On 3 June 2012, the massacre of ten Muslim pilgrims in Rakhine State marked the beginning of a series of terrible pogroms against the Rohingya, a stateless minority of western Burma. One year on, much has been said and written on this human rights crisis – the systematic and prolonged brutal violence against - and equally brutal denial of humanitarian protection to - the Rohingya. The impunity with which such acts are being carried out calls into strong question the much touted ‘democratisation’ of Burma. Contrary to the ‘official’ version which is couched in the language of democracy, human rights, rule of law and open economy, Burma’s trajectory continues to be one of abuse, impunity, corruption and exclusion.
Amidst the growing evidence of abuses (the gathering of which in itself is a monumental achievement given the absolute control exercised by the Burmese authorities in North Rakhine State in particular, but also in the southern part of the state), the Burmese response has been one of distortion, denial and deflection. Distortion by mischaracterising the violence as ‘communal’, the Rohingya as ‘illegal immigrants’ and the present human rights and humanitarian crises as ‘under control’; denial by grossly underplaying the extent of the violence, the role of the state and security personnel in committing abuses themselves and the impunity with which it is all happening; and deflection by setting up flawed and toothless procedures such as the Commission of Inquiry so as to appease calls for protection, investigation, accountability and justice.
Such a response from the state is not surprising, both to preserve their new found status as the ‘darlings of the world’ and to continue their decades long programme to push the Rohingya out of Burma. The response of the international community has been - perhaps equally unsurprisingly - disheartening and irresponsible. UN Agencies stubbornly continue to endorse the Burmese characterisation of the violence as ‘communal’, the US and EU lifted sanctions on Burma as if to imply that what happens in Rakhine State has no relevance to Burma’s human rights obligations, and the International Crisis Group – an international NGO - went as far as to congratulate Thein Sein, the Burmese leader under whose watch this has all happened, by awarding him the ‘In Pursuit of Peace’ award in April 2013.
Every time the international community endorses a watered down description of the situation, or prefixes any criticism of Burma with a litany of praise for progress made, or endorses the lifting of sanctions, or awards a peace prize to a man who must answer allegations of crimes of the most serious nature; it constitutes a massive metaphorical slap in the face of the Rohingya community. Such praise is ‘premature and dangerous’, and is likely to undermine not only the rights of the Rohingya, but of all other victims of human rights abuse is the country.
The Rohingya have endured the most acute and unimaginable abuse for decades. They have been massacred and chased out of their homes and forced to live in fear and hunger with no proper healthcare or shelter as humanitarian aid meant for them is shamelessly siphoned off. Many of the horrific experiences endured by Rohingya individuals have been documented and published by journalists and human rights groups. One Rohingya interviewed by my organisation spoke of the pain of being separated from his wife and family following the mob violence in June 2012:
‘Though I am talking to you, I cannot stop thinking of them! Where will I look for them? Will it make any meaning to me living alone without them? Where is my wife? Where are my children? I have five children. Four sons and a daughter. I cannot even cry.’
Such horrific experiences add a very personal dimension of intense pain, suffering and loss. They must be juxtaposed against the debates on numbers, diplomatic statements and strategic actions of powerful states and organisations which trivialise the issues and dehumanise the victims.
At best, the responses of the international community are naive, premature and ill-thought-out; mistakes and errors of judgement. At worst, they are neither mistakes nor naive, but cynical responses motivated by one set of criteria (economic and political) and poorly justified by another (human rights). They are most likely a combination of the two. Either way, these are all acts of complicity that endorse violations and place the Rohingya in an even more helpless position.
Such responses also place the human rights activist in an extremely frustrating situation. The human rights field is one of principle – or so it should be. Individuals have rights which are established under international law. If these rights are violated, the individual should be protected, the perpetrators brought to justice and the status quo reinstated. While this sounds very straightforward, in reality the documentation of abuses is extremely difficult and even dangerous. Gathering and verifying information, ensuring the safety of interviewees, building trust and developing networks are all facets of human rights work. The dangers and difficulties are magnified when working in an environment such as North Rakhine State – where human rights defenders are constantly under threat of abduction, arrest, torture and abuse. Many Rohingya have been subject to such treatment since June 2012 (and before), including Dr Tun Aung, a prominent doctor and human rights defender whose 11 year arbitrary prison sentence of September 2012 was increased by a further 6 years in April 2013. Dr Aung, who is being denied the routine medical treatment he needs in prison, was arrested to prevent him talking to international observers and journalists.
After documentation is complete, it must stand up to scrutiny and lead to international pressure being brought on the perpetrating state. But when the ‘allies’ of the human rights activist – the UN, the international community and other human rights organisations – respond as they have done in this situation, by going out of their way to not offend, by turning a blind eye to painfully obvious truths and by even getting cosy with the perpetrators, the likelihood of achieving protection or justice is minimal.
The integrity of the human rights system is compromised every time the international community prioritises economic or political gain over the value of life. Human rights activists who withstand the lure of playing this political game are rendered ineffective, and those who go down that path run the risk of losing credibility. As concessions are made and deals brokered, ‘objectivity’ is seen not as the ability to stick to the evidence, but rather as the ability to accommodate within the ‘truth’ the version of the state.
Through such actions, the most important thing at the centre of the notion of human rights – the individual human being – is forgotten, disrespected and left to suffer in silence. It should not be so easy to play with individual lives and group identities; to bargain them away in exchange for access, power or influence. History will judge the actions of the perpetrators and the complicity of those who could have stopped them. But the Rohingya in Rakhine state today, will find no solace in that.
Human Rights Watch recently characterised the situation in Rakhine state as ethnic cleansing and withstood a barrage of abuse for having done so. Almost a year ago, Al Jazeera spoke of the hidden genocide in Burma and the Equal Rights Trust stated that the violence of June 2012 raised concern of crimes against humanity being committed by the country. Even before the violence began, the National University of Ireland in 2010 argued that the day-to-day mistreatment of the Rohingya amounted to crimes against humanity being perpetrated. These allegations which have all been backed by empirical evidence collectively have upped the stakes and taken the issue from the realms of international human rights and humanitarian law to that of international criminal law.
On 10 May 2013, former US backed Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison by the Guatemalan trial court. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court has subsequently overturned the conviction and set the trial back to where it was on 19 April. Therefore, the fate of the former dictator still remains to be determined. While an estimated 200,000 persons were killed and 45,000 disappeared under Ríos Montt’s reign of terror, his conviction was for the slaughter of 1,771 Mayan Ixils in 1982 – the same year that the Rohingya were arbitrarily deprived of their Burmese nationality. As international eyes are on the Guatemalan trial, we must hope that it won’t take another thirty years for the Rohingya to receive their justice, and for the US, EU, UN and ICG to receive their share of embarrassment and shame.