Charles Lawley is a Conservative member from the High Peak. He works for an NGO that works with Rohingya refugees and Internally Displace Persons (IDPs).
Today, we are reminded that Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman the world once saw as the Robin Hood of Myanmar, is in fact really their Sheriff of Nottingham.
She has defended imprisoning two Reuters journalists for “breaking the Official Secrets Act.” In reality, their crime was exposing the genocide of the Rohingya.
A UN report, released two weeks ago, confirmed that the actions in Rakhine State in 2017 were indeed genocide, and the death toll was well above the 10,000 initially thought. After recently spending considerable time working within Rohingya in Bangladeshi refugee camps and IDP camps within Myanmar, I too believe that a genocide took place.
One of my first conversations with a survivor was with Masuma. The 30-year-old mother-of-three told me the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) had rounded up her village’s Rohingya and separated them. They sent the women and children home, where soldiers were waiting to rape them. Meanwhile, the men were executed. “Including my husband”, she added solemnly.
Then there was Tomina. She and her family walked for 14 days to reach relative safety in Bangladesh. They took it in turns to carry her disabled son. The journey was an ordeal, but staying would have been worse. “We did not want to leave, we knew it would be difficult. But the military came and burned our homes… as we were escaping we saw people being burned alive in their own homes and women and girls getting raped. We saw men having their throats slit with knives. We saw more than 100 people get murdered that night.”
I was told of babies and the elderly thrown into the flames of their burning homes, people being buried alive in the mass graves they were forced to dig, women being forced to witness “over 100” women and girls being raped at gunpoint in a school – countless accounts of systematic brutality.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar (formerly Burma). They are not legally recognised and have faced decades of state dehumanisation, which constitutes the pre-conditions of genocide. They are denied citizenship and restrictions on basic rights such as voting, getting married, how many children they can have, and permission to leave their villages.
The majority of the country distrusts the Rohingya as they do not fit in to the Buddhist national identity that was championed by the military during their disastrous “Burmese Road to Socialism” in the 1960s, which mixed nationalism with nationalisation.
Socialism transformed Myanmar from one of the most prosperous countries in Asia to one of the most impoverished. The regime attempted to distract from the economic ruin they had caused by scapegoating non-Buddhist groups like the Rohingya. The nation had not forgotten that, during the Japanese occupation, whilst most of the country sided with the Japanese, the Rohingya fought for the British.
Jeremy Hunt’s support for justice has been encouraging. Unfortunately, it is likely China and Russia will veto any International Criminal Court referral. And, even if they did not, those thought to be responsible (i.e. senior generals) would probably be tried in absentia, as the military are a law unto themselves and will not handover one of their own.
We must seek methods of pressurising Myanmar into cooperating with the international community. Firstly, we need to start calling it what it is, a “genocide”, to increase the impetus for international action. “Ethnic cleansing” is just a euphemism for the reality of Rakhine State, whereas genocide fittingly invokes memories of Bosnia and Rwanda and the human cost of the international community’s inaction there.
Even threatening to re-impose sanctions could force cooperation. After it began its transition towards democracy and the initial sanctions were lifted, capital inflow into Myanmar jumped from $320 million to $5 billion in just five years. The military’s many commercial enterprises, such as the Myanmar Economic Corporation, exploited new and lucrative opportunities after sanctions were lifted. There are few clearer cases of a direct economic hit.
Combining economic sanctions with diplomatic sanctions, such as travel bans and shunning from the world stage, could also hurt leaders who do not enjoy being the targets of international condemnation.
Internal pressure also forced the military regime to begin democratisation process. The people were tired of military rule. However, in this case, internal pressure is non-existent. The public largely supports tough action against the Rohingya, due to generations and the institutionalisation of anti-Rohingya sentiments.
Buddhist extremist civil society groups like MaBaTha (who produced textbooks for Myanmar’s schoolchildren) and 969, led by the man dubbed “The Buddhist Bin Laden”, have spread hatred, fuelled civilian attacks, and created a political environment where no politician wants to be seen to be “soft” on Rohingya. They too should be hit with sanctions. Movements like Panzagar, which combats hatred spread by Myanmar’s extremists, should receive Western Support.
As the West becomes increasingly more inward-looking, and China intensifies their ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative of investing more into the next generation of trouble spots, Beijing looks set to adopt the role of “the world’s policeman.” When insurgency, extremism, and civil conflict will threaten Chinese interests in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, they will feel the need to intervene and protect their investments.
Will a nation with a litany of human rights abuses within its own borders really take action to prevent and punish genocides? If Britain and the West do not want to relinquish our moral leadership to those who will happily turn a blind eye to atrocities, then it is imperative we act decisively and pursue justice tirelessly in the face of this inhumanity.