By David Reich
April 15, 2015
The word genocide calls to mind events like the Jewish and Armenian holocausts, but according to Maung Zarni, a Burmese scholar affiliated with Harvard and the London School of Economics, smaller-scale killing can also fit the definition “if done in an attempt to destroy a people.”
Such is the case with the victimization of Burma’s Rohingya Muslim ethnic group by members of the Buddhist majority, which has involved explicit violence on a relatively modest scale but also forced birth control, forced relocation, and denial of access to food and medical care, said Zarni, who on April 13, delivered a lecture on the topic, sponsored by the Law School’s Owen M. Kupferschmid Holocaust and Human Rights Project.
How could Buddhists, raised to spare the lives of all creatures, even insects, perpetrate a genocide? The answer, Zarni said, is common to every genocide: the perpetrator learns to see himself as a victim, and a defender of his nation or ethnic group. “We have to frame the target of the attack as a threat to our livelihood, a threat to our national community, as a virus, a leach, a bloodsucker,” he said.
All genocides have another common element, Zarni said, in that the genocidal acts are orchestrated, not spontaneous. “This is not like football hooliganism,” he said, “where your team lost and you want to express your rage. You always find an organization, you always find leaders who are mobilizing public opinion [in favor of] an act that is otherwise unthinkable.”