Reports now are that the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living in Myanmar (Burma), will now be driven from their camps in neighboring Bangladesh back to western Myanmar, likely facing murder, rape and pillage all the way. They are terrified, and rightfully so.
The Rohingya have roots in eastern Pakistan but have been living virtually as slaves in Myanmar for more than 200 years. During World War II Burma allied with the Japanese, but the Rohingya fought with the British. Periodically they have faced East European-style pogroms, yet the pace of persecution has intensified since the military took over Myanmar in 1982.
Seven hundred thousand were driven away last year to squalid camps on the Bangladesh side, some adjoining the fence between the two countries, with the Myanmar military keeping a close eye from the other side. The psychological trauma has resigned them to an awful fate. Their last, faint embers of faith in people they should have a right to depend on have not exactly swung for the fences — they have instead embraced old hatreds or failed to understand the power of the Burmese state they face.
Strike one: Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi would seem like a natural ally. Her father was the father of the modern nation, assassinated when she was 2. She lived for 15 years under house arrest, was awarded the Nobel, and has risen to the highest civilian office in the land. Yet as the rapes, gang rapes, mass murders and property confiscations have intensified, she has minimized them each time. Defenders claim she has little control over the military. Despite repeated pleas for her to speak, she has uttered not a critical word, nor lifted a hand, not even against the violent Buddhist monk-led mobs that have inspired and joined in the violence.
She remains popular among the Burmese at large. Her writings and laureates have gained her a worldwide following that is probably unaware of her recent stance. Yet among those who once saw in her a chance for freedom in Burma, like former supporter Tun Khin, there appears a different side: “The point is that Aung San Suu Kyi,” he told the BBC, “is covering up this crime perpetrated by the military.” More pointedly, NPR spoke with Maung Garni, a human rights activist and personal friend, who said of Suu Kyi, “simply put, she is anti-Muslim. … She is [an] Islamophobe. I mean, she is a big part of the problem.” Testimony in Parliament in London claims Suu Kyi could alleviate suffering, but “she’s choosing not to” even though “she is the one person in the country who really could change attitudes towards the Rohingya.”
Last week, three former Nobel Peace Prize winners visited Rohingya refugee camps. They urged Suu Kyi to either condemn the violence, or face the possibility of prosecution for genocide. And according to the most recent rapporteur of the United Nations for Burma (see below), that may well happen.
Strike two: The United Nations
The UN has a large presence in Myanmar. Special rapporteurs and a country team have acted at cross-purposes. At least that’s the most generous explanation. Caroline Vandenabeele, a veteran of Rwanda, saw it all there first: the indifference, the ineptitude. Now she claims the furies of the Buddhists, the mobs, the military, and the police are largely unopposed for more pernicious reasons. The head of the UN’s “country team” (UNCT) has tried to marginalize any UN personnel that raises the issue of ethnic cleansing (ethnic cleansing has been long practiced, but only recently written into international law; still, we may have now passed that point to genocide). She witnessed UN representatives blocking human rights workers from traveling to the Rohingya area, stifling public advocates, and muzzling staff that used the dreaded words “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide.” Staff have been blocked in their efforts to aid the Rohingya, and troublemakers have been kept out of meetings — death by a thousand cuts for bureaucrats. All this obstruction has been done in favor of a “long term” strategy aimed at not embarrassing the Burmese government.
Tomas Quintana backs up Vandenabeele. He was a special rapporteur for the country until 2014. He was moved off the desk after he refused to heed the UNCT head’s warning to stay away from the region.
An internal UN report criticized the UNCT’s head (who has since been moved out of the country). It criticized her trying to halt criticism to dissuade perpetrators as an “over-simplified hope” “more likely to reinforce discrimination than change it.” Yet another called this approach “glaringly dysfunctional.”
Strike three: Pope Francis
Pope Francis has waded into controversy before now. Ordination of women, support of the poor and vulnerable, and even more to the point here, apologizing for church indolence during the Rwanda genocide of 1994 where over a million Tutsis died at the hands of the Hutu majority in a few weeks.
Perhaps to make amends for Rwanda, he tried early in his pontificate to raise the profile of the Rohingya, mentioning them frequently (which cannot be done in Burma: even mentioning the name is against the law, as is speaking the language). He was castigated for his efforts by Buddhists who call his words “political instigation” and even claim the Rohingya do not exist. It is no accident that a young George Orwell, then known as Eric Blair, learned much about the totalitarian mindset during a 1920s sojourn in Burma as a policeman.
So expectation was high in late November during his visit to Myanmar that the pope would publicly proclaim not only the name Rohingya, but even claim their right to exist and castigate the government and mobs.
But he would not. He met privately for 20 minutes with the military leadership. No word has yet leaked of the content of the conversation, of any criticism. Yet if he did even that, there has been no trace of an impact on the military behavior: a blocking force has been moved to the border, for example, most likely to prevent the return of any refugees.
His advisers justified his refusal to use his position in favor of the Rohingya because it might “aggravate” the situation (which sounds like a repeat of Rwanda), and that he didn’t want to place the Christian minority in the country at risk (the actual purpose of the concordats signed with fascist countries during World War II). In any event, the regime could have hoped for little more than the pope’s public silence.
A scant few have said the right things. President Barack Obama used the “R” word during his visit in 2012, yet another round of pogroms during that same year has since been repeated. British Prime Minister Theresa May said the events of recent months “look like ethnic cleansing,” but stopped short of an accusation, and was silent about Suu Kyi. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a 2017 visit, and has spoken at other times about the slow-motion genocide there. But in-country he measured his words, saying what has happened has “the characteristics of crimes against humanity.”
Orwell is rightly proclaimed by some Burmese, who still read his works, as “the prophet.” It would be fascinating to know how one of the 20th century’s “prophets” would skewer the hypocrisy running rampant in 21st-century Burma.