The World Must Recognize the Cause of the Rohingya Crisis
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Thomas MacManus, editor-in-chief of State Crime Journal.
The humanitarian catastrophe in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has been described as the world’s most urgent refugee crisis. The roots of the ethnic conflict can be traced back to British colonial policy in what was then Burma, but it was the decision to strip the Muslim Rohingya minority of citizenship rights on the basis of their religion that laid the foundation for most recent abuses. While 135 national ethnic groups were recognized and granted certain rights, the Rohingya were effectively rendered stateless under the 1982 Citizenship Act, creating the world’s largest stateless minority.
Decades of privation and humiliating restrictions culminated in violent clashes between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and Myanmar security forces in August 2017, leading to the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians to Bangladesh.
The violence against the Rohingya has been waged on an unprecedented scale that has shocked even the most seasoned aid workers and journalists. There have been countless reports of Rohingya women being systematically raped, of villages torched and men summarily executed. The notion of rape as a weapon of war has once again become a haunting reality. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein, has called the situation in Myanmar a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
International aid is being delivered, but conditions on the ground severely limit the effort. Even ideological reasons prevent the successful delivery of aid to the affected Rohingya as Buddhist mobs confront aid groups for prioritizing Muslims. At the same time, Transparency International considers Myanmar to have a highly corrupt government, even under the de facto leadership of the Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, ranking it at 130 on the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index. These figures mean that any international aid within Myanmar might disappear down the corruption drain.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dr. Thomas MacManus, research fellow for the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University of London and editor-in-chief of State Crime Journal, about legal aspects of the crisis and the exigency of an appropriate and categorical international response.
Kourosh Ziabari: The Rohingya crisis has been described by UN officials as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. In your view, is this designation correct? If so, what specifically qualifies the human rights abuses in Myanmar as genocide?
Thomas MacManus: I welcome the call by UN human rights chief, Prince Zeid bin Raad Zeid al-Hussein, for crimes committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution. Previously, the UN has hidden behind the euphemism of ethnic cleansing, a term with no legal meaning. When I hear “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” I ask, as a teacher of state crime and international criminal law, What textbook?
There is no such international crime as ethnic cleansing. So why would this term be used? One reason would be to avoid the legal obligation to investigate potential cases of genocide. We warned the UK government of the risk of the impending annihilation of the Rohingya in 2015, and it did nothing. The idea that only a court can confirm that genocide has taken place, a stance also taken by the UK government, makes a mockery of the prevention element of the 1948 Genocide Treaty. Experience shows that decades have usually passed by the time an international court secures a prosecution for genocide.
It is undoubtedly a genocide, and we have published a detailed report about it available on our website. The findings of ISCI indicate that the Rohingya have been systematically weakened — physically, psychologically and collectively — to such an extent that their agency and purposefulness has effectively been destroyed. This weakening has been orchestrated through planned illness, hunger, loss of livelihood and the removal of basic human rights. Mass killings have been going on since 2012, exacerbated by state-sponsored stigmatization, discrimination, violence and segregation.
Ziabari: What are concrete steps the international community can or should take in order to address the humanitarian crisis and the plight of the Rohingya? What is a realistic way out of the situation?
MacManus: The international community must recognize the cause of the humanitarian crisis — the state-led genocide of the Rohingya community. There are a range of diplomatic and military solutions available to the international community, through the UN or regional bodies. What is lacking is any political will or moral leadership.
I am not recommending any specific solutions. The point is that the states have a wide range of diplomatic and military options available to them. We haven’t seen political leadership on this issue from any quarter.
Ziabari: Outside humanitarian assistance, are there legal steps that can be taken, such as by the International Criminal Court? Would sending a message to the military regime that its excessive use of force cannot continue unpunished have any effect? Are there any past examples to draw from?
MacManus: The UN Security Council could refer the case to the ICC. And any state can exercise universal jurisdiction to arrest members of the Burmese government and prosecute them for international crimes. Past examples of genocide and its punishment, or lack of, include Armenia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Ziabari: Myanmar has been making an effort to reshape its image as a global pariah prior to the Rohingya crisis. Would being branded a rogue state once again put pressure on the government and make it cooperate with the international community to address the conflict?
MacManus: This is not a conflict — it is a genocide. I avoid the term “rogue state,” but threats of sanctions and punishment may force the Burmese government to change its behavior.
In March, a group of Australian lawyers sought to prosecute Aung San Suu Kyi for crimes against humanity. She may also face an application for an arrest warrant if she ever tried to enter the UK. In December 2017, Zeid Raad al-Hussein said he couldn’t rule out the possibility that a court would find that the military campaign against the Rohingya people amounted to genocide.
Ziabari: Facebook has been accused of helping spread hate speech against the Rohingya. To what degree can social media be held accountable — is it a reflection of public sentiment, abhorrent as it may be, or is it being used as a political tool to stir ethnic strife?
MacManus: Facebook has a responsibility to monitor its platform and, if it is being used for the spread of hate speech and the incitement of violence, then it must react.
I don’t have much to say on the role of Facebook until we get more data. If Facebook is being used for the spread of hate speech and the incitement of violence, then it must react and the relevant domestic and international authorities should investigate.
Ziabari: Your research focuses on civil society. Are there any civic initiatives in place in Myanmar directed to help the Rohingya? What can be done on a nongovernmental level to prevent such ethnic crises from arising in the future?
MacManus: There are few civil society initiatives in Burma directed at helping the Rohingya. Attempts to help them are quickly shut down by the government, which has even banned the word “Rohingya.” Civil society inside Burma should champion projects that foster collaboration and understanding between ethnicities. This could, for example, include projects where Rakhine’s Buddhist and Muslim population work together on development projects and new businesses. However, this is currently all but impossible under the repressive, genocidal, military-controlled government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.