Ethnic cleansing and the price of silence

Brad Blitz Middlesex UniversityProfessor of International Politics Brad Blitz examines the dire situation faced by the Rohingya people in Myanmar and Bangladesh. He argues that after years of persecution it is time to re-examine theses advanced by Arendt and Staub, taking the role of bystanders far more seriously

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s condemnation of fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence in the face of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has stirred the world’s conscience. ‘If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep’, he wrote.

For decades, the Rohingya have faced persecution in Burma. Stripped of their nationality in 1982 they have been repeatedly victimised at the hands of the military and local fanatics who are now burning their villages. In addition to the physical attacks, since losing their rights to citizenship the Rohingya have been denied a host of other rights, including the right to marriage, freedom of movement, access to hospitals and schools, and state protection.  All of this has precipitated their exodus from Myanmar.

Rohingya people receiving vital aid supplies by sea near Sittwe (European Commission DG Echo by CC2.0)

Bangladesh has however been a far cry from sanctuary. In 2010 Physicians for Human Rights reported how once in Bangladesh the Rohingya were forced into bonded labour or languished in make-shift camps and suffered serious malnutrition. Others were pushed back by the police into Myanmar.  Like many other states, Bangladesh has been quickly constructing a border fence which was reportedly more than 70 per cent complete as of last April. Bangladeshi authorities have expressed much sympathy for the Rohingya but claim to be overwhelmed.

Fleeing by any means possible

For years Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar by any means possible.  Some of the most desperate have boarded ships in the hope of reaching a place of safety. Yet, in terms of human rights compliance, they live in a particularly bad neighbourhood with few hospitable landing sites. Consequently, boats were spotted drifting hopelessly across the Andaman Sea. In some specific cases, wooden vessels packed with refugees were towed out to distant waters by the Thai Navy. Others who managed to travel on further were eventually intercepted by the Australian authorities where they met with outright rejection, the Prime Minister Tony Abbot famously saying, ‘nope, nope, nope… I’m sorry. If you want a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.’ New York Times journalists have since documented several cases of Rohingya detained in dreadful ‘offshore processing centres’ on Manus island and Naru.

For many years Burma CampaignRefugees InternationalMédecins Sans Frontières and other groups have raised the alarm. They have been assisted by indefatigable journalists like Nicholas Kristof, and photographer Greg Constantine, as well as humanitarian workers who have documented abuses while struggling to provide aid. The story was already out there.

Human rights appeals rebuffed

Human rights activists also raised their voices. Since the 2012 riots in Rakhine state, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), Tun Khin has travelled the world providing testimony before the US, UK and European governments and appealing for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry. His appeals were rebuffed, even as growing evidence of abuse across Myanmar entered the popular media, first with Youtube footage of the ultra-racist monk and leader of 969 Buddhist Nationalist movement, Wirathu, whose use of language has been likened to the most egregious Nazi slogans. Wirathu was fully profiled in the Cannes film festival this summer, having graced the cover of Time Magazine in 2013.

Some claim that the plight of the Rohingya echoes the history of European Jewry in the 1930s.  As Hannah Arendt, herself a stateless refugee, argued, stripping people of their citizenship is the first stage in genocide. It is much easier for states to contain, deport and kill stateless people. Yet, this idea that genocide and ethnic cleansing necessarily result from the withdrawal of one’s citizenship, even under extreme persecution, is also contested. Professor Ervin Staub, expert on the psychology of mass violence and genocide argues that there are some notable examples.

Thirty years ago Bulgaria was engaged in a programme of forced assimilation of its ethnic Turks which led to much violence and the eventual expulsion of more than 1 million people. Yet, following criticism by the French President and following a change of government, the state restored minority rights, readmitted the ethnic Turks and issued successive apologies. In the end, Bulgaria did not follow the path of its ultranationalist Balkan neighbours. Drawing upon the history of apartheid in South Africa, Staub notes that protests shifted public opinion in western states, changed the way economic and political interests were structured, and eventually tore at the conscience of F.W. De Klerk. ‘Each of us has great potential power to help others in need, to influence fellow witnesses when action is needed, to become active bystanders. We have the potential, if we join together, to influence organizations and our country to prevent harm to people at home and abroad’, writes Staub.

