AS MYANMAR’S LEADER ALLOWS THE BRUTALIZATION OF MUSLIM-MINORITY ROHINGYAS, JIHADISTS WILL STAND IN HER PLACE.
FORMER CHAMPION OF DEMOCRACY REFUSES TO ACKNOWLEDGE ATROCITIES
Now that 40 per cent of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya people have been driven out of their homelands in the dirt-poor backwaters of Rakhine state, it’s becoming clear that the greatest disgrace is that no one who has been paying the slightest attention has any excuse to be surprised. And now, another clearly foreseen consequence of the international community’s cold indifference to the catastrophe inflicted upon Myanmar’s abandoned Muslim minority is that the jihadists are circling, as they always do in these crises, like vultures over a field of ripe corpses.
“A textbook example of ethnic cleansing” is the way the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights described things on Monday. Predictably, when the UN Security Council met to discuss the horrors on Wednesday, all the Rohingyas got by way of relief was yet another exquisitely crafted statement deploring the violence. On Thursday, Hong Liang, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, congratulated Myanmar’s generals on their savageries, and advised the world to leave them alone. “It is just an internal affair.”
By Friday, the working week at UN headquarters had ended with another 100,000 or so Rohingya chased and burned out of Rakhine. They’d fled across the border into Bangladesh. By the UN’s count, 389,000 Rohingya people all told, more than half of them children, have fled Myanmar’s depravities since Aug. 25.
No end to their suffering is in sight. The United States is doing nothing. Legislation to deepen the Pentagon’s military ties with Myanmar’s generals continues to trundle its way through Congress. Canada is doing nothing. A petition to revoke the honorary Canadian citizenship granted to Aung San Suu Kyi, the former champion of democracy and now Myanmar’s disgraced State Counsellor, has garnered more than 20,000 signatures. But from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, it’s been mostly silence, and a letter to Suu Kyi, asking her to be nice.
Suu Kyi has deftly and consistently refused to condemn or even acknowledge the barbarism Myanmar’s military continues to inflict upon the Rohingya. The petitioners who want her Canadian citizenship taken away say she has betrayed the Canadian ideals of “democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law” that Ottawa cited in granting her the honour in 2012. Suu Kyi’s name simply cannot be uttered in the same breath with the names of other honorary Canadians, and there are only five of them: Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the Aga Khan, Malala Yousafzai, and the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued Jews from the Nazis.
If Suu Kyi is allowed to retain her honorary citizenship, the Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative proposes that she be investigated for possible charges under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. The 17-year-old law holds Canadian citizens to account for the crime of genocide, and includes complicity in genocide and the failure to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent crimes against humanity.
The pogroms carried out against the Rohingyas since August quite readily appear to constitute such crimes. And these are atrocities that everybody saw coming.
During the autumn months of 2016, dozens of Rohingya civilians were massacred, roughly 65,000 Rohingyas chased into Bangladesh, and tens of thousands more were rounded up and locked away in concentration camps. Last December, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called for international intervention to prevent a genocide. More than a dozen Nobel laureates pleaded with the UN Security Council to intervene. No help came.
Two weeks earlier, an exhaustive International Crisis Group study warned that the unleashing of excessive military force against an emerging Rohingya insurgency would backfire, horribly. It has. The result of years of dead-end diplomacy, dithering and declarations about how deplorable things were in Rakhine: a humanitarian nightmare, and the prospect of Southeast Asia shuddering in the convulsions of Islamist holy war.
Two weeks ago, the Indonesian Islamic Defenders Front called on volunteers to wage jihad in Myanmar to defend the Rohingya against the Buddhist-majority belligerents running Myanmar’s government. Indonesian President Joko Widodo warned that things were spinning out of control: “Real action is needed, not just statements and condemnations.” What Widodo got for his trouble: more statements and condemnations, and a bomb thrown at the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta.
“The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers shall not pass without punishment,” al-Qaida announced in a statement reported by the SITE Intelligence Group on Wednesday. “The government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted.” Not to be outdone, Iran’s Mohsen Rezaee, a senior Khomeinist lawmaker and the former commander of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, is calling for a multinational Islamic army, the “Army of the Prophet,” to intervene in Myanmar.
On Aug. 24, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan released a report Suu Kyi commissioned, to examine resolutions to the Rohingya crisis. The report stated the obvious: grant the Rohingyas a way to obtain Myanmar citizenship, which they have been denied since the military coup of 1962. In fact, Myanmar further entrenched the Rohingya’s statelessness in a 1982 citizenship law, on the fictional grounds that all Rohingyas are merely Bangladeshi interlopers. Suu Kyi’s election in 2015 changed nothing for the better. It’s when things started to get even worse.
