Genocide and mass murder stem from a complex set of circumstances that collectively legitimizes violence against a specific group. But these circumstances still need to be quite extraordinary. Despite the claims of ethnic or religious ideologues, intergroup harmony has in fact been the norm for most of human history. Yes, group differences on the grounds of ethnicity or religious belief can, and often do, lead to tensions between communities. If sufficiently serious and if no external authority intervenes, these tensions can spill over into localized acts of violence. But even when such local acts of violence flare up, they rarely produce something that could be defined as genocide.
The role of local and national political leaders in Myanmar in stoking anti-Rohingya sentiment is equally important to the situation there. Historically, the Rohingya – who account for an estimated 1 million to 1.3 million people of the total population of 53 million or more – became a target group as a convenient “enemy within” for a succession of leaders of the military junta, which governed the country for most of its history. In World War II, Japan invaded the area. The Rohingya remained loyal to their British colonial overlords, while many Burmese nationalists — many of whom would go on to form the Burmese military after the country gained independence — sided with the Japanese in their struggle for national emancipation. After the war in 1947, but before Burma gained independence in 1948, many of the Rohingya who had fought for the British in the war formed a separate army and sought to incorporate the state of Arakan into the newly independent East Pakistan to the north. This painted them as traitors to the Burmese state in the eyes of the military for many decades afterward.
But this was also very convenient for the military establishment. The perceived constant threat from enemies within, such as the Rohingya but also many other more belligerent border tribes, as well as from enemies without, where every powerful country in the world is actively feared, has sustained the oppressive and otherwise not very popular military administration in power since 1948 for most of Burma’s history.
Of all the “enemies” of the Burmese state, the Rohingya are perhaps the most unlucky because they are the most visible minority: They are the largest Muslim community in a country that is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but they also have darker skins than any other ethnic group in the country. These factors contributed a lot toward the way in which the paranoid narrative that the military pushed caught on with the rest of the population. Slowly, the fear of existential threats crystalized around the Rohingya as the ultimate enemies in the minds of significant portions of Burmese society. Today, many consider the Rohingya to be some kind of vanguard of an international Islamist conspiracy to convert everyone to Islam and destroy Myanmar’s Buddhist heritage. The Rohingya have attracted all this fear and loathing even though they have been one of the least violent and troublesome of the country’s minority ethnic groups since 1948. Many other border tribes, such as the Shan, have been in almost constant rebellion since 1948 and would certainly constitute more plausible threats. Yet because of their faith and race, the Rohingya elicit much more fear and distrust in the popular imagination.
The word “Rohingya” wields power because it carries the torch of historical truth that dissolves the impossibly contrived case for ethnic cleansing, linking the Rohingya with the British Raj. This is why those who would carry out ethnic cleansing in Myanmar fear it.
But the most important reason for giving no ground to the extremists’ revisionist history is that the word “Rohingya” is historically documented in the region prior to the British Raj. Muslims have lived in the region from the 7th century, alongside Hindus and Buddhists, according to an assessment by U.K. Min. Before 1824, the British referred to the region as Rohang and those who lived there as Rohingyas. Later reports from the 19th century, including the 1852 Account of the Burman Empire, Compiled from the Works of Colonel Symes, Major Canning, Captain Cox, Dr. Leyden, Dr. Buchanan, Calcutta, D’Rozario and Co, refer to how the local Muslims called themselves “Rovingaw” or “Rooinga.” Likewise, a 1799 study of languages spoken in the Burmese area divides the natives of Arakan state between Yakain and Rooinga.
The Classical Journal of 1811 has a comparative list of numbers in many East and Central Asian languages, identifying three spoken in the “Burmah Empire,” and distinguishes between the Rohingya and the Rakhine as the main ethnic groups in the region. Likewise, Rooinga is structurally different to Bengali. A German compendium of languages of the wider region once again mentions the existence of the Rohingya as an ethnic group and separate language in 1815.
This is the history that the ethnic cleansers and their apologists are trying to obscure. They claim that the “Bengalis” invented the term “Rohingya” to hide an illegitimate Bengali background. And this is why the term “Rohingya” posits a threat for them. The word is in the history books – the same books showing that the area has been multi-ethnic and multi-confessional for well over a millennium.
