When you think of ethnic cleansing, what comes to mind is likely the systematic killing of Jews during the Holocaust, the wholesale slaughter of Tutsi during the Rwandan Genocide, the war crimes committed by military officials in the Bosnian Crisis, or the brutal campaigns waged on the Yazidi by ISIS. But genocide has again reared its head in Myanmar, and the U.N. appears powerless to stop it.
A mass grave was discovered in Rakhine state, where the majority of violence against the Rohingya has taken place. United Nations’ investigators were barred from the country, and of course, the UN has responded with their usual stern tones and grand speeches.
Who are the Rohingya?
Myanmar has 135 official ethnic groups. The Rohingya, according to the government, is not one of them. They’re descendants of Arab traders and other groups who traveled through the region, and have their own culture and language. They also represent the most substantial portion of Muslims living in Myanmar – a predominately Buddhist country.
Despite their presence in Myanmar for decades, the nation refuses to acknowledge their status as an ethnic group, referring to them instead as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. To the government, and many who hold similarly hostile sentiments in Myanmar, the Rohingya are merely Bengali.
The animosity towards the Rohingya people is longstanding, and the proverbial purging of Rohingyas from Myanmar is the latest, and most violent, case of it in recent history.
Terrorism as an excuse
On August 25, 2017, members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked police posts in Rakhine state, killing 12. Myanmar’s government claims that Arsa is a terrorist organization with ties to jihadist groups. Arsa, on the other hand, states that they have no such connection and their existence is purely for the defense of the Rohingya people from government oppression.
The military crackdown that followed the August 25 attack has prompted the Rohingya to flee Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, where refugee camps are overflowing. Survivors have reported that the military and Buddhist mobs burned their villages and attacked civilians. There have also been reports of mass rape and abuse of Rohingya women and girls.
Myanmar’s government has stated that “clearance operations” against Rohingya militants concluded on September 5, and that 400 were killed. Reports from multiple sources, to include the BBC, Amnesty International, and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), more commonly known as Doctors Without Borders, have concluded that the violence is far more widespread than the government claims. MSF suggests a death toll of at least 6,700 in the first month alone.
Nobel Laureate standing by
It should be noted that, like many countries in Southeast Asia, the government and the military are not always on the same page. The contextual lens of the United States’ civil-military relationship is very different from how things work in Myanmar. The government and military are almost two separate entities with both vying, in a way, to control the other.
Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s State Counsellor (similar to Prime Minister). While she may head the government, she has no control over the military. She has, however, provided the military with the political cover it requires to operate freely against the Rohingya. She and her government have been all but silent on the issue.
Suu Kyi not only refuses to call the Rohingya people by name, but has denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place. While she may not have control of the military, she has done next to nothing to stop what the United Nations has called “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
This is doubly troubling because Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Many of our readers may have probably lost respect for the Nobel Peace Prize after former President Barrack Obama’s received it for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” during his first year in office (you know, before he had a chance to DO any of that).
In Suu Kyi’s case, her 1991 Nobel Prize was awarded “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” She stood up to Myanmar’s military and refused to bend in the name of democratic solutions. Her Nobel Prize, unlike former President Obama’s, was earned.
It would appear, however, that her devotion to human rights extends to everyone but the Rohingya. The United Nations, despite recognizing that ethnic cleansing is currently ongoing, has yet to sanction Myanmar. While many countries are helping with the refugee crisis, it is far more likely that the UN will be exactly as active in stopping this genocide as they were in Rwanda: not at all.