By Ramzy Baroud
Although the genocide of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar has gathered greater media attention in recent months, there is no indication that the international community is prepared to act in any meaningful way, thus leaving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees stranded in border camps between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
While top United Nations officials are now using the term “genocide” to describe the massive abuses experienced by the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar army, security forces and Buddhist militias, no plan of action has been put in place.
In less than six months, beginning August 2017, an estimated 655,000 Rohingya have fled or were pushed across the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Most of the “clearance operations” — a term used by the Myanmar military to describe the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya — took place in Rakhine state.
In a recent report, Medecins Sans Frontieres relayed the harrowing death toll of Rohingya during the first month of the genocidal campaign. At least 9,000 Rohingya were killed between August 25 and September 24 last year, according to MSF. This includes 730 children under the age of five.
Eric Schwartz, of Refugee International, described these events in an interview with American National Public Radio (NPR) as “one of the greatest crimes in recent memory — massive abuses, forced relocations of hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks.”
Coupled with numerous reports of gang rape, outright murder, and the mass burning of villages, the Rohingya have been left defenseless in the face of unspeakable atrocities. Worse still, a recent agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh will see many of these refugees repatriated, but with absolutely no guarantees for their safety. With no safeguards in place, and with the Rohingya having been stripped of their legal status in Myanmar, going back is as risky an endeavor as fleeing.
The plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees without any protection or the guaranteeing of their basic rights is part of a larger campaign to “whitewash” the crimes of the Myanmar government and to, once more, defer the protracted crisis of the Rohingya.
Although the cruelty experienced by the Rohingya goes back decades, a new ethnic cleansing campaign began in 2012, when 100,000 Rohingya were forced out of their villages and towns to live in prison-like makeshift refugee camps. In 2013, more than 140,000 were displaced, and that trend continued until last August, when the bouts of ethnic cleansing culminated in all-out genocide involving all security branches of the government.
These actions have been defended by Myanmar officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi. The latter was celebrated for decades by Western media and governments as a democracy icon and human rights heroine. However, as soon as Suu Kyi was freed from her house arrest and became the leader of Myanmar in 2015, she served as an apologist for her former military foes. Not only did she refuse to condemn the violence against the Rohingya, she even refuses to use the term “Rohingya” in reference to the historically persecuted minority.
Suu Kyi’s support for the military’s relentless violence has earned her much contempt and criticism, and rightly so. But too much emphasis has been placed on appealing to her moral sense of justice, to the point that no strategy has been formed to confront the crimes of the Myanmar military and government, neither by Asian leaders nor the international community. Instead, an unimpressive “international advisory board” was set up to carry out the recommendations of another advisory council led by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General.
Expectedly, the advisory board is proving to be nothing but an instrument used by the Myanmar government to whitewash the crimes of the military. In fact, this is the very assessment of former US cabinet member and top diplomat Bill Richardson, who recently resigned from the board. “The main reason I am resigning is that the advisory board is a whitewash,” he told Reuters, asserting that he did not want to be part of “a cheerleading squad for the government.”
Richardson, too, accused Suu Kyi of lacking “moral leadership.” But that designation no longer suffices. Suu Kyi should be held accountable for more than her moral failings. Considering her leadership position, she should be held directly responsible for crimes against humanity, together with her top security and army brass.
Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, is one of the leading voices among rights groups who are calling for the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Because Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, such a referral is the only way to take the state to the ICC.
This step is both legally defensible and urgent, as the Myanmar government has showed no remorse whatsoever for the horrible violence it has meted out to the Rohingya. Robertson also called for “targeted sanctions,” which would most certainly get the attention of the country’s rich and powerful elite that rules over the military and government.
In recent years, Myanmar, with the help of the US and other Western powers, has been allowed to open up its economy to foreign investors. Billions of US dollars of foreign direct investments have already been channeled into Myanmar, and $6 billion more are expected to enter the country in 2018.
That, too, is a great act of moral failing on the part of many countries in Asia, the West and the rest of the world. Myanmar should not be rewarded with massive foreign largesse while whole communities are being killed, maimed or made into refugees.
Without sanctions that target the government and military — not the ordinary people — coupled with legal action to prosecute Myanmar’s leaders, including Suu Kyi, before the ICC, the genocide of the Rohingya will continue unabated.