But today politicians and military leaders from the central government no longer drive the narrative of fear and hatred toward the Rohingya. Rather, it is driven primarily by local politicians in Rakhine state (previously known as Arakan) from the Rakhine ethnic group, as well as by a strong contingent of local Buddhist monks, especially those associated with the 969 Movement, who seem intent on removing the Rohingya from the land of their birth both on ethnic and religious grounds. Yet the political leaders of the central government continue to be at least passively complicit with these efforts, largely on the assumption that attacks on the Rohingya are by now quite popular with the people of Myanmar.
Producing the conditions for genocide requires a cultural shift to slowly legitimize and normalize the framework used to justify systematic discrimination, and eventually systematic murder, on the basis of identity, while the perpetrators test the limits of what the wider population deems acceptable at regular intervals. Thus genocide never emerges from an individual outburst of rage and violence. It requires long-term development of cultural and institutional conditions to organize and sustain violence on a large scale. Furthermore, it takes very special conditions for the wider population to stomach that level of violence and not rise up against the perpetrators. This is why genocide is rare, because in most situations, these necessary conditions cannot be met. People may have periodic tensions and conflicts with their neighbors, but almost always simply revert back to living with them with the usual degree of give and take. These interactions inevitably deconstruct the ideological myths about the “other,” as normal human empathy takes its course and builds bridges across chasms of mistrust.
Unfortunately in Myanmar, all these cultural conditions are already in place. The chasms of hatred and mistrust between communities are wider than ever, with local politicians and extremist monks pushing them even wider. United to End Genocide observed in a 2014 report, Marching to Genocide in Burma, that Myanmar fits almost all the preconditions for genocide, more than any other place on earth. The situation has since gotten worse, as 2015’s migration crisis amply demonstrated.
There is very little in the internal political dynamics of Myanmar to give us hope that the situation could get better any time soon. In fact, if there is a direction of travel, it is farther down the road toward genocide. But international opinion does not acknowledge this. Partly, this stems from a basic ignorance of the situation of the Rohingya, and also of its underlying historical causes. And partly, this stems from the recent parliamentary election success of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2008, after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and an internal political crisis, the military establishment was forced to change the constitution and start moving toward a democratic system. Although progress has been painfully slow, the main opposition to the military establishment for almost three decades has finally managed to win a quasi-democratic election for parliament in 2015 and form a majority government.
This may prompt us to assume that things will get better, that a democratic government in Myanmar must be like Western governments, and thus could not possibly allow the dire oppression of the Rohingya to continue unabated, and that Suu Kyi would certainly stand up and protect these people as the effective leader of the new civilian government. This is what Western political leaders seem intent on believing. Unfortunately, this is just wishful thinking.
First, there is the issue of Suu Kyi herself. She is keenly aware that much of her political capital comes from the very good international press she has received over the years. But on the issue of the Rohingya, she has long been evasive. Whenever international journalists have pressed her on the issue, she has given boilerplate responses and platitudes about the need to look after the rights and interests of all minorities in Myanmar. For example, in an interview with The Washington Post in June, she said: “The protection of rights of minorities is an issue which should be addressed very, very carefully and as quickly and effectively as possible, and I’m not sure the government is doing enough about it.” But elsewhere, and especially when talking to a home audience, she conforms with the narrative imposed by extremists: She would not even speak the word “Rohingya,” and instead refers to them as “Bengalis,” thus acquiescing to Buddhist nationalist propaganda that the Rohingya are not an indigenous people, but rather illegitimate immigrants who should be deported to Bangladesh, or any Muslim country that would have them.
Secondly, there is the issue that Rakhine state politics are different from national politics. In part there is a greater degree of direct military rule. But also, the effective political opposition to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is not the NLD but an extremist regional party, which changed its name multiple times, from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) to the Rakhine National Party (RNP), and finally now to the Arakan National Party (ANP). This regional party, in all its incarnations, was heavily implicated in the 2012 and 2013 massacres of the Rohingya and has regularly called for their expulsion. According to its political platform, it aims to “represent the interests of Rakhine people in Rakhine (Arakan) state and the Yangon region.” In other words, it is a self-declared ethnocentric, xenophobic and racist party. And it hates the Rohingya with a burning passion — for having a different skin color, and most of all, for having a different religion (Islam). Throughout 2012, party leader Dr. U Aye Maung prominently called for the segregation and then expulsion of the Rohingya, just as the first waves of mass violence enveloped Rakhine state. His party demanded that “Bengalis must be segregated and settled in separate, temporary places so that the Rakhines and Bengalis are not able to mix together in villages and towns in Rakhine state.” He subsequently argued for the arming of the Rakhine community so they can protect themselves from the supposed threat posed by the Rohingya. The ANP now controls 22 of 47 seats in the local legislative chamber of Rakhine state, and it is by far the largest party. There are 12 military appointees, and the third-largest party is the NLD with nine seats.
