If you’re a murderous dictator, this is a joyous time to be alive.
No one will make much of a fuss if your opposition leader is jailed, if an annoying journalist goes missing or if, as happened in Congo, a judge who displeases the dictatorial president suffers a home invasion in which goons rape his wife and daughter.
.. The U.S. has abandoned a bipartisan consensus on human rights that goes back decades.
.. I’m back from Myanmar, where leaders are finding that this is also the optimal time to commit genocide.
The army conducted a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya ethnic minority, with soldiers throwing babies onto bonfires as they raped the mothers.
.. In the past, human rights was at least one thread of our foreign policy.
.. Trump defended Vladimir Putin for killing critics (“What? You think our country’s so innocent?”), and praised Egypt’s brutal president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for “a fantastic job.” Trump hailed the Philippines’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose dirty war on drugs has claimed 12,000 lives, for an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
.. when Trump visited Manila, he laughed as Duterte called reporters “spies” — in a country where aggressive journalism has landed people in the morgue.
.. A record number of journalists are in prison worldwide
.. Trump has met with the leaders of each of the three top jailers of journalists — China, Russia and Turkey — and as far as we know, has never raised the issue of press freedom with them.
.. “What’s completely gone is the bipartisan consensus that was a cornerstone of our foreign policy, that if you imprison journalists and restrict the media, there will be consequences,”
.. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen approvingly cited Trump’s attacks on fake news as a precedent for closing down radio stations and the much admired newspaper Cambodia Daily. After the crackdown, in November, Trump posed for a photograph with Hun Sen, flashing a thumbs-up — and Hun Sen praised the American president for his lack of interest in human rights.
.. “Your policy is being changed,” Hun Sen declared gratefully, and he lauded Trump for being “most respectful.”
.. Trump told the king of repressive Bahrain, “there won’t be strain with this administration.”
.. the government responded a few days later by killing five protesters
.. sentencing Rajab himself to five years in prison for his tweets.
.. Trump’s soft spot for authoritarianism goes way back. He has spoken sympathetically of the Chinese government’s massacres of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, and of Saddam Hussein’s approach to counterterrorism.
.. Periodically, Trump does raise human rights issues, but only to bludgeon enemies like North Korea or Venezuela. This is so ham-handed and hypocritical that it simply diminishes American standing further.
.. approval of the United States has collapsed to a record low of 30 percent. Indeed, more people now approve of China than of the United States. Russia is just behind us.
.. “Trump has been a disaster for U.S. soft power,”
.. “He’s so hated around the world that he’s radioactive. So on those rare occasions when he does something about human rights, it only tarnishes the cause.”
.. In Myanmar, a young Rohingya man pleaded with me: “Please don’t let us be treated as animals.
.. 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.
.. Her reticence is a tactical decision, according to people in her inner circle. Ms. Suu Kyi worries that speaking more forcefully would antagonize the military, which once ran the country and still wields considerable authority, and jeopardize her goal of achieving a full democracy after years of struggle... When a visiting diplomat raised the issue of the Rohingya with Ms. Suu Kyi in 2013, she admonished: “Please don’t call them Rohingya. They are Bengali. They are foreigners,” according to a person with knowledge of the conversation. The term “Bengali” is often used in Myanmar to describe illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The person also recalled that Ms. Suu Kyi complained the international community underestimated the threat Buddhists faced from Muslims in Rakhine State... She has repeatedly stopped short of criticizing soldiers for setting fire to Rohingya settlements... Antipathy to the Rohingya, who live in Myanmar without citizenship or the right to vote, goes back decades. Some Rohingya say they were the original inhabitants of the coastal strip along western Myanmar, before Buddhist ethnic-Rakhines settled there... During World War II, Rohingya sided with retreating British forces while many local Buddhists took up arms with the Japanese in hopes of gaining independence, inflaming tensions between the two communities that have lingered to this day... what Myanmar military strategists call the “Four Cuts.” Developed in the 1970s against the country’s rebel armies, it involves sweeping through civilian areas to deny insurgents food, funds, recruits and information. The general later described the operations as “unfinished business” dating back to World War II... The crisis is raising questions about whether the push among Western nations to restore ties with Myanmar, a resource-rich nation in a strategically important region bordering China, was justified... The constitution which Myanmar’s army drafted in 2008 grants it control of the defense and interior ministries, the administrative backbone of the country. Soldiers are guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the parliament, enough to veto constitutional changes... Ms. Suu Kyi is barred from being president because she has foreign-born children... Many human rights activists and some diplomats now believe Ms. Suu Kyi may have been better suited as an icon of the opposition than a mainstream politician.
.. “What was described as strength and steadfastness is now being called inflexibility. But it’s really the same person if you look at her closely over years,” said one diplomat who knows Ms. Suu Kyi well... “A parody of democracy is infinitely worse than dictatorship,” she told one diplomat, according to a person familiar with the discussion... She has struggled to build trust with the insurgent armies, many of which regard the Myanmar military as the real power... Ms. Suu Kyi seized on an analogy used by an audience member comparing the government to a parent, with ethnic armed groups as its children. A person with knowledge of the exchange said she urged camp-dwellers to tell the armed groups: “Listen to your parents.”.. Ms. Suu Kyi has also expressed reluctance to provide the Rohingya with citizenship, saying it would only encourage more Muslims to come from Bangladesh... “She is binding herself to the military because both sides understand they have to hang together,” he said. “For all her rhetoric past and present, her leverage on the military is nil.”
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.
.. For shame, Daw Suu. We honored you and fought for your freedom — and now you use that freedom to condone the butchery of your own people?.. “My two nephews, their heads were cut off,” one Rohingya survivor told Smith. “One was 6 years old and the other was 9.”.. Other accounts describe soldiers throwing infants into a river to drown, and decapitating a grandmother.. When a Rohingya woman bravely recounted how her husband had been shot dead and how she and three teenage girls had been gang-raped by soldiers, Daw Suu’s Facebook page mocked the claims as “fake rape.”.. she knows that any sympathy for the Rohingya would be disastrous politically for her party in a country deeply hostile to its Muslim minority... “We applauded Aung San Suu Kyi when she received her Nobel Prize because she symbolized courage in the face of tyranny,” noted Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”.. Rohingya were confined to concentration camps or to remote villages Many were systematically denied medical care, and children were barred from public schools. It’s a 21st-century apartheid... Daw Suu and other Myanmar officials refuse to use the word “Rohingya,” seeing them as just illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, but that’s absurd. A document from 1799 shows that even then, the Rohingya population was well established... A basic lesson of history: Ignoring a possible genocide only encourages the persecutors.