In Myanmar, a Genocide by Any Other Name

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.

Article One, Genocide Convention of 1948

Once upon a time here in Dhaka, Bangladesh, this teeming city on the Buriganga River, the bells of the Holy Resurrection Church echoed for miles. Armenians built their house of Orthodox Christian worship amid the palm groves in 1781, almost two centuries after Persian Shah Abbas the Great conquered eastern Armenia and thousands of them migrated to Bengal. They and their progeny prospered as traders in jute, silk and leather. In 1880, the church clock stopped ticking, perhaps because of rust from the tropical damp, and the bells rang no more. Despite that ill omen, the Armenians of Dhaka were among the lucky few of their compatriots spared the Ottoman Turks’ genocide during World War I.

Yet genocide is no stranger to Bangladesh, known from 1947 to 1971 as East Pakistan. More than a million Bangladeshis died during the India-Pakistan War of 1971, when West Pakistani soldiers raped tens of thousands of Bangladeshi women and sent millions of refugees fleeing to India for safety. After Pakistan conceded Bangladesh’s independence, the Bangladeshis themselves proved susceptible to the genocidal urge, slaughtering Muslim Biharis and Buddhist Chakmas.

Now, nearly 50 years later, genocide haunts the country again. This time, the Bangladeshis are neither victims nor perpetrators. They are witnesses who have provided haven to more than 620,000 survivors of the mass executions, expulsions and rapes that Myanmar’s army and Buddhist paramilitaries have committed since last August. What baffles people here in Dhaka is that the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and other preachers of international morality refrain from labeling the killings and expulsions as genocide. Important visitors to Myanmar, including Pope Francis just this week, shy away from so much as referring to the victims by the name they use to describe themselves — Rohingyas — lest they upset the country’s military and jeopardize its fragile transition to democracy. The Burmese ruling class denies the Rohingyas’ existence as a people.

A History of Persecution

On this side of the border, no one doubts that genocide is underway against the Muslim Rohingya people, who have lived in what is now called Rakhine state for centuries. Thousands of Rohingyas have told their stories to journalists and aid workers, consistent tales of butchery from all corners of their homeland. Women speak of men taken away to be executed, of themselves gang raped by soldiers and of their houses burned. Journalists and the United Nations want to ask the Rohingyas still in Rakhine what is happening there, but the Myanmar government won’t let them.

Persecution of the Rohingya people goes back at least to 1948, when Myanmar, then called Burma, achieved independence from Britain. After interviewing Rohingya refugees from a previous military purge in 2009, John Carlin wrote in the United Kingdom’s Independent newspaper:

“They are discriminated against because they are Muslims in a Buddhist country; because they tend to have darker skin than most Burmese (a senior Burmese diplomat described them recently as ‘dark brown’ and ‘ugly as ogres’), and because of a complex history of resistance to central control (they sided with the British in the Second World War instead of the Japanese, whom the majority of Burmese favoured). They find themselves stateless slaves in the country where they were born. They cannot move from one village to another without permission from the local military authorities; they cannot marry or have children without permission; they are helpless to resist as their land is confiscated bit by bit and given to Buddhist settlers brought in from the cities; they are forced to work the land that has been stolen from them, without pay; they are forced to do all the menial labour that the military might require, from building roads to cutting grass; and they are not allowed to worship freely.”

Since then, a few Rohingyas have launched an insurgency that has provided the Myanmar military with justification for the ethnic cleansing of all Rohingyas. The massacres, torture and other crimes against humanity go far beyond any known form of counterinsurgency. By any standard, the campaign constitutes genocide. Yet the so-called international community avoids uttering the g-word, knowing the Genocide Convention of 1948 requires international action “to prevent and to punish.”

Dancing Around the Problem

Modern precedents for inaction don’t reflect well on humanity. No one prevented or punished Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians. The Allies executed and imprisoned Nazis for the genocide of Jews and Roma, but they failed to prevent it. The United Nations had the opportunity to impede the Hutu genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, but it looked the other way. When the dead were buried, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan, who as head of U.N. peacekeeping operations shelved pleas from U.N. soldiers on the ground to do something, delivered half-hearted apologies to the survivors.

Now, as Myanmar’s security forces and Buddhist fanatics pillage, kill and dispossess the Rohingya people, the world feigns sympathy while doing exactly nothing. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has gone so far as to accuse Myanmar of “ethnic cleansing,” but the term has no legal meaning and requires no international action.

A Familiar Pattern

The pathology of genocide is universal: dehumanize, slaughter and expel. There are always excuses. The Armenians are a fifth column. The Jews are not Aryans. American Indians impede westward progress. The Hutus even argued the Tutsis’ facial features proved their inferiority. Then there’s always the claim that people who have lived in a place for generations belong somewhere else. A Buddhist monk in Myanmar told the BBC that “there are many Muslim countries. They should go there.” Sound familiar? Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said the same thing to me about Bosnia’s Muslims in 1992, as have Israeli settlers referring to indigenous Palestinian Arabs in the occupied West Bank.

In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon excused his support for Pakistan’s crimes in Bangladesh with the aside that Americans did not care about “just a bunch of … Moslems.” Eight years later, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger accelerated armaments deliveries to the Indonesian army as it killed one-third of the population of East Timor. The United Nations and United States enforced a weapons embargo in the early 1990s against Bosnia’s mainly Muslim government, while better-armed Serbs and Croats killed Muslims en masse. The United Nations refused to countenance the term “genocide” in Rwanda in 1994, while Hutus massacred 850,000 Tutsis over the course of a month. Genocide denial became a cause for shame, yet it is the paradigm for Myanmar. Let it happen and, when it’s over, we’ll say we’re sorry.

Rohingyas in Myanmar are cowering in fear. The hundreds of thousands clinging to the riverbanks in Bangladesh survive in misery, the poorest among them losing their children to sex traffickers and forced labor contractors. Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, spent days with Rohingya refugees in their hovels along the border. When he returned to Dhaka, he told me, “In the camps, everyone said he’d go back if they were given full citizenship and their rights.” I asked whether that was likely, and he looked downcast as he answered, “Not at all.”

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