What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.
Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.
.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.
.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.
Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.
.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.
When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.
A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.
.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.
.. The United Nations report also said that the crackdown in Rakhine had “targeted teachers, the cultural and religious leadership, and other people of influence in the Rohingya community in an effort to diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge.”
.. Five years ago, Sittwe, nestled in an estuary in the Bay of Bengal, was a mixed city, divided between an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Walking Sittwe’s crowded bazaar in 2009, I saw Rohingya fishermen selling seafood to Rakhine women. Rohingya professionals practiced law and medicine. The main street in town was dominated by the Jama mosque, an Arabesque confection built in the mid-19th century. The imam spoke proudly of Sittwe’s multicultural heritage.
.. every Rakhine resident I talked to claimed, falsely, that no Muslims had ever owned shops there.
.. Mr. Kyaw Min used to teach in Sittwe, where most of his students were Rakhine Buddhists. Now, he said, even Buddhist acquaintances in Yangon are embarrassed to talk with him.
“They want the conversation to end quickly because they don’t want to think about who I am or where I came from,” he said.
.. their Bengali dialect and South Asian features often distinguishing them from Rakhine Buddhists.
.. Later attempts by a Rohingya insurgent group to exit Burma and attach northern Rakhine to East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known, further strained relations.
.. By the 1980s, the military junta had stripped most Rohingya of citizenship.
.. Today, far more Rohingya live outside of Myanmar — mostly in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia — than remain in what they consider their homeland.
.. Even under Ne Win, the general, Burmese national radio aired broadcasts in the Rohingya language. Rohingya, women among them, were represented in Parliament.
.. “They want every Rohingya to be considered a terrorist or an illegal immigrant,” he said. “We are much more than that.”
For years China helped prop up Myanmar’s economy when it was ruled by a military junta. But ties between the two countries soured when Myanmar’s generals began introducing democratic overhauls in 2011, ultimately leading to the election of Ms. Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner ..
.. Chinese hydropower project was put on hold, and Japanese and Western investment began trickling into the country to displace Beijing from its role as Myanmar’s sole benefactor.
Now, China is regaining some of its lost influence. It is trying to revive stalled projects, including the hydroplant, and get access to Myanmar’s Indian Ocean coast through a $7.3 billion port and pipeline project.
.. China’s diplomatic and commercial moves are a part of President Xi’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road” plan to build infrastructure and deepen trade ties across Eurasia. It will also lessen China’s dependence on oil shipped through the narrow and easily blocked Strait of Malacca.
.. The cost for the Rohingya, though, is that under the China-brokered repatriation deal, there might be little international supervision of how they are treated should they choose to return to Myanmar.
Among other things, Myanmar plans to bar Rohingya from the lands they farmed before the purges. It instead intends to settle them in “model villages,” which the U.N. has described as little better than internment camps.
Francis Wade, author of “Myanmar’s Enemy Within” explains the deep roots of the violence, and the long-term persecution of the Rohingya people.
This devastating violence follows several waves of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence to have hit Myanmar since its democratic transition began in 2011.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised for her refusal to condemn the military’s campaign, which has emptied more than 170 Rohingya villages of their inhabitants.
.. Myanmar had always been depicted by observers in quite binary terms—
- of an oppressive military junta ruling over a
- stoic, peaceful, largely Buddhist population.
In the decade or so prior to the start of the democratic transition in 2011 the country only really made international headlines when journalists reported on the monk-led protests, or embedded with ethnic armies fighting wars of resistance against the military in the borderlands. So it was set up as “bad junta” versus “good society”, and the frictions within each camp, particularly the latter, hadn’t had much of a nuanced reading.
.. violence, largely communal in its expression, broke out in the west of the country in June 2012. Over four days Buddhist and Muslim mobs attacked one another in fits of frenzied violence.
.. Much of the violence was being perpetrated by Buddhists, goaded on by monks, and this greatly confounded observers.
.. The denial of citizenship to Rohingya means they lack state protections
.. Soldiers are seemingly free to execute civilians and raze entire villages without fear of legal recrimination. Once you’re legally cast as a pariah group it feeds local perceptions of you as an alien entity, of threatening intent—
- you must have been made stateless because to allow you to be a citizen would imperil our security.
