Wrongs of rights activism around Rohingyas
Maung Zarni | Update: 15:37, Jan 15, 2018
My country’s unfinished genocide with a Buddhist flavour exposes multiple lies about the essential goodness of humanity. The Islamic Umma is nowhere to be seen beyond a few different heads of Muslim governments grandstanding on the plight of Rohingyas. Bangladesh’s official and popular compassion is reportedly wearing thin. Dhaka wants to send one million “forcibly displaced Myanmar people”, including 300,000 deeply scarred children, back to their country of origin.
Besides, conceptually, Western nations whose material wants had long been met through centuries of exploitation of non-European societies, raw resources, land grab and labour extraction, emphasised and continue to emphasise, political and civil rights as “atomised”, stand-alone creatures, with no structural ties to the society, or the world at large. On their part, decolonising Asian, Arab and African regimes who are the world’s greatest violators of individual freedoms and civil rights, talk of the right to economic development, Roosevelt’s ‘freedoms from want’.
In these human rights games, the world’s leading Anglophone human rights NGOs, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, close ranks with their liberal regimes. The NGOS have long opted for their preferred reading of human rights as the political and civil rights of the atomistic individuals. This naturally makes rights campaigners and their campaign a priori vulnerable to the allegations: that these human rights promoters are nothing more than the proxies in the service of hypocritical Western powers who apply even their own preferred civil and individual rights rather selectively, depending on who they consider “their bastards”.Intellectually, both premier organisations in the field of human rights finesse their respective “truths” about Myanmar genocide. Both have previously failed victims of past genocides, for instance, in Rwanda and Sudan. They are now failing Rohingyas in terms of naming Myanmar’s systematic persecution when they stay safe within the discursive parameters which senior UN officials such as Secretary General António Guterres have set. As my Tutsi-Hutu mix Rwanda activist brother Renee C Mugenzi bitterly tweeted, “the longer UN delays calling Myanmar genocide a genocide, the more Rohingyas will die.” UN too has blood on its hands in this genocide, just as its hand was stained with Rwandans’ blood merely 20 years ago.
Several months ago I was on an Al Jazeera Inside Story Live with Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch where the seasoned American campaigner was openly deferring to Guterres’ observation that Myanmar is committing “ethnic cleansing” – as opposed to a legally defined genocide. Subsequently, I learned that HRW’s lawyers and campaign strategists believe – falsely in my insider view of the Burmese military – that calling Myanmar’s genocide a genocide, is going to play into Myanmar military’s hands and cause a domestic backlash against the “human rights community”.
Similarly, I have watched with dismay Amnesty International campaigners pussyfooting around my country’s genocide, torn between the organisational guilt of its failures in Rwanda and its desire to be “taken seriously” by the system that is in coma.
I find it unconscionable that in establishing and documenting human rights truths, this Nobel Peace Prize winning human rights network has just discovered and declared the genocidal conditions as “apartheid”, a long-standing fact which the now defunct Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) had spotted as early as July 1978. FEER ran a major article entitled “Burma’s Brand of Apartheid” (dated 14 July 1978) against the backdrop of the first exodus of Rohingyas, numbering over a quarter million, by Myanmar intelligence count. FEER had as limited an access to the crime sites in North Arakan as Amnesty International as the country was closed off and under the direct military rule. It appeared the world’s oldest human rights watchdog didn’t bother to document the rights abuses of a Cold War-irrelevant Myanmar then. Meanwhile Myanmar’s brand of apartheid morphed into the military-led Buddhist genocide which enjoys the full-backing of both “the civil society” in Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.
Finally, if the authoritarian and illiberal regimes in the non-European world such as China, India, Russia, the Philippines, etc, occupy the ideological space where valid concerns for the real-time genocide of Rohingyas are dismissed as “western geopolitical meddling”, the pro-human rights activist field is in the monopoly hands of Anglo-American campaigners whose ignorance about the genocidal regimes is matched by their cultural arrogance.
These Anglo-American players lack the power to remove the institutional barriers which stand in the way of ending genocides and other crimes against humanity, or resurrect the Security Council. Nevertheless, by virtue of the fact that their NGO politics in no way threatens the UN-clustered institutional arrangements, they occupy the commanding heights from which they pick the “right bodies” from amongst Rohingyas.
I have watched this Western anointment of my own fellow brown and yellow activists by the powerful NGOs and power insiders of the West for the last 30 years. Just as Western states prefer to work with regimes that can advance their declared or undeclared strategic interests, these Western human rights NGOs prefer to “partner” with brown, black, or yellow bodies amongst us who will toe their pre-ordained organisational agenda.
A year ago, I attended a two-and-a-half day “strategy workshop” in Kuala Lumpur where leading human rights networks such as the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Fortify Rights, with their influential donors such as National Endowment for Democracy, brought together about one dozen activists working on Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingyas and other ethnic groups. Though billed as a “strategy workshop” where our ideas were to be generated and debated, the entire workshop was straight-jacketed into adopting the campaign plan already formulated by these Anglo-American NGOs and their funders.
Like snake-charmers I recently saw at the main square in Marrakesh, these human rights NGOs would manufacture, market and parade a small number of “Rohingya bodies” as “next generation leaders”, “peace-makers” and “human rights defenders”, while making sure the latter’s messages are tailored to echo their NGO’s pre-determined agendas, be it the call for ‘arms embargo’, ‘targeted sanctions’, ‘commission of inquiry’ or a ‘fact finding mission’.
This is a deeply troubling picture of the current state of human rights activism that claims to work for preventing the genocide – which is already in its 40th year – and protecting Rohingyas inside Myanmar and in the Bangladesh-based refugee camps.
To those of us grassroots organisers, who no longer have confidence in the world order where absolutist state-sovereignty trumps human well-being, the late Italian labour organiser and thinker Antonio Gramsci gifted us with a memorable guiding principle of “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the heart”. In times like these even the heart’s ability to feel optimistic about the prospects for ending Myanmar’s genocide of Rohingyas erodes.
At this moment there are no alternatives to the flawed human rights activism we are all engaged in. This is a Catch-22 situation where the more capable bodies amongst us are compelled to play these dead-end human rights games instead of conceiving, building up and actualising liberation struggles. It is high time that we insert the right to revolt against tyranny, including the genocidal tyranny, into the current human rights campaigns. Bangladesh was birthed as a nation as the result of a genocidal terror by the West Pakistani military. The 1971 War of Liberation is still fresh in the collective memory of the Bangladeshi people. Rohingyas who chose to live in peace as part of Myanmar need and deserve nothing less.
*Maung Zarni is a Burmese human rights activist, an adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism based in Cambridge, UK and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia. He blogs at maungzarni.net