Today’s be just that – a genocide. Numerous of

Today’s crisis in
Myanmar is one of lots of conflicts happening around the globe, however – one
of the most dramatic ones. Thousands of refugees crossing the Bangladesh border
every day tell stories full of horrifying details, and stay in refugee camps facing
danger of diseases and starvation with just one desire – never come back to
Myanmar, where their husbands and wives, sons and daughter, brothers and
sisters were raped and murdered. Satellite images of the territory of exodus
show smoke and ashes in the place of villages. And Myanmar government
officials, asked by NGO’s and members of international community about the
events, deny any possible human rights violations approved by the state,
blaming “Bengali terrorists” spreading fear and forcing Muslim people of Burma
to leave their homes. What is really going on there? Who is responsible for
emergence and escalation of the crisis, who are the main victims and more
importantly, what can be done to help people in distress? The aim of this paper
is, through studying and analysing different perspectives on the crisis,
represent the situation not just as an ethnicity being repressed by
authoritarian government, but as a complex ethnical, religious and political
conflict, in which both sides are responsible to some extend for the escalation
of violence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table
of contents:

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1)    Introduction

2)    Background
information

3)    Main
elements of repressions

4)    Waves
of violence, fear and danger of intervention

5)    Refugees
and genocide debate

6)    Contradictions
and flaws of the reports

7)    View
on the conflict – insurgent groups

8)    Conclusions

9)    Bibliography

 

 

Introduction

Humanitarian
crises are terrible. In history books, we can read about great sufferings
people had to go through against their will. Natural catastrophes are
devastating, but when the responsibility for the disaster lies on other people,
it is even worse. And the most terrifying example of such human-caused crisis
is genocide. No matter when and where it happened – in Poland, Ukraine, Rwanda
– reports and details of these events fill our hearts with grief and fear. And today’s
crisis in Myanmar is argued to be just that – a genocide. Numerous of
international organisations and experts cannot qualify this situation any
differently. However, the official position of the government is that there are
no violations of human rights committed on the territory of their state, and
all reports are being enormously exaggerated. The massive exodus of Muslim
people to the neighbouring states – Bangladesh, mostly – is being explained as
caused by fear spread by “Bengali terrorists”. Moreover, the UN refuses to
characterise the state of affairs a genocide. The situation requires immediate
action, though no real measures have been taken by the members of international
community, and members of NGO’s, trying to help people in distress are being
humiliated, extradited and attacked. So what is really going on there? Who is
causing all the trouble and provoking the violence? To what extent can this
situation can be considered a genocide and who is responsible for it? This
paper is intended to analyse different perspectives, represented in NGO’s
reports, official claims of Myanmar government, reports of UN and EU
commissions and interviews with locals. By doing that, it might be possible to
put together most of the facts and present to the reader the picture of this
complex situation – and, hopefully, the best course of action to take will be
clearer then.

History
and background

Myanmar used to be
a British colony and gained independence in 1948. First, after the Brits left,
the democratic regime was established. But it did not last long – the
government was overthrown in 1962 by a military led by general Ne Win. That
year marked the beginning of a long and difficult period in the history on
Burma – the period of military dictatorship. While the junta was earning money
by exploiting country’s natural resources and enjoying unlimited power, people
were being oppressed, and economic conditions were extremely tough, poverty
level rose significantly, and the relationships between communities within the
regions worsened. (FortifyRights) The situation reached its climax in 1988,
resulting in so called “8888 Uprising”. Massive protests, spread all over the
country and supported by the majority of the population, although resulted in
bloodbath, eventually brought its fruits – the military government performed a
set of reforms, transferring from the Constitution of 1974 to the new martial
law, and forming the new government under the name of State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC) (Zarni and Cowley). The key event after the new
course taken by the government can be considered the elections of May 1990. The
results did not bring any difference; however, it can be considered a first
step towards democratization of Burma. The National League for Democracy (NLD)
won a vast majority of the votes, although the leaders of the party were kept
under arrest. (Fortify Rights) Since the replacement of the SLORC government
for State Peace and Development Council in 1997, the military government
started slowly giving up some of its functions to the majority opposition
party, even though its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi had to go through several times
of being under house arrest. Despite its ongoing process of democratization,
Myanmar had to go through several insurgencies and civil protests, caused by
the oppressive character of the implementation of governmental policies and
harsh economic state of affairs.

