By Maung Zarni
- Writer is co-author of the “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya” (Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, 2014) and coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition.
LONDON (AA) – On Feb. 8 and 9 at Barnard College in New York City, the Free Rohingya Coalition held an extremely productive conference, drawing an audience of 200 researchers, activists and renowned academics from around 12 countries.
Amongst the nearly 40 speakers – two were pre-recorded – were the iconic American Black consciousness activist and renowned academic Angela Davis, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the founders of postcolonial studies and author of the classic “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, Radhika Coomaraswamy, a prominent member of the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, and leading scholars on genocide Gregory Stanton and Alex Hinton.
They were joined by a group of Rohingya genocide survivors, Karen and Burmese activists and scholars.
The conference was the first of its kind internationally on the vitally important issues of accountability of Myanmar’s military and civilian leadership and protection of national minorities in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states.
It was co-hosted by top research institutes at Barnard College and Columbia University such as the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. It was also endorsed globally by a diverse network of institutions, including the Montreal Holocaust Museum (Canada), the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit at the University of Dhaka (Bangladesh), the Documentation Center of Cambodia and Genocide Watch (US).
Angela Davis’s special message of solidarity for the coalition specifically and the oppressed national minorities in general set the tone and parameters of the discussion.
Apparently having drawn on slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, Davis was emphatic about “the indivisibility of justice”, whoever the victims of systematic injustices are and wherever they may be.
She linked the dots among seemingly disparate issues as diverse as the brutality of Israel-trained U.S. police towards Latina and black youth in the United States to U.S.-trained state troopers and their murder with impunity across Central and Latin American countries while explaining and justifying her support for the Palestinians and opposition towards the settler-colonial, racist and militaristic state of Israel.
In her pre-recorded address to the conference, Professor Yanghee Lee categorically dismissed the claim that Myanmar is in a fragile democratic transition under Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian leadership. She pointed out the inconceivability of any real democratization under the 2008 Constitution; the constitution drawn up and adopted by the Burmese generals elevates the Armed Forces of Myanmar above the entire society and exempts it from any notion of accountability or checks and balances.
On Rohingya, Lee was emphatic that the conditions in Myanmar’s “killing fields” are not conducive for the much-hyped up schemes of repatriation or return of 1 million Rohingya criminally deported by Myanmar across the borders onto Bangladesh soil in two different waves in 1991-92 and 2016-17.
On the subject of repatriation, the conference also heard from three scholars and activists with decades of professional experience dealing with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and/or refugees.
Dr. Jeff Crisp, formerly head of policy development and program evaluation at the UNHCR, shared his insider view within the world’s main refugee agency mandated to strive for the protection of all refugees. His fact-based PowerPoint presentation exposed racism and lack of empathy among UNHCR senior management who described desperate and vulnerable Rohingya as “primitive people” who “will go anywhere they are ordered or told to go”.
Crisp, now at the Refugees Studies Center at Oxford University, accused the UNHCR as a UN agency of being complicit in the murderous crimes committed by refugee-producing states.
Tapan Kumar Bose, an Indian journalist and former secretary general of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, who has worked in support of Rohingya, Nepalese and Bengali (now Bangladeshi) refugees since the start of the 1970s, echoed Dr. Crisp’s damning indictment of the UN agency and called attention specifically to the UNHCR and its recurring practice of “imposed repatriation”.
On her part, Natalie Brinham of Queen Mary University of London, an expert on documentation as a weapon of racist persecution, discussed why Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and India have long resisted numerous types of pressures to accept what Myanmar calls “National Verification Cards”. Rohingya rightly view these cards as “genocide cards”, the acceptance of which would effectively render them stateless while their ethnic group identity would be erased with their consent.
She challenged the prevalent but false characterization of Rohingya as “stateless”. Rohingyas have a state – of Myanmar – which has been committing a slow, burning genocide against them, starting with the erasure of their history, identity and documentation, beyond the obvious annihilation of Rohingya as a community on their own ancestral soil of Northern Arakan or Rakhine next to Bangladesh.
In fact, Brinham went one step further when she in effect pointed out that the complicity of the United Nations in the Rohingya genocide – still ongoing – is not confined to “technical agencies” such as the refugee agency; it goes right to the office of the UN Secretary General and his Special Envoy that are pushing Rohingya inside Myanmar to accept these “genocide cards”.
