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Don’t fetishize the suffering of the Rohingya

Ramzy Baroud

Published: Updated:

A few years ago, most of us had no idea of the most common way to pronounce the word ‘Rohingya’, let alone have knowledge of the enduring plight of one of the most persecuted minority on earth.

But now, the collective injustice experienced by the long-oppressed Myanmar’s Muslim minority is a recurring media headline. Despite every attempt at burying the story, the suffering of the Rohingya continues to confront us, imploring our compassion and meaningful action.

My interest in the story goes back years ago to when I lived, worked and travelled throughout Southeast Asia. It was then that I learned of the disturbing phrase: “The Rohingya are the Palestinians of Southeast Asia.”

As a Palestinian, those meagre words were enough to convey an immediate sense not only of the profound suffering and persecution of the Rohingya, but also of the staggering amount of propaganda that shut them out from mainstream media coverage.

It was hardly surprising to discover later on that Israel had a hand in the persecution of the Rohingya, due to it being one of the main arms suppliers to the Myanmar government. Much of Israel’s war technology has been used against the defenseless Rohingya as they withstood one bloody ethnic cleansing campaign after another.

Now that the Rohingya story has become associated with ethnic cleansing, starvation, and even genocide, it is time to turn words into action, because the plight of the this persecuted minority should not be reduced to social media fetishizing of the collective suffering of a faraway nation. All the ‘likes’ and sad emoticons on Facebook will not restore the dignity or reduce the suffering of a single Rohingya child, woman or man.

Indeed, although the genocide of the Rohingya has garnered greater media attention in recent months, there is no indication that the international community is prepared to act in any meaningful way, thus leaving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees stranded in border camps between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

While top United Nations officials are now using the term 'genocide' to describe the massive abuses experienced by the Rohingya minority at the hands of the Myanmar army, security forces and Buddhist militias, no plan of action to stem the genocide has been put in place.

In less than six months, beginning August 2017, an estimated 655,000 Rohingya refugees fled or were pushed out across the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Most of the 'clearance operations' - a term used by the Myanmar military to describe the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya - took place in Rakhine state.

In a recent report, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) relayed the harrowing death toll of Rohingya during the first month of the genocidal campaign.

At least 9,000 Rohingya were killed between August 25 and September 24, according to MSF, a number that includes 730 children under the age of five.

Eric Schwartz of Refugee International described these events in an interview with American National Public Radio (NPR) as "one of the greatest crimes in recent memory - massive abuses, forced relocations of hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks."

Coupled with numerous reports of gang rape, murder, and mass burning of villages, Rohingya are left defenseless in the face of unspeakable atrocities.

Without sanctions that target the government and military - not the people - coupled with legal action to prosecute Myanmar's leaders, including Suu Kyi, before the ICC, the genocide of the Rohingya will continue unabated.

Ramzy Baroud

Worse still, a recent agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh has been reached to repatriate many of these refugees. With no safeguards in place, and with the Rohingya having been stripped of their legal status as citizens or legal aliens in Myanmar, going back is as risky an endeavor as is fleeing.

The plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees is part of a larger campaign to whitewash the crimes of the Myanmar government and to, once more, defer the protracted crisis of the Rohingya.

Although the cruelty experienced by the Rohingya goes back decades, a new ethnic cleansing campaign began in 2012, when 100,000 people were forced out of their villages and towns to live in prison-like, makeshift refugee camps.

In 2013, more than 140,000 were also displaced, an atrocity that continued until last August when the bouts of ethnic cleansing culminated in a genocide involving all security branches of the government, and defended by Myanmar officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi was celebrated for decades by western media and government as a democracy icon and human rights heroine. However, as soon as she was freed from house arrest and became the leader of Myanmar in 2015, she served as an apologist for her former military foes. Not only did she refuse to condemn the violence against the Rohingya, she even refuses to use the term 'Rohingya' in reference to the historically persecuted minority.

Suu Kyi's support for the military's relentless violence has earned her much contempt and criticism, and rightly so. But too much emphasis has been placed on appealing to her moral sense of justice to the point that no strategy has been formed to confront the crimes of the Myanmar military and government, neither by Asian leaders nor by the international community.

Instead, an unimpressive 'international advisory board' was set up to carry out recommendations by another advisory council led by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General.

Expectedly, the advisory board is proving to be nothing but an instrument used by the Myanmar government to distemper the crimes of the military. In fact, this is the very assessment of former US cabinet member and top diplomat, Bill Richardson, who recently resigned from the board.

"The main reason I am resigning is that the advisory board is a whitewash," he told Reuters, asserting that he did not want to be part of "a cheerleading squad for the government."

He too accused Suu Kyi of lacking ‘moral leadership’.

But that designation no longer suffices. Suu Kyi should be held accountable for more than her moral failings. Considering her leadership position, she should be held directly responsible for crimes against humanity, together with her top security and army brass.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch is one of the leading voices among rights groups calling for the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Court of Justice (ICC) in The Hague. Even though Myanmar is not a signatory of the Rome Treaty, such a referral is the only way to take a non-ratifying state to the ICC.

This step is both legally defensible and urgent, as the Myanmar government has shown no remorse whatsoever for its actions.

Robertson also called for 'targeted sanctions' which will most certainly gain the attention of the country's rich and powerful elites that rule over the military and government.

In recent years, Myanmar, with the help of the US and other western powers, was allowed to open up its economy to foreign investors. Billions of US dollars’ worth of foreign direct investments have already been channeled into the country and six billion more US dollars are also expected to enter the country in 2018.

That too is a great act of moral failing on the part of many countries in Asia, the west and the rest of the world. Myanmar should not be rewarded with massive largesse of foreign investments, while whole communities are being killed, maimed or made into refugees.

Without sanctions that target the government and military - not the people - coupled with legal action to prosecute Myanmar's leaders, including Suu Kyi, before the ICC, the genocide of the Rohingya will continue unabated.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

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