To Save the Rohingyas, Go after Burma’s Generals
In effect, the country has two governments: the limited, elected civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military.
Sixteen year-old Khalida lay prostrate on the floor of a bamboo hut in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, unable to stand. The bullet wounds in her leg were so severe that she could not even sit up. “More than 300 Rohingyas in my village were killed by the Burma army in their attack,” she told me. “My father, two sisters, and one brother were killed. My mother was also shot but survived.”
Her 18 year-old brother, Mohamed Rafiq, had fled their home in Molor Jaga village, in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine, before the military attacked. He found her among hundreds of corpses when he returned. With the help of other villagers, he carried her to the Bangladesh border, where after two days they found a boatman who would take them across, for a fee. They paid 70,000 Burmese kyats ($46) and got her to a hospital.
After four months’ hospitalization, the doctors told her that even though her wounds had not healed, they could not keep her any longer. But at the refugee camp where she was sent, she was told she had missed registration and so was not entitled to rations. After concluding her story, Khalida slowly lifted her head and smiled at me. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for caring enough to come all the way from your country to visit us. Please come and see us again.”
Khalida’s story is repeated, in one form another, by hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. I heard many accounts of rape, and I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off. People told me of others whose eyes had been gouged out, throats slit, and limbs hacked off.
Just over a year ago, the Burma army unleashed its worst assault on the Rohingyas, leading to the most severe human-rights and humanitarian crisis in the country since independence in 1949.
Over the following weeks, 700,000 Rohingyas were driven from their homes and forced to flee from Burma into Bangladesh. Thousands are believed to have been killed, and reports of mass rape are widespread. Accounts have emerged of babies being snatched from their mothers’ arms and thrown into a fire, families burned alive, villagers lined up and executed at gunpoint.
A new United Nations report published this week accuses Burma’s top military generals, including the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, of genocide in Rakhine State and, in Kachin and Shan States, of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.N.’s Independent International Fact-Fnding Mission has called for the generals to be prosecuted for actions that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.” The U.N.’s outgoing high commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, had already described the crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of “the hallmarks of genocide.”
Yet what began a year ago today was not a new campaign, but an escalation in the decades-long persecution of the Rohingyas. In 1982, a new law stripped them of their citizenship rights, rendering them stateless in the land they had existed in for centuries. Their freedom of movement, access to education, ability to marry, and practice their religion has been severely restricted for years. Hostility from wider Burmese society is entrenched — even Burmese known for championing democracy and human rights regard the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. To use the name by which Rohingyas identify themselves is a taboo in Burma — they are known as “Bengalis” or, by those trying to be more neutral, “Muslims in Rakhine State,” but never as Rohingyas. When I first visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh ten years ago, people told me: “The Burmese tell us ‘You are Bengali, go back to Bangladesh’; the Bangladeshis tell us ‘You are from Burma, go back to Burma.’ We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake.”
In 2012, violence erupted between the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingyas, resulting in the displacement of thousands. Rohingyas were forced from their homes into displacement camps, which were described by U.N. officials as among the worst in the world. Those who remained in their homes did so under apartheid conditions.
In October 2016, the Burma army launched a major offensive, killing, raping, and displacing thousands. This should have served as a wake-up call to the international community to act, but the world’s failure to do so gave the military the green light to escalate even further. Crimes against humanity in the final months of 2016 were a mere prelude to ethnic cleansing a year later and perhaps genocide. A U.N. investigation was launched, a report was published, and Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called for accountability, but nothing happened.
The repeated failure of the international community to act is already having consequences. Since the beginning of this year, the Burma army has significantly escalated its offensives against other ethnic groups in Burma, particularly the predominantly Christian Kachin and Buddhist Shan. Similar stories of rape, torture, the killing of civilians, and the burning of villages are emerging. A fragile ceasefire with the Karen people has been repeatedly violated.
In addition to grave crimes in the ethnic states, religious intolerance throughout the country has grown, driven by a militant Buddhist nationalist movement intent on promoting its version of Burman Buddhism and eliminating or at least subjugating any other belief. Hate speech is widespread, resulting in “Muslim free” villages and sporadic anti-Muslim violence. Christian pastors have been attacked and churches face severe restrictions. All this has been occurring for many years, but the intensity is increasing.
The world’s reluctance to act is born primarily of a desire not to undermine Burma’s democratic transition, and of the fragile position of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Of course the limitations she faces should not be ignored — the army, over which she has absolutely no control, directly runs three key ministries: home affairs, border affairs, and defense. Burma has, in effect, two governments: the limited, elected civilian government led by Suu Kyi, and the military.
Nevertheless, democracy cannot be built on bloodshed, religious and ethnic hatred, crimes against humanity, and genocide. A democracy where such crimes occur with impunity, and where journalists and human-rights defenders who expose such crimes are jailed, is no democracy.
Action is long overdue. Burma’s generals should be referred to the International Criminal Court, or an alternative justice mechanism, as the U.N.’s investigation recommends. Carefully targeted sanctions should be imposed against the military, not the people, banning investment in military-owned enterprises, introducing a global arms embargo, and freezing the generals’ assets. The European Union has introduced some measures, and the United States’ Global Magnitsky Act has been triggered against a few individuals, but they do not go nearly far enough. The man ultimately responsible, General Min Aung Hlaing, has so far escaped all sanction. That must change.
Urgent steps are also needed to counter hate speech, promote and protect freedom of religion or belief for all, and engage all stakeholders in a genuine, meaningful peace process to end decades of ethnic conflict and religious strife. Even though the major international actors are viewed with suspicion in Burma today, there may be some who are still trusted. Pope Francis’s visit to the country late last year might hold open the potential for the Vatican to play a meditation role.
Unlike the U.N. or other governmental bodies, the Holy See may be seen to be relatively free of political baggage, although we should acknowledge that the current Church scandals may put that in jeopardy. Burma’s Cardinal Charles Bo is one of the very few national religious leaders respected by all sides.
Failure to end impunity sends the military a clear message: Continue these crimes, and all we will do is talk. The time for talk is over. If action is not taken now, to hold criminals accountable and at the same time to counter hatred and promote peace and reconciliation in a country torn apart by almost 70 years of civil war and ethnic hatred, Burma’s paralyzing wounds, like Khalida’s leg, will never heal.
Benedict Rogers, the author of three books on Burma, is the East Asia team leader at the international human-rights organization CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide).
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