The population of
Myanmar historically consists of more than 150 ethnic groups, spread around the
regions and sometimes having very different cultural traditions. (Zarni,
Cowley) Most of the population are Buddhists, but there is also a significant
number (around 2 million) of Sunni Muslims, calling themselves “Rohingya”,
living in the province of Rakhine, or Arakan, in their terminology, situated on
the Western coast of Burma. Other diasporas of Rohingya Muslims can be found in
Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and several other
countries, raising the total population number to as many as 8 million people.  Since the country’s independence in 1948, the
Rohingya became the most repressed ethnic group in Myanmar and one of the most
repressed ethnic groups in the world (Lindblom)

Main
elements of repressions

Most of the
reports concerning the situation start with the history and the background
information on the Rohingya, and then elaborate the policies and measures taken
by the government to exclude the Rohingya from the social and political life of
the state. One of the most important policies, passed back in 1948 the Union
Citizenship act defined Myanmar citizenship and identified specific
ethnicities – the “indigenous races of Burma”—that were allowed to gain
citizenship. The Rohingya were not included in the list. (FortifyRights) Even
though initially gaining the full citizenship for Rohingya was hard, but
possible, after 1982 the possibility was almost lost for good. This caused lots
of difficulties – from inability to own property and address the court, denial
of provision of healthcare and education. (FortifyRights, Green et al.) Other
measures include, for example, the law passed in 1990’s, requiring Muslims of
the Rakhine state to obtain marriage licenses. These licenses were given under
strict conditions, many of which contradicted to traditional local beliefs,
making it impossible for the couples to obtain these licenses. In the view of
this law, local police forces could persecute the couples who were living together
without such licences, either not being married or married according to local
traditions. (FortifyRights) The regulations passed by the local authorities in
1993 and 2005 were made to regulate birth control, restricting population
increase for Muslims. (FortifyRights). The members of the police and local
authorities also consistently made Rohingya men and boys perform physical
labour, or made them guard the villages at night, despite their occupation and
health conditions. (FortifyRights) Some reports claim that Burmese government
since 2000’s started forming detention camps and “prison villages”, forcing
hundreds of thousands of people to move there, with their lives at these
locations being even harder than before, denying them both their citizenship
and human rights. (Green et al.) In all the above-mentioned cases, which do not
represent the full list of governmentally approved measures to contain and
oppress the Rohingya, any sign of resistance was immediately and severely
punished, sometimes putting the whole village or the local community under the
threat of redemption. (Green et al.)

Waves
of violence, fear and danger of intervention

Totalitarian rule of military
junta, worsening economic situation and systematic repressions against certain
ethnic groups couldn’t last forever without provoking any kind of response:
apart from 8888 Uprising, the biggest resistance so far in the history of
Myanmar, there have been numerous cases of insurgencies and “waves of
violence”. These unrests, originally provoked by the government and dating back
to as far as 1970’s, represented the most brutal measures taken to repress the
Rohingya – physical elimination. (Zarni, Cowley) While the first act of
violence looked like forced migration of the Muslims towards Bangladesh with
the government holding back the provisions, (Zarni, Cowley) with time members
of local Buddhist communities became involved, as in case of 2012 violence. The
origin of the unrest is connected to several Muslims raping and murdering a
Buddhist woman in one of the villages of Rakhine, and thus causing a wave of
hatred and violence among the Buddhists. (Green et al.) The clashes between the
Buddhist and the Muslim communities were claimed by some researchers to be
supported and sponsored by the government (FortifyRights), though there is
little reliable factual evidence. However, the clashes continued, provoked,
sometimes unwillingly, by both Rohingya insurgents, as has been seen in August
this year, and the Buddhists. (FortifyRights) Speaking about provocations among
the Buddhists, it seems necessary to include the role Buddhist monks play in
the propaganda of hatred against the Muslims. There are several unions of the
monks, such as 969 union, for example, actively supported by the government,
which continuously argue for dehumanisation of the Rohingya, claiming that it
is necessary to completely obliterate them. They are described as “beasts”,
that look for any advantage to gain power, rape and murder Buddhist women, and
wipe out the Buddhist community. (FortifyRights) Moreover, to add to the
complexity of situation, as the members of the international community,
especially representatives of NGO’s, try to provide humanitarian aid to
Rohingya communities and argue for their human rights, they are being seen as
enemies, and the organisations being controlled by Muslims, who are trying to
end stability within Rakhine state. The level of hatred and intrust within the
Rakhine community towards everything connected to the Rohingya is so high, that
there have been several reports of the attack attempts on the members of NGO’s,
performed by Rakhine nationalists. (Green et al.) These attitudes within
regular members of the Buddhist community can be connected with very high
degree of authority that Buddhist monks have on the society, and thus having an
opportunity to seed the ideas of hatred within the villagers. Moreover,
Rohingya culture is somehow similar to the traditions of Bangladesh, and it
adds up to the image of Rohingya as being “illegal Bengali immigrants”. (Green
et al.)

