I spend too much time thinking about genocide. It’s a professional hazard—twentieth-century history is rather murderous—and has led to a disturbingly glib sense of gallows humor (we all have our own coping mechanisms). So, it’s hardly an alarmist or knee-jerk reaction on my part to insist that we need to be paying attention to Myanmar right now.
Latest estimates number the people fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine state over the past two weeks at 290,000. These refugees represent over a quarter of the 1.1 million Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority. This recent round of persecution was sparked by Rohingya militant attacks on government forces in late-August. The official response has been devastating:
The retaliation that followed was carried out in methodical assaults on villages, with helicopters raining down fire on civilians and front-line troops cutting off families’ escape. The villagers’ accounts all portray indiscriminate attacks against fleeing noncombatants, adding to a death toll that even in early estimates is high into the hundreds, and is probably vastly worse.
“There are no more villages left, none at all,” said Rashed Ahmed, a 46-year-old farmer from a hamlet in Maungdaw Township in Myanmar. He had already been walking for four days. “There are no more people left, either,” he said. “It is all gone.”
Satellite images reveal entire villages have been burned. There are reports of the Myanmar military setting landmines along the Bengali border to prevent further exodus. Aid agencies and journalists have been barred from Rakhine. Some video footage appears to show mass graves.
There are long roots to this violence. Rohingya are subject to a wide range of discriminatory practices, including forced labor, limits on movement, restrictions on marriage and having children, prohibitions on certain professions, and disregard for basic rights:
Rohingya are routinely subjected to confiscation of property, arbitrary arrest and detention, physical and sexual violence, and even torture at the hands of authorities.
Earlier this year, there were revelations that government forces have perpetrated systemic sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls.
One of the most troubling state policies has been Myanmar’s absolute refusal to recognize the Rohingya. The 1982 citizenship law erased their legal existence—the government insists on classifying Rohingya as illegal Bengali immigrants and, by denying them citizenship, has left them stateless.
Moreover, this policy of non-recognition has allowed Myanmar to elide accusations of misconduct:
In 2013, Win Myaing, the official spokesperson of the Rakhine State Government said “How can it be ethnic cleansing? They are not an ethnic group.” By referring to them as Bangladeshi Muslims the state not only presents them as a symbol of Muslim invasion (which is seen as a global problem) but also as the “Bengali Muslim”, which has been constructed as an ethnically inferior identity and used throughout the Indian subcontinent to justify and legitimise genocide, whether within the Bangladeshi Liberation War or the Nellie massacre in Assam, India.
Already in 2016,
the new government of Myanmar ha[d] asked that the United States “not call the Rohingya people by that name because it does not recognize them as citizens,” said Suu Kyi’s spokesman, U Kyaw Zay Ya, reported the New York Times. He hastened to add that “Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had not ordered the Americans to stop using the word or threatened consequences if they did.”
The world has not played along. Repeated reports have castigated Myanmar’s leaders for complacency—or complicity—with mounting violence. As Erik has been saying here for years, Aung San Suu Kyi’s human rights bona fides are tarnished. Earlier this year, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights found that Myanmar was likely guilty of crimes against humanity, while the International State Crime Initiative accused the state of genocide in 2015.
It is an unpalatable irony that even the Turkish president has deployed the g-word. 1915’s Armenian genocide echoes through the reports of unaccountable government militias in Rakhine and Myanmar’s official denials of any misdeeds.
This persistent stream of anti-Rohingya actions would be unimaginable if only we didn’t have so many ready examples of how exactly violence and purges and obsessions with illusory purity can combine to “shock the conscience of humankind.” “Never again” usually means “not until the next time we can’t be bothered.”
Now, I know there’s a lot going on here at home. Crisis fatigue is real, what with the hurricanes, wildfires, white supremacists, daily attacks on democratic rights and institutions, and the specter of nuclear war. But this is often how it goes: when we (as a global species) are too busy—some of us fucking up the world, others fighting for much-needed justice on varied and vital fronts, many desperately trying to survive—when we are distracted and preoccupied and otherwise engaged, there are corners of the world where the virtual darkness becomes easy cover for atrocity.
I can’t offer any policy solutions and will leave it to others to try. But, as an historian I have a deep conviction in the power of witnessing. Witnessing is not watching silently; it is not a nihilistic abdication of responsibility or action; it is not passive. When we witness, we stand ready to act. We prepare refuge and sanctuary. We chronicle losses and lives. We name and condemn crimes. We protest in order to force light into the shadows. We brace for the aftermath and strengthen the supports for that brand of justice that always comes too late. We see—really see—victims’ suffering, their desperation, their will to live and to thrive, and, above all, the humanity that others would deny them.