acts of the regime of Win Myint, and the continuation of these actions by the shared power structure brokered by both the military regime and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have had grave human rights abuses strategically waged against them for over 70 years. This includes those who have fled the Rahkine state on the western border with Bangladesh, where the Rohingya have called home for centuries. Forcing the Rohingya from their homes has become even more brutal over the last few years as the government has tightened their grip on power with the use of not just military force, but the “Tatmadaw’s” sexual abuses of women and children, burning of villages, indiscriminate displacement, inhumane tortures, and bulldozing of villages to destroy any evidence of ethnic cleansing or genocide.
The Rohingya have been living in the Rakhine state and have been seen as a threat to the Burmese Buddhists and their opposing systems of beliefs, which has been a ‘flashpoint’ for conflict within the country. The religious and ethnic clashes in Myanmar and other parts of the world support the idea that religion is the root of instability in the world, and is a major contributor to causes of wars. While I believe this may indeed be the case, there is much to be said for the importance of respect for a people’s culture, upholding the rights of every single human being, and defending cultural heritage.
The actions by the government of Myanmar should be considered ethnic cleansing based on the fact that it is against one specific minority. But this idea was contradicted by Zaw saying “.... if you belong to any minority group you are being discriminated against every day.” He went on to say that “the number of displaced people is growing day by day,'' with the situation for these people getting progressively worse, as the government of Myanmar continues to commit these crimes against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. They are being forced into an area where many ethnic minority groups and the Rohingya seek political asylum in the “no man’s land” sandwiched between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar, a city that is now a makeshift camp for over 900,000 who have faced or feared persecution back home. In the camps they face inhumane treatment, little sanitation, extremely limited access to fresh water, low job and educational opportunities, and require the help of outside organizations to maintain a steady food supply and healthcare. All of which is certainly worsened, and challenged by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Even away from home, they have faced persecution and challenges to seeking asylum due to the fact that “....the Rohingya and the vast majority of us have really been impacted by 9/11, and Muslims have been seen in a bad light,” according to what Zaw has experienced. He also mentioned that Muslims are aware that they are “disliked” by many and seen as terrorists who could cause harm. However, the Rohingya should not be considered this way as they are attempting to live their lives peacefully. Instead, they are facing murder, rape, displacement, burning of their villages, and separation of families along with countless other abuses. India and Bangladesh who border Myanmar have opposed their entrance and blocked any aid to the Rohingya, citing the dangers this group poses risks to their national security. Protests early on in 2018 against the Rohingya were held by ultra-nationalist Hindu’s and Buddhists.
The international community has left the situation to continually deteriorate and has taken little action to condemn the heinous human rights abuses and crimes against humanity committed by Aung San Suu Kyi, and her military. But options that don’t incite more violence are limited and they rest on the ability of Myanmar to allow international oversight through peacekeeping forces and international observers. If the government fails to allow actions of peace, sanctions on high-level figures within the government of Burma could avoid the devastating effects of widespread sanctions which could hurt the people of an already struggling nation. But most of the actions that can be taken by the world to strike down and condemn the actions of Myanmar are being limited. Countries like Russia, and China are preventing certain United Nations General Assembly resolutions that could increase the economic and political pressure to prevent the mass executions and unjust use of force against the Rohingya. As seen by the actions from China, there has been a precedent set where governments indisputably put their political and economic wellbeing over the welfare of the people.
The International Court of Justice in December of 2019 when I first released this story heard a case against Myanmar presented by the Gambia, under charges of “Genocide under article Ⅱ of the Geneva convention of 1948” in which it states “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” and is punishable under article Ⅲ as an act of genocide.
The Burmese government calls these abuses a “legitimate act of counter-terrorism,” which is considered a “strong” defense of their abominable human rights abuses. It is especially heinous for someone like Aung San Suu Kyi who has committed these terrible atrocities in power while claiming to support democracy and be a laureate of a Nobel Peace Prize. She should have been acting as a leader of a movement that once virtually changed a country from being under the rule of a brutal dictatorship to a women-led democracy. Even though some still call it a democratic state, Zaw described it as “terrible” and still considers it a “military government,” that the state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi is willing to “stand and defend” in International Court.
There is an increased need for change in this ethnically divided nation but that’s not to say, like most media has reported that these humanitarian crimes have been supported by the majority of Buddhists, in fact, it is just a few radical, anti-democratic, extremist Buddhists. According to Zaw, “all the ethnic groups are strongly against the government and their actions.” But 2020 was a totally different picture, as the supposed democratic party won in a landslide, and support for the government seemed strong despite the evidence of mass neglect for over the one million who couldn't vote.
It is heart-wrenching to watch day in and day out as the world continues to be complicit and inactive in the crisis, leaving people to suffer, die, and get brutally murdered by what is supposed to be a government that supports them. But unfortunately, wherever you look, a government is systematically harming groups, stealing native lands, harming people for their religious and ethnic beliefs, along with their nationality that is different than their own.
Written by writer Seamus Bozeman