Refugees
and genocide debate

Members of the
Rohingya community, facing threats, violence and heavy oppression, bound to
inevitably face a choice – accept the fate of being wiped out, join the
insurgencies, or flee the country. As for Rohingya it is impossible to address
any courts within the state to demand citizenship, and most of the people are
not inclined to join the insurgent groups and spread violence, more and more
Rohingya every day become refugees, crossing borders of neighbouring states in
desperate attempt to find shelter. (MSF) And several NGO’s, such as the Red
Cross or MSF, are now accommodating almost half a million people in refugee
camps at the border region of Bangladesh. Living conditions in these camps are
severe, there have been documented cases of deaths from starvation and diseases
spread due to low sanity level. (MSF) Moreover, after the last wave of violence
occurred in August, facing the perspective of hundreds of thousands more
refugees coming to its border, Bangladesh is starting to deny the refugees to
its territory. (Lone, Marshall) In addition to that, Thailand has reportedly
been denying the refugees on its territory, making the coast guard push the
refugee boats away from its coast, or kidnapping the refugees and either
demanding bail or selling them as slaves to local fishermen. (McPherson) Medecins
Sans Frontieres in their report continuously indicate dangers which refugees
living in camps around Bangladesh are facing every day. Malnutrition, floods,
poor access to clean water and medicine – with periodic fails of financing or
humanitarian convoys being blocked, creating an extremely dangerous situation
for the people seeking help as refugees. (MSF).

Fortify Rights,
among others, has made a thorough legal analysis on possibility of application
of the law of genocide to the Rohingya people. Theirs arguments are based on
the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, that
states:

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. (Zarni,
Cowley)

 In their research, taking the law as a base,
they argue that the Rohingya people are being targeted as a group, facing
repetitive violence with intention of total extermination. (FortifyRights) In
their analysis, the conclusion is made that the Myanmar crisis can be called a
genocide, and an independent UNHCR-led commission is necessary for further
investigation and finding people accountable. (FortifyRights)

However, the
official position of the UN is far less radical – the closest definition to
“genocide”, applied officially, was “possibly ethnic cleansing”. Jonah Fisher
in her report for the BBC quotes several interviews UN officials, claiming that
due to the UN policy of long-term democratization and tensions easing, any
radical position towards the Myanmar situation is viewed as unacceptable and
can cause different disciplinary measures, such as enforced change of working
position. (Fisher) These facts can partly explain very indistinct position of
high UN officials.

The official
position of the Burmese government, announced at the UN Security Council,
states that there are no violations of human rights performed against the
people of Rohingya, and there are no specific policies and measures implemented
to repress and destroy Rohingya community as a whole, or any of its members.
(Zarni, Cowley; UNSC) According to Myanmar officials, mass exodus of the
Rohingya refugees to neighbouring countries is caused by “Burmese terrorists”
and fear spread by them (UNSC), consequently, all witnesses of atrocities
committed in Rakhine state are “heavily exaggerated”. (UNSC)

A number of
sources also indicates that the resolution of the UNSC was blocked by Russia
and China, presumably because of China’s economic interests in Myanmar.
(European Parliament Database) The statement, blocked by the Council, contained
demands to “release all political prisoners, begin widespread dialogue and end
its military attacks and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities”. (UN
News Centre) The opponents of the resolution claimed that Myanmar crisis is not
a threat to international peace and security, and therefore has to be handled
by other UN agencies. (UN News Centre)

Contradictions
and flaws of reports

As has been
previously indicated, there have been numerous reports made by different NGO’s
addressing the Rohingya problem. However, most of them concentrate on specific
aspects of the problem, failing to view the situation as a whole, and thereby
missing vital details. Such organisations as Medecins Sans Fontieres emphasize
their reports on the living conditions of the members of Rohingya community
within Myanmar, and the refugees outside of its borders. Their reports are
vital for understanding particular features of the crisis, but do not provide
any realistic recommendations. The reports made by Fortify Rights and Zarni and
Cowley, which have been used numerous times in this paper, concentrate their
efforts on providing thorough background information and carrying out legal
analysis concerning the law of genocide. These writings are particularly useful
due to the extensive character of their research, which helps to understand the
complexity of the situation. However, the importance of international community
is shown very vaguely, and there is little or no attention paid to internal
conflicts between members of Buddhist and Muslim communities within Rakhine
state, and hardly any mentioning of Rohingya insurgencies. Moreover, while most
of the reports are emphasizing the seriousness of the situation and critical
condition of the Rohingya community, the official report, carried out by Kofi
Annan Foundation, though taking into consideration all the repressive and
violent measures taken by the government against the Rohingya, fails to mention
anything about the possibility of genocide, and the recommendations, provided
by it, cannot be characterised as anything different but being weak and
insufficient. 