“Unless concerted action — led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society — is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalization,” Annan concluded. It took less than 24 hours for that cycle of violence to begin again. The ragtag Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police and army posts across Rakhine, killing 12. The military responded with a rampage.
Soldiers burned hundreds of homes, destroyed entire Rohingya villages and killed an estimated 1,000 people. Suu Kyi has refused to allow UN investigators to travel to the affected areas to investigate the carnage. Instead, her government has resorted to cheap propaganda: the Rohingyas are burning their own villages to make the Myanmar government look bad, and the ARSA fighters are terrorists and jihadists. Suu Kyi called reports of the army’s atrocities “fake news.”
A closely guided press tour following the military rampage ended badly, however. The BBC was presented with photographs allegedly catching Rohingya Muslims in the act of setting their own homes on fire — but the arsonists turned out to be Hindus dressed up as Muslims. The tour inadvertently led the journalists to a village that was still burning, where the army was allowing Buddhist arsonists to walk away from the crime scene with items looted from the abandoned Rohingya houses.
“We are not jihadists,” an ARSA spokesman who goes only by the name Abdullah told the Bangkok Times in the aftermath of the Aug. 25 attacks. ARSA is uninterested in imposing any version of Sharia anywhere in Rakhine, he said. “Our status as a recognized ethnic group within Myanmar must be restored.” That’s pretty well the substance of ARSA’s demands: citizenship and civil rights within Myanmar. “As long as our demands are not met, resistance will continue and, if unfulfilled, those demands will be upgraded to another level.”
But Abdullah was not clear about what “another level” might mean, and ARSA’s susceptibility to toxic Islamist influences is growing, just as the jihadist attraction to the Rakhine chaos increasingly threatens to plunge the region into sectarian bloodletting. Only about five per cent of Myanmar’s 55 million people are Muslims, but about half of South Asia’s people are.
ARSA was founded in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by a group of Rohingya refugees. As reckless as a resort to armed struggle may be, the group’s policy of hitting only military targets and not civilians undermines the claim that it is merely a “terrorist” organization.
Nonetheless, in Myanmar it is not only against the law for journalists to describe ARSA as anything but a “terrorist” group, it is also practically illegal to even use the term “Rohingya.” Myanmar’s defence minister Aung Hlaing makes no bones about it. “We have already let the world know that we don’t have Rohingya in our country,” he said in a speech on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day, back in March. “Bengalis in Rakhine state are not Myanmar citizens and they are just people who come and stay in the country.”
While Muslim and Buddhist population shifts between Chittagong in what is now Bangladesh and Rakhine have been ongoing since the days of the British Raj, the Rakhine “Bengalis” have occupied what is now Myanmar for centuries. Denying the Rohingya their identity, and denying them citizenship while the rest of the world does nothing, just throws fuel on an already smouldering jihadist fire.
If the UN won’t act, who will come to the Rohingyas’ aid?
Rakhine had already been cited by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi three years ago as an important new front for jihad. In recent weeks, in Al-Qalam — the propaganda sheet regularly issued by the outlawed Pakistani terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed — JEM founder Maulana Masood Azhar called for urgent action on behalf of the Rohingyas. Myanmar would soon hear "the thudding sound of the footsteps of its conquerors,” he wrote. Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Hafiz Muhammad Saeed have also exhorted Muslims to wage jihad in Myanmar or otherwise come to the assistance of ARSA — no matter that ARSA insists it doesn’t want their help.
Even the International Crisis Group warns that ARSA’s leaders might soon be forced to reconsider their independence and their rejection of jihad. The ICG’s study last December concluded: “If the government mishandles the situation ... it could create conditions for radicalizing sections of the Rohingya population that jihadist groups might exploit for their own agendas. To avoid that risk requires a moderated military response, well-crafted political strategy and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with Myanmar’s neighbours and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) bloc.”
But no well-crafted political strategy is on the horizon. The Myanmar military continues to rampage across Rakhine state, and thousands of Rohingyas — 10,000 a day now, at least, with a surfeit of “fighting aged males” among them — continue to pour into overcrowded, makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh.
This is not just a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” It is a textbook example of how jihadism thrives in all those places where international-community platitudes are all that’s on offer to persecuted Muslims with nothing left to lose.
GOVERNMENT HAS RESORTED TO CHEAP PROPAGANDA.
Rohingya Muslims in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Nearly 400,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the atrocities in Myanmar.