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Burma: Much Talk About Democracy, Little About Ethnic Cleansing

The Western media regards the status of the Rohingya people in Burma (Myanmar) as a minor detail in the wooing of a country known for its precious natural resources. While the electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy represents a momentous event in Burma, the horrific treatment of the one million Rohingya Muslims who were denied the right to vote, stand for office, or even inclusion in a recent census, also demands our attention.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law denies their rights to nationality, freedom of movement, access to education and services, and the right to property. ,Ruben Flamarique/Austcare

We have witnessed a momentous and historic event in Burma (Myanmar); the first real glimpses of democracy with the military dictatorship making way for the landslide victory of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi after over two decades of political exile at an immeasurable personal cost.

However, there is a story behind the headlines and jubilation, to a large extent sidelined and omitted, perhaps because it inconveniently complicates and even undermines the simplistic narrative of democratic triumph over dictatorship, of absolute good overcoming absolute evil. That barely visible story, rather than a minor detail, demands our full attention, especially if the purpose behind the electoral exercise was a future democratic Burma, where human rights and its diverse ethnic and religious plurality is accommodated, respected and reflected politically.

And it is this: the Rohingya Muslim minority numbering around 1 million were denied the right to vote or stand for office, following a recent census, which excluded all Rohingya. Couple this with recent in-depth reports from Queen Mary University and Fortify Rights and the Yale Law School finding that the process of genocide is under way against the Rohingya. The QMU report concludes:

“the Rohingya have suffered the first four of the six stages of genocide. They have been, and continue to be, stigmatized, dehumanised and discriminated against. They have been harassed, terrorized and slaughtered. They have been isolated and segregated into detention camps and securitised villages and ghettos. They have been systematically weakened through hunger, illness, denial of civil rights and loss of livelihood.” This puts them at serious risk of stage five which is “mass annihilation”.

The report is endorsed by Tomás Ojea Quintana, former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (2008-14). Earlier in 2013, a Human Rights Watch Report titled: ‘All You Can Do is Pray’ had concluded, with the help of detailed satellite imagery, the treatment of Rohingya met the legal definition of ethnic cleansing.

While reprehensible, such little attention to serious allegations – well documented by the UN - by prominent western states is understandable. For them, the treatment of Rohingya may be a detail in the general opening up and wooing of a state known for its unspoilt and unexploited natural resources.

However, what is not understandable is the lack of media attention given to this acute situation. In the UK, the Guardian, for example, ran a dedicated piece on the exclusion of Rohingya before the elections on  November 3, but in their coverage of the election itself and victory of Aung San Suu Kyi, mention of Rohingya exclusion was scant or absent, let alone the compelling reports alleging genocide. BBC’s Radio 4 broadcast a pre-election piece again focusing wholly on the binary of the struggle between democracy and military dictatorship. It took the Huffington Post to publish Mark Farmanar of the Burma Campaign UK and Tun Khin of BROUK (Burmese Rohingya Organization UK), who are both at the forefront of raising the plight of the Rohingya in the UK and beyond.   

Journalists ignoring or giving fleeting importance to the Rohingya story undermine the very ethics of their profession. Their role is to hold not only Burma but the British Government’s policy towards it to account, in properly balancing the allegations of ethnic cleansing, genocide and disenfranchisement with economic and trade interests. This burden weighs heavier on those journalistic institutions that pride themselves as the most independent, objective and rigorous.

It defies logic, meanwhile, to smooth over flaws with the democratic process in excluding one entire ethno-religious group from voting or standing. Thorough analysis and sombre reflection is needed to understand how Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory and the continued prominence of the military, with 25 percent of the seats reserved, will alter the situation of the Rohingya.  She understandably has to work with the military and so has recently offered them an olive branch. At the same time, we cannot ignore that when pressed on the Rohingya situation, she has been troublingly silent during the 2012 organised massacres that killed 200 and forcibly displaced 120,000 Rohingya or soon after receiving her Nobel Prize did not know if the Rohingya could be considered as Burmese citizens. She also put forward no Muslim NLD candidates in the elections.

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Attributing this to political shrewdness in averting confrontation with the military or the Bamar Buddhist majority, hardly inspires confidence in whether she will behave differently in power. Any optimism on this score must be tempered, given the certain Rakhine control of Arakan State owing to Rohingya disenfranchisement. Add to this, the unchecked prevailing anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment amongst the Bamar Buddhist majority, stoked with impunity by violent ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks, who have fomented and incited hatred, violence and murder against Rohingya and more recently against any Muslims. These are the makings of a grave situation for which the recent landmark elections offer no solutions.

Favourable coverage of a historic, peaceful and democratic assumption of power by a Nobel Laureate at the expense of the Rohingya sub-narrative of suffering and disenfranchisement reinforce and add to the policy of successive Burmese Governments, who sought to systematically exclude Rohingya from every facet of life and deny them citizenship. The prevailing policy is not to even acknowledge their existence or identity and by implication their claim to equality and nationality. They are referred to as immigrant Bangladeshis despite historic predominance in the areas where they reside. The climate is such that even the word ‘Rohingya’ is an unutterable taboo.

The searching question that we need to ask ourselves is whether we want to feed into this erasure of even the acknowledgement and existence of a besieged group, let alone their suffering. After all according to the QMU report, the sixth and final stage of genocide is the “symbolic enactment involving the removal of the victim group from the collective history”.

[Murtaza Shaikh is Head of Law at Averroes, an independent and non-partisan think tank in the UK. He specializes in minority rights, conflict prevention and freedom of religion.]