Genocide in the Modern Day: Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar
It’s been almost a year and a half since the military-led ethnic cleansing campaign by the Myanmar government against Rohingya Muslims took place. Amidst brutal violence, murder, rape and arson, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in what could be dubbed many things. Persecution. Massacre. But perhaps most fittingly, genocide.
Although for most, “genocide” only conjures up images of historical events such as the Holocaust, Rwanda 1994, or Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime, it’s important to remember that genocide has always been within the grasp of human tendencies. Genocide isn’t just a part of our history, it’s a part of our present as well.
According to AlJazeera, the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG), an international law firm hired by the US State Department to investigate the Rohingya massacre, “It is clear from our intense legal review that there is, in fact, a legal basis to conclude that the Rohingya were the victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.” PILPG’s Paul Williams told in a press conference in Washington D.C., “we believe there is sufficient basis to bring international criminal proceedings against the perpetrators of the violence and recommend that the international community pursue legal accountability for the atrocity crimes committed in Rakhine state against the Rohingya.”
However, these harsh allegations have come nearly a decade too late. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military and orchestrator of much of the recent aggression against Rohingya Muslims, was little known outside of domestic military circles until just a few years ago. But his presence has been felt within Myanmar since 2009, when within just a few weeks, his forces drove tens of thousands of people out of two ethnic enclaves in eastern Myanmar. His efforts have ramped up heavily in recent years, with over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims being driven off of their land since 2009. However, even then, his name and actions are hardly known outside of the realm of international politics. In such an interconnected world, it becomes hard to fathom how such heinous atrocities can escape the ire of world communities.
Thus, we can see that two issues need to be addressed. First, is delineating and exploring the specific circumstances that allowed this genocide to occur. An oft said phrase is that “history repeats itself.” With genocide, there is no exception. Hopefully through briefly discussing and recognizing the power dynamics and points of conflicts amongst groups of people in Myanmar, we can come to better anticipate and recognize when such atrocities are occurring.
Second, we must address why seemingly so few are aware of the excessive evils that continue to exist worldwide. Many think of our world as embroiled in social inequality, but we often consider this in terms of privilege and interest. Hardly ever do we consider the sheer number of lives at stake due to nefariousness and evil halfway across the world. Often times, only whispers of this conversation are heard in a western media inundated with almost certainly less consequential news.
Addressing the first issue, it’s important to recognize that modern day genocide is first and foremost a form of social engineering. People are not natural born killers, and it’s generally reasonable to conclude that people are born with some basic level of human empathy. As Quartz India explains, “It begins not with mass murder, but with the dehumanization, isolation, and systematic weakening of a target group.” The non-complicity of local populations precludes the existence of genocide. Thus, it becomes essential to make local populations complicit, either by directly inserting exclusionary ideologies into the population, instituting harsh imperialist governmental policies, or doing both.
In Myanmar there has historically been a long record of “othering” Rohingya Muslims, and deeming them to be “illegal Bengalis.” In fact, The Myanmar government itself refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship, and has institutionalized racism to the point where Rohingya Muslims have stringent restrictions on marriage, family size, employment, education, and freedom of movement.
“modern day genocide is first and foremost a form of social engineering”
The hatred towards the Rohingya Muslims runs deep in a country that is 90% Buddhist. The clash is built fundamentally on racial and religious differences. The Rohingya tend to be more physically and culturally similar to peoples of Bangladesh and India than Myanmar. And for years, Muslim religiosity has allowed Buddhists in the country to spread propaganda by claiming there to be a Muslim plot to take control of the country.
Propaganda is easy to spread amongst social media, especially within a population that has among the lowest average level of education in all of Southeast Asia. In fact, according to the LA Times, “Of all the monks, student activists, ethnic guerrillas and other dissidents who once opposed the army’s abuses, almost none have spoken up for the country’s most beleaguered people.”
Systematic, cultivated hate towards the Rohingya begins from an early age. According to the LA Times, one Rohingya by the name of Waka Uddin, a sixth grader at the time in Myanmar in the 1960s, stated that “his class read a story that described Indians as filthy street-sweepers with monstrous features.” Uddin recalled the liberal use of the slur kalar, used to describe dark-skinned people. The Buddhists students in his class laughed and applauded. Myanmar has since expanded on this dialogue, with high ranking officials stating Muslims are like “detestable human fleas.” Prominent national monk Wirathu stated, “Muslims are like the African carp… They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.”
With prejudice buried so deeply within the process of socialization for citizens of Myanmar, it comes as almost no surprise that such atrocities become free to occur. It's important to recognize that first and foremost, such barbarities still DO occur. Racism is hardly a convenient conversation regarding privileges, interest, and social standing. In many places around the world, lives are at risk due to human vice and malice. Murder, rape, robberies, and arson are very real crimes that are regularly committed against these disadvantaged peoples based solely upon the color of their skin and religious beliefs.
“Racism is hardly a convenient conversation regarding privileges, interest, and social standing. In many places around the world, lives are at risk due to human vice and malice”
Addressing the second issue, what’s been outlined above is a true modern day tragedy. But why aren’t people talking about it?
Historians reflect on historical examples of genocide such as the Holocaust to explain this. Contrary to popular belief that the Americans did almost nothing in preventing the Holocaust until it was too late, American protests against the Holocaust actually began in 1933. Tens of thousands of Americans signed petitions and sent them to Washington in the early years, constantly reminding them about the persecution of Jews. In fact, Hitler, who paid close attention to American media might have expedited his process of bloodshed against the Jewish people if it weren’t for antagonistic voices rising in the West.
However, ultimately it wasn’t enough. Plagued by still high unemployment rates in the decade after the Great Depression, and overall fear of being drawn into international conflict, the movement slowly drifted, and the events carried out and Europe are now known by all.
Lessons can be learned from this. As important and as immediate as domestic issues may seem, it’s also important to give the rest of the world our consideration as well. Need is blind, and although the needs of the American people are often on the forefront of our minds, it’s essential to take a step back at times and assess the big picture. Injustice exists in various forms on our planet, but perhaps it may be time to give the most extreme forms of injustice their deserved attention. Genocide has absolutely no place in our world anymore, and it’s important for us to make that known.
“Need is blind, and although the needs of the American people are often on the forefront of our minds, it’s essential to take a step back at times and assess the big picture. Injustice exists in various forms on our planet, but perhaps it may be time to give the most extreme forms of injustice their deserved attention.”
 Al Jazeera. “US Law Firm Says Myanmar Committed Genocide against Rohingya.” GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 4 Dec. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/12/law-firm-myanmar-committed-genocide-rohingya-181204042107254.html.
 “What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar's Rohingya Crisis?” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.
 Bengali, Shashank. “In Myanmar, Hatred for Rohingya Muslims Runs so Deep That a Diplomat Called Them 'Ugly as Ogres' - and Got Promoted.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 26 Dec. 2017, www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-myanmar-rohingya-hate-20171225-story.html.
 Venning, Alicia de la Cour. “The Anatomy of a Modern-Day Genocide.” Quartz, Quartz, 18 Sept. 2017, qz.com/india/1079871/rohingya-crisis-the-anatomy-of-a-modern-day-genocide/.
 Erbelding, Rebecca. “1933: How Did Americans React?” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 7 Nov. 2017, www.ushmm.org/information/about-the-museum/museum-publications/memory-and-action/1933-how-did-americans-react.
 Beech, Hannah. “Year After Rohingya Massacres, Top Generals Unrepentant and Unpunished.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/world/asia/rohingya-myanmar-ethnic-cleansing-anniversary.html.