The fate of this Burmese minority could bring international tensions to a head in the heart of Asia and in the world.
The Rohingyas are a Sunni Moslem minority living mainly in the western coastal state of Rakhine [formerly Arakan] in Burma – rechristened Myanmar – where 90% of the population are Buddhists. They are supposedly the descendants of Bengali traders who converted to Islam in about the 14th century. Recognized as a minority under the 1947 Constitution inspired by Aun San, the father of independence, the Rohingyas were the first victims of “burmanization” after the coup d’état by the military junta in 1962. Having deprived them of their economic and social rights, the junta withdrew Burmese nationality from them in 1982 and made them stateless. At the same time, an apartheid policy was instituted which involved restriction of movement, ghettoization, confiscation of land, control of marriage and procreation, and the denial of access to education and healthcare.
Since the junta was dissolved in 2011, tension has continued to worsen under pressure from fanatical Buddhists galvanized into action by the Buddhist monk Wirathu who uses social media to advocate the physical removal of the Rohingyas. Increased violence caused a first wave of tens of thousands of Rohingyas to leave for Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. As a reaction to the pogroms, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was formed. It launched attacks against frontier posts in 2016 and then on 25th August 2017, which provoked a backlash which can truly be called genocide. Over 220 villages have been destroyed so as to make it impossible for refugees to return. The UN has justifiably called this a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.
Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and guarantor of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, has failed. When speaking at the UN, she had promised to defend the rights of the Rohingyas and yet she put up a wall of silence before finally speaking out against “a huge iceberg of misinformation”. Her belated and extremely ambiguous statement of 19th September was aimed at appeasing the international community on the eve of the UN General Assembly. The condemnation of human rights violations and the announcement that the Rohingyas would be granted the right to return after identity checks had been carried out, even though they have been declared stateless, remain virtual. She has never questioned the ethnic cleansing carried out by General Aung Hiaing, who seems to be holding her hostage.
By lending her moral authority to genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi is making a deadly alliance with the Burmese nationalists and Buddhists fanatics. She is compromising Myanmar’s transition toward democracy, which presupposes the introduction of universal suffrage as well as respect for the rule of law.
The Rohingya tragedy risks bringing international tensions to a head in the heart of Asia and in the world. It is destabilizing the poor and overpopulated country of Bangladesh, which does not have the means to receive or feed a million exiles. The tragedy is contributing to the massive increase in the number of refugees (65 million) and stateless people (10 million), which cannot be dissociated from the slavery and forced labor that 150 million children are affected by. With camps full of orphans, it is providing the ideal breeding ground for jihadism at a time when Islamic State is establishing itself in Asia. It is of the utmost urgency to contain the propagation and radicalization of violence, and to take two constraints into consideration: China will use its veto at the UN Security Council to oppose any plan to reintroduce sanctions or to send in a UN peacekeeping force; any legitimate pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi must avoid cutting her off from the Burmese population which has been manipulated by decades of nationalist propaganda and Buddhist fanaticism.
The USA and Europe should agree on the following plan: to suspend any aid, arms sales or cooperation with the Burmese army; to set up sanctions that target the military chiefs as well as extremist Buddhist organizations and leaders; to make it possible for the media and NGOs to have access to Rakhine, as well as freedom of movement and freedom to work there; to mobilize massive aid for Bangladesh for the reception and support of refugees – the camps in the Cox Bazar region are under threat of flooding. The 20th century was the the century of wars waged in the name of ideologies. We must not let the 21st century become a century of genocides carried out in the name of religious wars.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 25th September 2017)