Eth­nic cleans­ing in Myan­mar

Ro­hingya face “truly bru­tal” vi­o­lence amidst del­i­cate po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion

The McGill Daily - - Front Page - Gabrielle Demis News Writer

Con­tent warn­ing: de­scrip­tions of vi­o­lence, sex­ual as­sault men­tion

On Wed­nes­day Septem­ber 20, a round­table dis­cus­sion was held by the South­east Asia Lec­tures Se­ries and the In­sti­tute for the Study of In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment (ISID) on the sys­tem­atic eth­nic cleans­ing cur­rently un­der­way in Myan­mar. The vi­o­lence has forced hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ro­hingya Mus­lims out of the coun­try, caus­ing a refugee cri­sis in neigh­bour­ing na­tions like Bangladesh. Pro­fes­sors Megan Bradley, Erik M. Kuhonta, Kazue Taka­mura, and Alexan­dre Pelletier con­sid­ered mul­ti­ple as­pects of the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween vi­o­lence and de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion in au­thor­i­tar­ian con­texts, the im­pli­ca­tions of state­less­ness, and the role of in­ter­na­tional ac­tors in the cri­sis.

Text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing

The Ro­hingya peo­ple of Myan­mar’s Rakhine state have been sub­ject to harsh col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment mea­sures in re­cent weeks. The vi­o­lence, car­ried out by gov­ern­ment forces, has os­ten­si­bly con­sti­tuted reprisals for the Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army’s (ARSA) at­tack on a mil­i­tary out­post on Au­gust 25, which killed 12 sol­diers. These reprisals have been “truly bru­tal,” said Kuhonta, with “at­tacks by he­li­copters, rapes against women, killings with guns as well as ma­chetes.”

“By any cri­te­ria, this is the worst hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter in the past sev­eral decades,” Kuhonta con­tin­ued. In to­tal, it is es­ti­mated that over 210 vil­lages have been de­stroyed by fire, re­sult­ing in over 1000 deaths in less than four weeks. The sys­tem­atic per­se­cu­tion of the Ro­hingya in north­ern Rakhine has also trig­gered a forced ex­o­dus – over 421,000 peo­ple have crossed the Myan­mar-bangladesh bor­der, both by land and sea; UNICEF es­ti­mates half of the refugees to be chil­dren.

The United Na­tions has de­clared the cri­sis “a text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing,” though cer­tain aca­demic com­mu­ni­ties were cat­e­go­riz­ing the sit­u­a­tion as an on­go­ing geno­cide as early as 2015. How­ever, Myan­mar’s de facto ruler and 1991 No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi has re­peat­edly de­nied the state’s in­volve­ment in the con­tin­ued per­se­cu­tion of the Ro­hingya. In fact, her of­fice has claimed the Ro­hingya have been set­ting fire to their own prop­er­ties and blam­ing the se­cu­rity forces, though no ev­i­dence was pro­vided to sup­port the al­le­ga­tions.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s si­lence

Aung San Suu Kyi’s 25- day-long si­lence on the cri­sis was sharply crit­i­cized by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. Many pre­dicted the fall of an icon, and ques­tioned her stand­ing as a No­bel Peace Prize win­ner. Some con­sid­ered re­vok­ing awards, in­clud­ing her hon­orary Cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship. Suu Kyi ad­dressed the is­sue Tues­day in an ad­dress to the Myan­mar par­lia­ment in Naypyi­daw.

The panel’s speak­ers ex­plained that al­though one can­not morally jus­tify Aung San Suu Kyi’s rel­a­tive si­lence, it is im­por­tant to note the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the po­lit­i­cal con­text. The Na­tional League for Democ­racy ( NLD) has been in power in Myan­mar since 2015, with Aung San Suu Kyi as de facto leader. How­ever, the mil­i­tary re­tains sig­nif­i­cant con­trol over the coun­try’s in­sti­tu­tions with a fixed quar­ter of par­lia­men­tary seats, ex­clu­sive au­thor­ity over cru­cial posts in the ex­ec­u­tive, and veto power for con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment.

