Talk on genocide in Burma
Genocide in Burma was the title of a fascinating lecture by Prof. Penny Green of Queen Mary University, London given in Southampton University organised by our Amnesty colleagues in that city. We tend to think that genocide is something that doesn’t happen today yet instances of it occur in places as diverse as the Balkans and Rwanda. It is in fact quite a recent crime and was identified as such during the Second World War by Raphael Lemkin who coined the word itself. While a lot of attention is rightly paid to the Holocaust – the genocidal act that prompted the identification – modern examples seem to get overlooked.
Prof Penny started her talk by tracing the history of the genocide in Burma. It concerns the Rohingya people who live in the north-west of the country. The first the west became aware of it was went a boat full of refugees were found floating in the Andaman Sea in 2015. This prompted some international protests at the time. Subsequently, there has been considerable research by Penny and her team and a large number of interviews were conducted, a total of 176 in all, to try to find out what has been happening. There is no doubt from all the evidence and testimonies that we are in the final stages of a genocidal act in Burma. Further details can be found on the Burma Campaign Website.
Following Lemkin’s work in getting genocide recognised as a crime, others have added further details. One such is the Argentinian Daniel Feierestein and another is Claudia Card. All in their various ways are keen to stress that genocide is not a single act but involves a series of stages. Nor does it have to involve just death but is about the destruction of social relationships and the denial of identity. It also involves a series of stages. That is, it is not a single event but a process.
The systematic, planned and targeted weakening of the Rohingya through mass violence and other measures, as well as the regime’s successive implementation of discriminatory and persecutory policies against them, amounts to a process of genocide. This process emerged in the 1970s, and has accelerated during Myanmar’s faltering transition to democracy Countdown to Annihilation (link below)
The stages of genocide
The substance of Prof. Penny’s talk was working through the six stages of genocide as they applied to the Rohingya.
Stage 1: This involves stigmatisation and dehumanisation. In Burma this involved refusing to give birth certificates to the new-born. The Rohingya were not included in the census. Civil rights were removed and movement restrictions applied. The use of language is important and the people were described as ‘Kalar’ which is equivalent in its derogatory meaning to ‘nigger’.
The role of Buddhist monks was also important and shocking. We tend to have a view of Buddhists as a pious and peaceful and we conjure up pictures of men praying in saffron robes. By contrast, Ashin Wirathu is a racist monk who has a fine line in anti-Muslim hatred. He and other racist monks play an important role in the demonization of the Rohingya. One particular campaign – labelled the 969 Movement – was designed to crush all Muslim businesses. Its origins are not altogether clear but it is based on the notion that Muslims are ‘breeding’ faster than native Burmese and so there is a risk of them overrunning the country. The campaigns bear some similarity to the Nazis she said.
Stage 2: This stage involves harassment. This really got underway in 2012 when there were 200 murders and 38 mosques were destroyed. An important part of the story is that in some cases the police are present when murders take place but they do nothing and there are no investigations. Reports of violence are censored and the UN rapporteur was attacked. Nazi memorabilia is present and many are sent to concentration camps.
Stage 3: It is now important to isolate and segregate the Rohingya and this comprises the third stage. Food aid is denied and the people live in squalid conditions. Hunger is prevalent.
Stage 4: Systematic weakening. A series of actions are involved here: no food aid; medical help is denied; freedom of movement is denied; there is no education and no access to livelihoods. MSF were expelled for reporting on the situation. Other charities such as Oxfam are attacked and this creates a problem for them. If they speak out and report on the brutality, they are banned from the country, if they stay silent they can continue to help. They become ‘inadvertently complicit’ she said.
Stage 5: This is annihilation and seriously got underway in 2016/17 when 354 villages were destroyed. Thousands are killed and 800,000 are forced to flee. It was at this stage that the world began to notice and we saw some news footage of burning villages and distressing scenes of fleeing Rohingya. There was mass rape by uniformed Myanmar men. The result is nearly one million Rohingya – almost the entire population – are now living in Bangladesh.
Current issue of Without Borders, the house magazine of Médecins Sans Frontières, leads on the Rohingya crisis and has a description of a camp in Bangladesh:
Some patients are literally struck dumb by the horror of what they have witnessed or what has been done to them. What really sticks in my mind are the drawing the children do in the clinic’s mental health unit. Helicopters firing on people, homes on fire, people being killed.
What these children must have witnessed is horrendous. One young boy has deformed feet. He couldn’t run away from the soldiers because of this. He told me a soldier shot him in the foot. Why would anyone do such a thing?
People’s living conditions are unbelievably squalid. Filthy streams, polluted by human waste, are crossed by rickety bamboo bridges. […] when it rains it becomes a quagmire. Dr Ian Cross working with MSF
This brings us to the final stage of the genocidal process:
Stage 6: This is termed ‘symbolic enactment’ which is where we are now with Burma. This final stage involves the total destruction of buildings and the eradication of the Rohingya from history. The state discourse is one of denial: it didn’t happen; the victims were responsible i.e. they set fire to their own villages, or that it was a matter of self-defence. Any other account is a conspiracy by international human rights groups. It cannot be long before they will be claiming it is ‘fake news’.
A fuller account of what is happening in Burma and the treatment of the Rohingya can be found in penny Green’s report Countdown to Annihilation (pdf).
Aung San Suu Kyi
There can be few in world who have fallen from grace so far as Aung San Suu Kyi. She received a Nobel prize for her heroic resistance to the military and endured many years of house arrest. Yet now she stands passively by while genocide is committed in her country. She declines to engage in discussions about the topic. It seems the very stubbornness which stood her in good stead all those years is now preventing her seeing or accepting the horror which is going on in the Rakhine.
This was a fascinating talk made particularly interesting because it was anchored both in evidence and photographs from the areas affected but also because it emphasised that genocide is a process not just an event. If there is a tiny crumb of comfort from the events described it is that if the process is interdicted at an early enough stage then it can be prevented. Waiting until it reaches the end stage is too late. Not only has enormous suffering been endured by the victims of the oppression, but attitudes have become hardened and state actions have become institutionalised.
Courtlye Musick are presenting a concert of vocal and instrumental music from Tudor and Elizabethan times performed in costume on Saturday 10 March at 7:30 at Christ church, Waterloo Rd, Freemantle SO15 3BT. Tickets are £8 at the door and the concert is in aid of Amnesty International