That is why Aung San Suu Kyi’s ambivalence is so contemptible. But the Burmese leader is not alone. Since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, western states have watched eagerly as the Burmese military regime began to introduce political, economic and administrative reforms. In spite of growing inter-communal violence, they dismissed much criticism of the Burmese authorities in order to strike trade deals and secure rights to mineral exploration in the fastest growing economy in South Asia.

In 2015 the British government published a trade and export guide just days before the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London released a damning report, Countdown To Annihilation: Genocide In Myanmar. The academics drew on leaked government documents that recorded massacres and growing restrictions on movement – information that would have been known to the UK government. (I once inquired if there was any accounting if UKAID to Myanmar actually reached those in need in Rakhine state. How was DFID’s pro-poor approach assisting stateless Rohingya in Myanmar? No one could provide specific information in response to that question.)

Yet, in spite of the threat to the Rohingya, the UK advertised the potential strengths of the Burma market including ‘access to 40% of the world’s population living in bordering countries; abundant natural resources, commitment to political and economic reform with strong international donor backing, proven agricultural capacity’. At the same time, monitoring organisations Burma Campaign, Refugees International and Restless Beings called the attention of parliamentarians in Westminster to the growing unrest across the country affecting both Rohingya and other non-Burmese ethnic groups.

The UNHCR’s involvement

Although is it now among the most vocal critics, the UNHCR also pulled its punches in order to operate in a region where none of the neighbouring states have signed onto or acceded to the UN refugee convention, protocol or statelessness conventions. In the mid-1990s, the UNHCR reached an agreement with Bangladesh and Myanmar, neither of which were signatories to the Refugee Convention, in order to repatriate the Rohingya from Bangladesh. Between 1993 and 1997, approximately 230,000 Rohingya refugees were coercively returned to Arakan state. Historian Katy Long writes that the repatriations were almost universally considered non-voluntary in any meaningful sense and that this episode represents a dark chapter in the organisation’s history.

Even after it apologised for such abuses, the UNHCR has supported ‘voluntary’ repatriation campaigns and over the past 20 years has returned hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya from Bangladesh and to a lesser extent, Thailand. It has done so in the absence of effective guarantees of protection or meaningful promises from the Burmese authorities to restore the Rohingya’s rights to citizenship and other civil rights.

UNHCR ambivalence was further reflected in its use of language to describe the stateless Rohingya. In published reports, the UNHCR sometimes described ‘Muslim refugees from Myanmar’, rather than affirm the designation of ‘Rohingya’. In so doing, the UN agency further acceded to the wishes of Burmese nationalists who charge that the Rohingya are of Bengali origin and hence interlopers in Myanmar, a view recently echoed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Over the past 10 years, the UNHCR’s primary response to situations of statelessness has been to press states to accede to the 1954 and 1961 UN Conventions. Yet that is of limited value. Even after statelessness is corrected in law, people may suffer much deprivation and discrimination. This is why a group of academics have been suggesting that reform should be linked to development and humanitarian assistance, something UNHCR has been unable to communicate to its partners, in spite of growing evidence, as recorded in a 2012 US State Department study by Kingston University researchers.

Similarly, we find that within the development sector, there is much aversion to outright criticism. The logic is that it is better to use the language of development than the discourse on rights in order to promote engagement. While this argument runs counter to the history of political transition, we note that this claim has equally been disproved in the case of Burma. The arrival of democracy has not paved the way to greater tolerance. Once freedom of expression was restored, thousands took to social media to broadcast their dislike of the Rohingya and other ethnic groups in language that could only be considered as hate speech.

As the Rohingya exodus surpasses 370,000 displaced, and in light of the past calls made by the UK government and UNHCR, it is time to re-examine the theses put forward by Arendt and Staub and take the role of bystanders far more seriously. Only a year ago at a meeting in London, I was told, the language of rights ‘gets under people’s skin’. That view has become a mainstay in the development sector. Yet, without rights, the house of cards falls down, with ethnic cleansing and genocide two all too possible consequences.

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