Sorry, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Rohingya Crisis Is No Laughing Matter

The world is reacting with horror to the massacre of Rohingyas in Rakhine State, but Suu Kyi and her government continue to turn a blind eye to what increasingly appears like a genocide.

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against what organisers say is the crackdown on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, outside the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 25, 2016. The text on the poster reads, "Rohingya are our brothers". Credit: Reuters

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against what organisers say is the crackdown on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, outside the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 25, 2016. The text on the poster reads, “Rohingya are our brothers”. Credit: Reuters

Amidst widespread protests in Asian capitals over the ongoing massacre of Rohingyas in Western Myanmar, Adama Dieng, UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, issued a sternly-worded statement over the “allegations of extrajudicial executions, torture, rape and the destruction of religious property” in Rohingya villages, and firmly urged the Aung San Suu Kyi government to “demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and to the human rights of all its populations”.

Human Rights Watch has presented satellite images of over a thousand charred buildings in Rohingya villages where government troops have been carrying out ‘clearance operations’ since October 9 when Rohingya militants, armed with swords, sticks and a ‘few hand-made’ guns, attacked three border posts near the country’s border with Bangladesh, killing several Burmese troops. For nine weeks, the government has locked down the northern portion of Rakhine State, blocking the flow of humanitarian assistance (both food and medicine) to 160,000 Rohingya Muslims. Rohingya activists have smuggled out grainy images of burning rice supplies in the areas of the military’s mop-up operations, indicating that the government intends to deprive the entire Rohingya population in the locked-down area of their food supply. The government’s intention can only be understood as an induced starvation of the Rohingya population – an act of genocide.

Reminiscent of past genocide cases, the government troops separate men of all ages from their families for brutal interrogations while raping women with blanket impunity. A friend told me about a phone conversation between a woman survivor and her relative, a Rohingya migrant worker in a poor neighbourhood called Salayang in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The woman reportedly said, “Just wish us to die [a] fast death. We can’t bear this any more. They (the Burmese troops) are killing our men and boys. They are doing anything they please with us women. We don’t want to be carrying babies of these monsters. Please, please, send us birth control pills.”

Weeks of wanton slaughter, arson and rape have resulted in the displacement of over 30,000 Rohingyas from entire villages in the swampy flat plains of northern Rakhine. The UNHCR has estimated that at least 10,000 Rohingyas fleeing death and destruction have gathered along the 170-mile land and river borders with Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has decided to keep its borders shut, forcing the refugees back to the Burmese side. A small number of those who have made it across to the nearest refugee camp tell tales of horror in Rakhine, confirming the widely reported allegations of mass atrocities against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

History of oppression

These are just the most recent testimonies of a well-documented, systematic program of state-organised persecution of the Rohingya over the last four decades. General Khin Nyunt, former head of military intelligence with 25 years of intimate involvement in these violent operations against the Rohingya, recorded in his Burmese-language book The Problem of Burma’s Western Gate that nearly 280,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh in the first large-scale operations against them in 1978. When General Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh threatened to arm the Rohingyas if Myanmar refused to take them back, the Ne Win government grudgingly accepted the UNHCR’s managed repatriation of the majority of those who fled.

Following this repatriation, Myanmar’s military rulers enacted a new citizenship law in 1982, stripping the Rohingyas of all citizenship and legal rights, thus making them instant aliens on their own ancestral land. The law excludes from citizenship any Rohingya who cannot prove their ancestors were already in residence in Myanmar on the eve of the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. Few people have such records. This requirement is enforced only with respect to the Rohingya. The Rohingya are also excluded from the list of groups that were recognised as ethnic minorities in the multi-ethnic Union of Burma.

The official estimate of the Rohingya population is 1.33 million, of which 800,000 are completely without any legal status. They are effectively stateless. An estimated 60,000 Rohingya children are un-registered because the Burmese government refuses to grant each newborn the right to a nationality, in direct violation of its obligations as a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

State-sponsored violence against the Rohingya and other minorities from 1978 to 2012 went largely un-reported in the global media because Myanmar was almost completely closed off from the western world. Since its commercial opening in 2012, the government of president Thein Sein framed its persecution of the Rohingya people as ‘communal or sectarian violence’ between the Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhine people. The world has come to view the violence against the Rohingya as a clash between religious communities. In reality, it is ethnic persecution.

By releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and permitting her party contest the parliamentary election, in which it won a majority, the Thein Sein military junta has lulled the world into believing that Myanmar is “democratising.” In fact, the junta still holds a quarter of the seats in parliament as well as the key ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs. In sharp contrast to the official explanation of violence in Rakhine as communal, Suu Kyi’s government has sought to tell the world that her government is fighting Rohingya Muslim extremists who are spreading Islamic terrorism. Western governments have rolled back the economic, military and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar and have moved to normalised relations.

Deafening silence

But Suu Kyi’s silence on the ongoing massacre of Rohingyas has not gone unnoticed. Fellow Nobel laureates and world leaders continue to call on her to stop the genocide being perpetrated by the Burmese generals, whose partnership and cooperation she depends on for her influence.

Not only have these calls fallen on deaf ears but they have become a laughing matter for Suu Kyi and much of the Burmese population, who remain deeply enthralled with the woman they call mother.

In her live webcast town hall meeting this week with thousands of adoring Burmese supporters in Singapore, where Suu Kyi was on a three-day official visit, she took a question from the audience, which framed the growing allegations of rape, arson and slaughter of Rohingyas as “external fabrications”. Suu Kyi agreed that the allegations are “fabrications”. Then, she laughed out loud.

Dieng and Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, have requested independent UN investigations on the alleged ‘ethnic cleansing’ and other mass atrocities in the Rohingya region of Rakhine State. Instead, Suu Kyi’s government announced the establishment of a “national inquiry commission” with vice president Myint Swe as chair. Myint Swe, a former lieutenant general, also previously headed military intelligence and coordinated the border affairs army division, one of the main persecutors of the Rohingyas.

Suu Kyi and her government are in complete denial of the genocidal massacres being perpetrated against the Rohingya. When a Nobel Peace Prize finds allegations of genocide funny, she becomes undeserving of the prize. In fact, Suu Kyi should be prosecuted for complicity in the crimes.

Maung Zarni is co-author (with Alice Cowley) of The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya and a grassroots Burmese activist who coordinated the international consumer boycott of Myanmar in support of the National League for Democracy from 1995-2004. Gregory Stanton is the founding president of Genocide Watch and research professor at George Mason University, USA.