From a po­lit­i­cal stand­point, to pub­licly de­nounce the army’s per­se­cu­tion of the Ro­hingya jeop­ar­dizes the sta­bil­ity of Suu Kyi’s gov­ern­ment. Be that as it may, said Kuhonta, echo­ing Des­mond Tutu’s words to Aung San Suu Kyi, “If the po­lit­i­cal price of the lib­er­al­iza­tion and po­ten­tial de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion in Myan­mar is the eth­nic cleans­ing of the Ro­hingya, then the price is surely too steep.”

From marginal­iza­tion and per­se­cu­tion, to­wards eth­nic cleans­ing

Ac­cord­ing to Alexan­dre Pelletier, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence Ph. D can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Toronto, the marginal­iza­tion of the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity Ro­hingya in Bud­dhist-ma­jor­ity Myan­mar is rooted in a va­ri­ety of short­and long- term fac­tors. These in­clude eth­nic griev­ances rooted in crit­i­cal dis­agree­ment on and sus­pi­cions around whether the Ro­hingya truly be­long in Rakhine state. The wide­spread and long- stand­ing prej­u­dices against In­di­ans and South Asians in Myan­mar is a con­se­quence of Bri­tish colo­nial rule.

Taka­mura, a pro­fes­sor of In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies, high­lighted the state’s strained ma­jor­ity-mi­nor­ity eth­nic re­la­tions, re­fer­ring to the gov­ern­ment’s con­tin­ued re­liance on ar­bi­trary racial classifications, which has wors­ened the ten­sions in Myan­mar.

“The is­sue of the term ‘Ro­hingya’ is very con­tentious in Myan­mar,” agreed Kuhonta, not­ing that the Ro­hingya are ex­cluded from the gov­ern­ment’s list of 135 of­fi­cially rec­og­nized eth­nic­i­ties.

A vast and last­ing cri­sis

Bradley, a Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Mcgill, told the panel that the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis is a re­al­life il­lus­tra­tion of power im­bal­ances and patholo­gies in the in­ter­na­tional refugee regime. Bangladesh has ac­cepted over 421,000 Ro­hingya refugees cross­ing over its bor­ders in less than a month. This num­ber is 70 times higher than the num­ber of asy­lum-seek­ers who crossed the U.S.- Canada bor­der in Au­gust. Bradley pointed to the dis­crep­ancy be­tween the avail­abil­ity of re­sources in Canada and num­ber of refugees this coun­try has taken in.

In re­sponse to the cri­sis in Myan­mar, the Bangladeshi gov­ern­ment’s an­nounce­ment of new refugee camp con­struc­tion points to a fu­ture of pro­tracted dis­place­ment and en­camp­ment for the Ro­hingya refugees.

“En­camp­ment [in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tions]” as op­posed to lo­cal in­te­gra­tion is “the worst pos­si­ble op­tion […] for refugees in terms of their in­di­vid­ual hu­man rights, well-be­ing, and liveli­hoods,” said Pro­fes­sor Bradley.

Myan­mar cur­rently has the largest state­less pop­u­la­tion in the re­gion, well ahead of Brunei, Malaysia, and Thailand, with over 440,000 state­less in­di­vid­u­als. Taka­mura re­flected on the dev­as­tat­ing im­pli­ca­tions of Ro­hingya state­less­ness, and the in­her­ent “pre­car­i­ous­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity” it pro­duces.

The vi­o­lence has forced thou­sands of Ro­hingya Mus­lims out of the coun­try, caus­ing a refugee cri­sis in neigh­bour­ing na­tions like Bangladesh. “By any cri­te­ria, this is the worst hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter in the past sev­eral decades” —Erik M. Kuhonta Pro­fes­sor at the de­part­ment of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence “If the po­lit­i­cal price of the lib­er­al­iza­tion and po­ten­tial de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion in Myan­mar is the eth­nic cleans­ing of the Ro­hingya, then the price is surely too steep.” —Erik M. Kuhonta Pro­fes­sor at the de­part­ment of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence

Nelly Wat | The Mcgill Daily

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