Dr. Maung Zarni on the Rohingya Muslim Genocide in Buddhist Burma/Myanmar

28 November 2016

By Maung Zarni

A journalist asked me a few questions to get sound bites and quotes.  I turned them into a more comprehensive interview. Thought this may serve as a succinct backgrounder if you are interested in the contextual view of the current annihilation phase of the Rohingya genocide.

Why do you as a Buddhist and Burmese support Rohingys when your whole country, the military, the NLD and the society, hate and want to evict them as a group?

Historical evidence clearly indicates today’s Rakhine coastal region to be an ethnically and religiously diverse shared homeland for both Rakhine and Rohingya for centuries.  This is also the region that had far greater historical interaction and inter-mingling with the Bay of Bengal-based communities of present-day east coast of India, Bangladesh (East Bengal) than the central plains of Burma, where today’s dominant, ruling group, the Burmese,  have been based. I therefore support unequivocally the right of return for Rohingya people – close to a million by now – whom the Burmese have purged since the first army-organized large scale operation in 1978. There are more official reasons which compel me to support the Rohingyas and their cry to live in Northern Rakhine.

First, the governments of Burma, including the senior most leaders of the Burma Armed Forces embraced officially and verifiably Rohingya people as one of the ethnic minorities of the Union of Burma.  Second, Rohingyas are like any other ethnic minorities along Burma’s porous and long borders with China, India, Thailand and Bangladesh, whose presence and identities predate the emergence of present-day Burma. Burma as we know it is a colonial product of negotiations amongst the Burmese nationalists, ethnic minority leaders and the British colonials, and its borders were drawn artificially, splitting up these borderlands communities into members or citizens of new nation-states. As early as 1950’s the Burmese leaders, both civilians and military, acknowledge the presence and adjustable identities these borderlands people.

I know this because my own late great-uncle was a senior commander stationed in Rakhine, who was Deputy Chief of the predominantly Rohingya administrative district named Mayu District, after Mayu River in Northern Rakhine.

In addition, there are over 1,3 million Rohingyas – by Burma’s official, conservative estimate – that continue to live in what you may call ‘vast open prisons’ where the ethnic cleansing is taking place. The Burmese government of ex-general Thein Sein proposed to the visiting UNHCR head in August 2012 to effectively evict them and transmigrate them to other countries, with UN financing.  UN rejected the proposal on grounds that Rohingyas are not refugees. They are the country’s people, born and bred there, and it is the Burmese state’s responsibility to look after them.

Even without discussing the genocidal acts committed by the Burmese regime, the fact that it refuses categorically to register the birth of every single Rohingya new born makes Burma a major violator of international law, for instance, the Child Right Convention, which entitles all new-born infants, the right to a nationality. My country is verifiably in the wrong, in terms of facts and international law, not to mention on grounds of Buddhist principles of compassion and human kindness.

Is Aung San Suu Kyi ignoring the plight of the Rohingyas?

Aung San Suu Kyi is not simply ignoring or lukewarm about the plight of Rohingyas.  She is personally complicit and now officially guilty in making their plight worse by the day.

She is reportedly very “racist” towards the Muslims, and she unilaterally made the decision to NOT allow any Muslim MP in her party during the 2015 election, effectively pandering to the majoritarian anti-Muslim electorate. She shares the Burmese generals’ concern about the growth of Muslim population and she shares their military’s institutionalized view that Rohingyas are illegals or just colonial era migrants with no root in the country. By cleansing her now nominally ruling NLD of all Muslim MP candidates and representatives, she has practically aligned herself with the army, her key partner.

Why is there so much majoritarian racism towards Rohingyas and Muslims?

It is important to note that the ground-swell of Islamophobia is to a large extent the outcome of decades of Myanmar military’s anti-Muslim propaganda.   The generals turned racists and purged the armed forces of Muslims at all levels.   and they turned sight on to the society at large.  Beyond communal prejudices between Buddhists and Muslims,  the hatred, fear of Muslims among the majority Burmese, as well as other non-Rohingya non-Muslim minorities is just unprecedented. This anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim popular hatred is akin to Nazi Germany’s popular and official anti-Jew sentiments.     That is why, Aung San Suu Kyi, pandering to the military and popular racism towards Rohingyas is extremely troubling.

Have the international communities not actually created enough pressure on Myanmar to treat the Rohingyas fairly?

The mythical international community has known the persecution of the Rohingyas for decades – in fact since 1970’s.   There is plenty of evidence and documentation from the Rohingyas, from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights, embassy reports, UN reports, etc.      But the UN has failed to take any real and concrete measures or actions to stop a member state violating blatantly all major international human rights laws and treaties – like the Rome Statute Article 6 (Genocide Convention of 1948), Child Right Convention, CEDAW.

The failure of the UN and the failure of the Burmese leaders to address the needs of the ROhingya to lead a peaceful normal productive community life in their own homeland of N. Rakhine is going to have major negative ramifications for Burma, region and the world. In an otherwise fractured Islamic world, Rohingya genocide is the one issue that anger 1.7 billion Muslims around the world.  That anger will in due course translate into radical actions to end the Rohingyas’ plight.

Maung Zarni is a Burmese democracy advocate, human rights campaigner, and a former research fellow at the London School of Economics. He lived and worked in the United States for 17 years.