- You cannot have the rights that would grant you greater political power, because that would be used to pursue whatever cause your group has set out to achieve—in the case of the Rohingya, the theft of resources, the Islamisation of Myanmar, and so on.
.. It is primarily fear, aided hugely by dehumanising propaganda and policies—tight restrictions on movement and access to healthcare; checkpoints at which Rohingya must show ID cards, and which reinforce this perception of them being a threat. That fear helps to justify the violence towards this community, and construe that violence as defensive. That’s how you sell a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
.. Hence a situation has arisen whereby those who criticise the military’s actions are rounded upon by the same people who for so long opposed the military. Now that it has ostensibly stepped back from power, a newer, even more menacing threat has emerged in the form of a Muslim group with apparently Islamising intentions.
.. Much of the present-day crisis has been stoked by the self-serving interests of nationalist leaders who dredge up historical conflicts in order to justify the exclusionary policies they support.
.. During British rule of Myanmar between 1824 and 1948 it imported vast numbers of Indian workers, as it did in colonies
This caused a sudden demographic change
But this demographic shake-up gave further wind to a budding anti-colonial movement spearheaded predominantly by Bamar Buddhists (Bamar is the majority ethnic group, and Buddhism the dominant religion)
those two identities became the pivot around which a national identity was forged against British rule. Indians came to be seen as stooges of British rule, given they’d often been privileged in professional hierarchies.
Nationalist groups accused them of diluting the “bloodline” by forcing Buddhist women to convert when they married.
.. after the military took power in 1962 it vigorously promoted Buddhism as the national religion (although that was never enshrined in law), and Bamar as effectively the master race. Later it decided, with no evidence provided, that precisely 135 ethnic groups existed in the country. British censuses don’t record any mention of a Rohingya ethnic group, although Rohingya claim a presence in the country going back several centuries and were recognised by the government after independence. Not being considered among the 135 indigenous groups, they gradually became a pariah community, denied citizenship and stripped of political rights.
. It goes way back to when the British took Myanmar in the early 19
century and imported its obsession with racial science. Colonial administrators set about carving up and codifying communities into distinct groups, and pinning attributes to them: some ethnic groups were gentle, others were wild, and so on.
It did this in its colonies across the world, and the results, as we know, have been toxic. What were fluid cultural differences between groups become sharp divides, and in Myanmar as elsewhere they have spawned competition and conflict—exacerbated greatly by a military that wanted control of every corner of the country—that seems intractable. This has become a permanent fixture in many post-colonial societies.
You’d be hard pressed to find any justification for violence in the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, which is what the majority in Myanmar practice. But what’s always forgotten in these analyses of how certain religions are supposed to “be” is that people act primarily as human beings, with human fears and anxieties.
I was told that while Buddhism doesn’t support violence, those Buddhists who have perpetrated violence acted with the conviction that if Buddhism ceased to exist in Myanmar, the country would descend into anarchy. “If the Buddhist cultures vanish … there wouldn’t be the influence of peace and truth. There will be more discrimination and violence,” one person told me.
These may be Buddhists committing violence, but they’re also humans. I think its key to look beyond the religious element—it appears to me more an expression of nationalist-based anxieties, of which the fear of Buddhism’s demise is but one aspect.
.. they’ve been able to turn floating existential anxieties felt by many Buddhists into something more concrete by pointing to other former bastions of Buddhism—India, Malaysia and so on—where Islam is now predominant. Second, because a number of Buddhist nationalist movements have also functioned as providers of welfare to a population that has known only neglect. Monks carry huge social capital in Myanmar—for centuries and more they have served as the moral glue of society. Because they’re so venerated it’s difficult for those who don’t agree with their more recent expressions of xenophobia to challenge them.
.. There have been numbers of prominent figureheads of the pro-democracy movement who have issued inflammatory anti-Rohingya rhetoric. Again though, it shows a certain naivety on our part. We knew that they stood against military rule, and had used “democracy” as a powerful sign around which to mobilise a movement, but what exactly they stood for was less clear.
.. The Myanmar of today—and numbers of its pro-democracy luminaries-cum-chauvinists—proves how wrong it is to equate the concept of democracy with the principle of tolerance for all.
.. She seems to think it more constructive to keep the military onside than to leverage the moral influence she has to stop the cleansing.