Lastly, Suu Kyi is politically allied with many leaders of the ANP and the 969 Movement who instigate and lead the attacks on the Rohingya. The democratic opposition movement in the late 1980s that gave birth to the NLD started out as an alliance of monks and students opposed to the excesses of the military regime. Many of those monks are the same Buddhist nationalist hardliners who are driving the animosity toward the Rohingya today. As long as the military considers the Rohingya a convenient “enemy within” and uses them as scapegoats for many of the country’s problems to shore up its own power base, it won’t have an interest in permanently removing the Rohingya from Myanmar. The Rohingya can only serve the enemy image purpose while they are still around and a plausible threat. But this restraint does not apply to the extremist elements of the pro-democracy movement. They are not using the Rohingya as a convenient enemy to rally support. They simply hate the Rohingya with a burning passion and want to see them completely removed from Myanmar. In this, the monks coordinate well with the extremist Rakhine ethnic elements, who, as nominally opposed to the military regime, also come under Suu Kyi’s wider political alliance.
When all these factors are taken into account, we see that the recent election success of the NLD does not in fact bode well at all for the Rohingya. In light of the internal political dynamics, the power shifts in the wake of the recent elections may in fact have removed the last few constraints on those who would seek to get rid of the Rohingya for good.
In situations such as this, international intervention is crucial. There are important lessons that need to be learned from history. The most important is that when the internal political constraints to mass killing have all but gone, the opinion of the international community may be the only thing that can keep the situation in check. But when the international community chooses to ignore the warning signs, genocide becomes almost inevitable.
The situation in Myanmar at the moment is showing some depressing parallels to Rwanda. No international power looks like it would be willing to intervene militarily in the country. The U.S. and other Western nations are already worn out by wars and have repeatedly looked for any excuse to avoid intervention, even in situations they had previously committed to (such as U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2014 “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian conflict). China has a history of keeping its relations with other countries confined to economic cooperation. India is taking a similarly hands-off approach, especially since the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi has a similarly xenophobic attitude toward Muslims. And no neighboring Muslim country has the capacity or the will to intervene in Myanmar.
Obama and former British Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issue of the Rohingya, with Obama even mentioning it in a speech during his visit to Myanmar in 2014. Once. We have instead chosen to be very warm and congratulatory toward the political classes of Myanmar, to encourage their slow transition toward democracy, and especially their reintegration into the world economy. The country’s move to open itself economically will be worth billions to Western investors. But this deliberately unbalanced feedback may well turn out to have very grave consequences. Just as the Hutus kept escalating their level of violence against the Tutsis and found that they would meet with very little international censure, Rakhine and Buddhist extremists are finding that their own aggression toward the Rohingya has virtually no adverse consequences for Myanmar, and that even their celebrated Nobel laureate leader is studiously refusing to get dragged into the issue.
But the point stands. The wider international community is often the only obstacle to genocide in situations where a group of people is as feared and hated as the Rohingya are in Myanmar. Even authoritarian and insular states need to maintain at least some good relations with their neighbors and international powers. The freshly “democratic” and more economically open Myanmar needs these good relations perhaps more than at any time in its independent history if it is to emerge from the economic malaise that has plagued it for the past two decades and that has undermined the military elite’s grasp on power. The current transition may well be necessary for the continued existence of Myanmar as it is today. Even the military leadership seems to be sensing this. This potentially gives the international community considerable leverage to intervene on behalf of the Rohingya and prevent Myanmar from becoming another Rwanda. But we absolutely must be prepared to use that leverage. And the time is now — while there are still people left to save.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow at Mansfield College at the University of Oxford and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst Publishers & Oxford University Press).