Insurgent
groups

Talking about the
crisis in the Rakhine state, it is extremely important to mention the
insurgencies, especially the Rohingya ones. Overall population of Muslims un
Myanmar estimates around 16% of total population, and is divided into 4
distinct communities, with very different relations with Burmese Buddhists.
(Selth) Historically speaking, Muslims had a significant amount of political
power during the colonial period, but their influence started rapidly
deteriorating after Myanmar independence in 1948, and especially after 1988.
Throughout the years state discriminatory policies were supported and even
expanded by locals, who viewed Muslims as aliens, a threat to their normal way
of life and future. (Selth)

The Rohingya,
after 1948, “wished for the northern part of Arakan to be
included in newly created East Pakistan. Others known as Mujahids called for an
independent Muslim state to be created in the area between the Kaladan and Mayu
Rivers”. (Selth) Supporting Mujahids point of view and opposing Ne Win’s
regime, Rohingya Independence Force (RIF), the first organised insurgency
group, was created in 1963. In following years Rohingya Patriotic Front, Arakan
Rohingya Islamic Front and others were formed. (Selth) These groups eventually
started a guerrilla war against the central government, lasting for over 50
years. Their claims were different, the most radical ones demanding for a
separate Muslim state, or demanding to be granted full Burmese citizenship,
though most of them were fighting simply for “freedom of worship, guarantees
against religious persecution, and the same political and economic rights for
Muslims as other communities in Burma”. (Selth) Members of one of the groups
claimed responsible for several killings in August this year, Arakan Rohingya
Salvation Army, say that their actions are nothing more but a response to years
of persecutions, and that in case of being denied their rights, the war will
continue until total extinction. (McPherson) It has also been noted that
religion is not always the main motivating factor for recruits, as fate of
their community and their families seems much more vital. (McPherson)

Rohingya ethnicity has been
spread to several countries throughout the years. The biggest diasporas, except
for Bangladesh, are situated in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. A report made by
International Crisis Group claims that Rohingya insurgencies in Myanmar have
been supported from these countries both financially and by providing trained
troops. The report says that emergence of a well-organised, well-funded group,
called Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY) led by
experienced commanders can be a game changer in Myanmar’ situation, and thus
poses a great challenge to the government. Finally, as it is concluded, the
current trend shows that violence, historically viewed by members of the
Rohingya community as counterproductive, is now being viewed as possibly the
only choice left. (International Crisis Group) This perspective, however
obviously needing further investigation, proves the extent of the seriousness
of the situation, and warns the international community of possible further
escalation of the conflict.

Conclusion 

The current
position of the international community is that authoritarian government of
Myanmar has been oppressing the Rohingya ethnic group for decades, since the
military coup of 1962, and the scale of violence and repressions has come to
the brink of the genocide. Denial of citizenship, dehumanisation, restricting
marriages and birth control, forced labour, rapes and killings – several legal
analyses have proved that the crisis can be characterised as nothing more but a
genocide. However, it seems necessary to say that the repressions of the
Rohingya people have not only been caused by the government, but also by
members of local Buddhist communities, sometimes led and supported by radical
religious groups of monks. Taking that into consideration, the crisis can be
characterised also as a religious and ethnic conflict between historical
Burmese communities – Muslim and Buddhist, which make up the entity called
“Myanmar”. Moreover, in several cases the violence has been provoked by the
groups of insurgents, which also play their roles in escalation of tensions.
Most of them probably just want to end the oppression and finally being
considered as human beings, with some sources even indicating forced
recruitment in such groups. (McPherson) However, as been pointed out in the
report made by International Crisis Group, these groups, sometimes well trained
and financed from abroad, can represent a significant danger for peace and
stability of the country.

Taking all these
arguments into consideration, it seems that viewing the crisis solely as a
state-sponsored genocide is incorrect. The situation is much more complex and
serious, and requires serious and immediate measures from the members of
international community. Whereas there is no doubt that the violence has to be
stopped as soon as possible, the regulations of tensions is most likely going
to be a long and hard process, as current hostile attitude towards members of
Rohingya community cannot be changed easily. It requires a set of long-term
measures, aimed at educational work with the population, and elimination of
radical groups of monks, who have an enormous authority over common Buddhists.
The situation is extremely serious, being probably the most serious
humanitarian crisis of today. It calls for immediate response, and it is up to
international community for how it will be remembered – a tragedy or a miracle.