Shifting the discussion from the vulnerability and hence the need for protection of Rohingyas in refugee camps in Bangladesh and India and the diasporic limbo in Saudi Arabia, Radhika Coomaraswamy, a member of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, talked about the extreme nature of Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya as a group protected under international law.
“Is what happened to the Rohingya genocide? What else could it be?…In our report, we finally stated that there was sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide,” she said.
She went on to offer her take as to why there has been a shocking absence of any meaningful and effective measures by the system of states – called the United Nations – to end what her fact-finding mission observes as the genocide that is ongoing.
“Though we have a very comfortable majority of the international community who want to condemn in the strongest terms the actions of the Myanmar government, only a much smaller group wants to go toward sanctions and accountability. The fear of accountability is linked in the minds of many developing countries with a fear of losing sovereignty. Accountability is resisted by countries like India on the face of it because of their theoretical stance on sovereignty.”
As the UN member states fail to discharge their responsibility to protect the most vulnerable – not just the Rohingya, but other oppressed minorities of Myanmar such as the Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, Muslims and Christians — the conference’s host professor, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University, pointedly observed that we the people, activists and scholars of conscience must step in and offer concrete acts of solidarity, not so much in the neo-colonialist sense of “empowering” the victims or offering them “education” as we know it in advanced industrial countries of the West, but to put at the center of global consciousness the ongoing tales of de-humanization, demonization of Rohingya genocide survivors as prospective “Muslim terrorists” and deprivation.
As a matter of fact, in Myanmar, beyond Facebook as an effective disseminator of genocidal racism and blind hatred towards Rohingya in the Burmese society at large, the Ministry of Education — which runs all universities and 99 percent of pre-collegiate schools (K-10) — is the main engine behind anti-Rohingya racism, Islamophobia and Bama or Myanmar ethno-central colonial history and knowledge about the country and its birth.
For me as a Burmese who grew up nationalistic, racist and feudal, the most powerful moment of the two-day conference came when a Rohingya refugee, Ahmad Ullah, recalled a deeply traumatic moment of seeing a 5-year-old orphan girl being beaten up by Bangladesh police for having cut into a line of Rohingya refugees waiting for their food ration for hours.
With tears streaming down his cheeks, Ahmad asked the visibly moved audience at Barnard College: “What kind of a world do we live in when a 5-year-old girl is beaten up by authorities [in full view of the public] for simply wanting and asking for food?!”
Ahmad told the audience that that little girl reminded him of himself, as he grew up under similarly harsh and inhuman conditions. He was a young boy born in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar as the first boy to the parents of two Rohingya survivors of the 1991-92 waves of mass killings and violence by Myanmar.
Paraphrasing the late Hannah Arendt, the acclaimed Jewish scholar of totalitarianism, refugees are humans without the earth – which many of us take for granted – beneath their feet.
To belabour the obvious, the United Nations has failed categorically to discharge Chapter 7 of its charter, which requires the Security Council to intervene firmly in situations that threaten world peace.
While the world’s policy circles frame, typically and falsely, one million Rohingyas – with no jobs, no dignity, no schooling, no freedom of movement in the camps in Bangladesh and in their own perpetrating country of Myanmar — as “potential terrorists” prone to “radicalization”, no state and no regional bloc (EU or ASEAN or South Asia grouping) is lifting a finger to really end the genocide.
That is why, in the final minutes of the conference, virtually all Rohingya activists and many scholars and activist supporters publicly called for the boycott of Myanmar – intellectually, educationally, institutionally, commercially and culturally.
Just as Germany in the 1930s was not reformed through engagement – really acts and policies of “appeasement” by the Old Europe – Myanmar’s political society in 2019 has already sleep-walked into the zone of mass genocide and other grave crimes.
As painful as it is, as a Burmese who blew the whistle on his society’s gravest crimes – including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, I wholeheartedly support this call.
Thankfully, we were joined by Angela Davis, who expressed her support for the Rohingyas’ leadership and call for “Boycott Myanmar, End Rohingya Genocide and Other Crimes Against Minorities”. Davis gave the audience a powerful endorsement: “I will boycott Myanmar until it stops its persecution of national minorities such as Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, Karen and Rakhine.”
Impersonal states – man-made Frankensteinian institutions – may not feel the pain or hear the cries of Rohingyas and other wretched of Myanmar. But as humans of conscience and compassion, many of us hear and heed their cries. Together, we can make “Never again!” a reality for Myanmar’s oppressed.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.