YANGON, Myanmar — This coming Sunday, Myanmar will hold its first “free” elections for 25 years, an event set to cement the country’s status as one of the world’s newest democracies. If all goes to plan, the poll will complete the country’s recent transition from military to (partial) civilian rule.
It is an exciting moment, not least as there is some hope that the leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), could win a landslide victory and reduce the grip that Myanmar’s military-backed ruling elite retain over political life. In such an event, there is some hope that the NLD could work with the military, who are allocated a quarter of the seats in Parliament by law, to build on the reform program established by current President Thein Sein.
But extremely serious allegations leveled against the state suggest all is not well in Myanmar. There is “strong evidence” that Myanmar has committed genocide against a largely Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, according to a recent report by a clinic of Yale Law School for Bangkok-based NGO Fortify Rights. Other reports andexperts have warned that genocide may be on the horizon.
For decades, the Rohingya have endured abuse, statelessness and apartheid in the western edge of the country. Their plight was brought to the attention of the international media in 2012 when two anti-Rohingya pogroms led to mass displacement and hundreds of deaths. These incidents were described by Human Rights Watch as “crimes against humanity” undertaken as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign in which state agencies were allegedly involved.
Earlier this year, attention was drawn again to the Rohingya when thousands of “boat people,” among them many from the minority, faced starvation and abandonment at sea in trafficker’s boats as part of what became termed ” the Asian refugee crisis.”
But these events are only the most high-profile agonies that the Rohingya have been subjected to. The group have endured at least three ethnic cleansing campaigns since the late seventies, as well as decades of routine abuses at the hands of the state such as torture, rape and forced labor. Their basic rights have been slowly stripped away by state policy, culminating in total disenfranchisement and new laws designed to control births in measures enacted this year. Throughout this period, an unknown number of killings have taken place.
It is in reference to this history of a cumulative campaign against the group by successive governments in Myanmar, not just recent events, that the charge of genocide is most cogently being argued.
Unsurprisingly, the allegation has been challenged by state representatives. After a period of silence, spokesman Ye Htut told local publication Mizzima that the government “rejects the accusation completely,” adding that the Yale report was part of an “an intentional plot” to destabilize parts of the country before the election.
The claim has also been dismissed by members of the NGO community working in Myanmar, some of whom were quoted in a piece published by The Straits Times this week, which asserted that genocide is “not the issue” for the Rohingya. The article, by veteran journalist Nirmal Ghosh, went on to cite think tank and aid agency sources who said they saw the charge as being incorrect and irresponsible.
However, the case for genocide — either on the horizon or in the present — largely rests on an analysis not just of recent violence but of the cumulative effects of decades of state policy. What seems to be rejected by critics is an image of the situation that assumes that, because Rwanda-style mass killings haven’t occurred, the allegation is untenable.
Addressing such criticisms, Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights, told me, “Genocide is a crime everyone thinks they understand. We’ve come to realize that many diplomats, UN officials and analysts don’t understand the law of genocide, and we don’t necessarily hold that against them.”
“We often associate gas chambers and mass killing to situations of genocide, but elevating the crime to the most extreme examples is not necessarily helpful, and it’s not required by the law of genocide,” he continued. “Waiting for the appearance of gas chambers is precisely the mentality that has contributed to our world’s repeated failures to prevent atrocities.”
The term genocide inspires political sensitivity and institutional cowardice precisely because it carries with it legal obligations that most states, in theory, have to adhere to. Myanmar has become increasingly important to the West due to its strategic location in the U.S.-led “pivot to Asia.” To use the charged term “genocide” publicly could seriously damage ties with Naypyidaw.
However, it’s one thing to mindlessly proclaim “genocide!” and advocate the ending of all forms of quiet diplomacy with the government of Myanmar in favor of a single-track confrontational approach. It’s quite another to advocate for the continuation of such engagement while calling for an international commission of inquiry to investigate the claim.
It is this latter approach that is recommended by the Yale paper. It’s hard to see why it should not be adopted, unless one favors the option of simply doing nothing until the situation deteriorates into a full-blown human catastrophe.