The Global Silence Around Myanmar

Map of reports of abuses or events leading Rohingya residents to flee their home in Myanmar.

By Michelle Chen
December 26, 2017

Numbers don’t lie. Politicians do. It has been months since reports of mass violence started flowing from Rakhine state in Myanmar, amplifying a generations-old history of systemic oppression of the Rohingya Muslim minority. But the fresh wave of horror unfolding at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border underscore the modern limitations of human rights, when the targets of violence are simply no longer considered human.

Despite an ongoing media blackout within Myanmar, accounts of genocidal carnage and ethnic cleansing have spilled across the border to Bangladesh, producing an estimated more than 647,000 migrants since violence initially erupted in late August through December 12. The group Medicines Sans Frontiers recently reported that in just the first month of the exodus, from late August to September, an estimated 6,700 people were killed, including some 730 children under age five. Most were shot or beaten, others incinerated inside torched homes or bombed, or otherwise ravaged through bombs and other systematic physical and sexual attacks. Others died trying to escape by boat to Bangladesh.

A new data-mapping initiative on migration, Exchange.org, surveyed refugeesfrom Rakhine and outlying villages, who have crowded into unsanitary camps at in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region. Of 1,360 respondents, more than 90 percent reported fleeing after experiencing or witnessing mass violence, including systematic destruction of villages, hundreds of armed attacks, and at least 171 incidents of rape (likely a vast undercount in this deeply traumatized community), and other military-driven attacks.

Interviewees attested to “a calculated campaign of sexual violence,” according to researchers, recalling that “perpetrators made calculated decisions to target women and girls by rounding them up, or kidnapping them after storming the villages.”

Hala, a thirty-five-year-old villager, reported: “The military started fires in my village. They forcibly entered my house. They raped me and stabbed my husband in the stomach. My young child was taken away from me and thrown into the fire. When I started crying, they raped me again.”

Gang rape was reportedly ritualized into a form of public torture, using tactics like public stripping and cutting off women’s nipples. One man from the village of Maungdang recounted an attack in which women were stripped, and “fifteen soldiers took turns raping the women over several hours. I felt like they would kill my wife.”

Though the military denies the claims of human rights abuses, soldiers, not local militants, were identified as the primary instigators. The regime has justified the crackdown by citing low-grade attacks by some local Rohingya militants deemed “terrorists,” but the response has been savagely disproportionate. One witness recalled soldiers “arresting the people from the villages, accusing them of joining a terrorist group, and threatening to take them to the police station, but they were killed by the military. The dead bodies were handed over to the families and their families could not even recognize their faces.”

The attacks mark an intensification of a longstanding civilian-military collaboration with local Buddhist extremists, according to XChange.org researcher Pablo Gallego, “96 percent of the respondents said that the military was involved,” with locals generally playing “a supportive role,” which extends the “modus operandi” observed in earlier waves of anti-Rohingya violence.

The refugee crisis now entering its fourth month, and there remains a complete impasse over finding any viable political situation to either allow people to return or resettle long-term across the border (nearly 80 percent hope to go back if the situation at home improves).

The impasse tightened in late December, when the government barred United Nations Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee from making a scheduled visit in January, effectively halting a U.N. fact-finding mission Myanmar officials have dismissed as “biased.”

Yet while global outrage has mounted, it’s all quiet on the diplomacy front. Even symbolic condemnations have been blocked in the U.N. by China and Russia, yet again reducing human rights to geopolitical bargaining chip.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a coalition of ten nations including Myanmar, many tainted by egregious human rights track records, adhere to a principle of strict “non-interference” in each other’s affairs. Yet ASEAN is merely following an historical pattern of neighboring nations, and investors, politely turning a blind eye to the carnage.

China is eager to exploit Myanmar’s mineral resources as it consolidates its power across the region under its “Belt and Road” economic integration plan. So far, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly CEO of Exxon Mobil, has denounced “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine state. But, overall, the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, guided by business interests, has refrained from seriously pressing human rights throughout the region (or for that matter, domestically).

So globally, the Myanmar government has won a pass for its behavior. As an ethnic Muslim minority associated with the British Empire, the Rohingya have long been scapegoated through systematic persecution. Today, under independence, this pernicious divide-and-conquer governing strategy continues to be weaponized as a platform for nationalist demagoguery, directed at not just the Rohingya but several other ethnic minority groups that have rebelled against the government.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar’s “transitional” government, now acts as the military’s white-washer in chief, providing a patina of diplomatic stability by dismissing the Rohingya crisis as an internal matter, referring to the refugees as “Bengalis” or “illegal immigrants.”

Maung Zarni, a global human rights scholar from Myanmar, has given up hope that the international human rights regime can effectively pressure Myanmar’s government.

“Fact-Finding, human rights documentation, fieldwork, surveys . . . around my country’s Buddhist genocide of Rohingyas have become an end in and of itself, a growth industry,” he says via email.

Facts can only go so far when both mainstream humanitarian groups and governments fail to marshal the political will to exert genuine political pressure. Solutions will be necessarily complex, whether through internationally coordinated diplomacy, targeted economic isolation of the regime and its corporate allies, or the longer-term project of sustained social support and resettlement programs for refugees. Marni concludes, “It is not data or evidence that drive international politics or policies, but self-interests of players and their self-serving justification.”

The Rohingya crisis reflects a pattern of migration tragedy across the Middle East and north Africa, at the frontiers of southern Europe and even U.S.-Mexico border: communities brutalized by war or social or economic upheaval are driven into exile, exploited by smuggling networks, and dumped in host societies where they face further violence and exploitation. Dehumanized and damaged, migrants form the collateral damage of a world of low-grade warfare and high-grade economic globalization.

Strip away the experts and the fact-finders, and we’re left with a global power balance that hinges on mutual silence, inside and outside of Myanmar. Independence and self-determinations, it was once hoped, would foster Myanmar’s democratic renaissance. But fifty years on, those old imperial forces have been supplanted with autocrats and billionaires,who continue to prey on an underclass both new and ancient—the poor, the dispossessed, the hated ethnic other—in a colony by a different name.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer for The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent magazine and a co-producer of Dissent’s “Belabored” podcast.

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