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20 November, 2017 11:02:20 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 20 November, 2017 11:06:07 AM
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Rohingya: A long distance to back home

The situation in Bangladesh requires immediate humanitarian and political responses
Dr. Mohammed Abul Kalam
Rohingya: A long distance to back home

More than 820,000 Rohingya have now fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, at least 607,000 since August 25. That is more than half the Muslim population of Rakhine State displaced in just 10 weeks. The scale of human suffering is mind-numbing, and the destruction vast.
Human Rights Watch has released satellite imagery showing that at least 288 villages have been destroyed, including 62 per cent of all villages in the Muslim-majority westernmost township of Maungdaw. Many have labelled this “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide”.
The Myanmar state has historically adopted strategies of “othering” the Rohingya, dehumanizing them as “illegal Bengalis”. The Rohingya have been isolated from society, forced into squalid open-air prisons, confined to villages, and denied livelihood opportunities. They have been harassed though disenfranchisement and violent intimidation. They suffer from destitution, malnutrition, starvation, and severe physical and mental illness as a result of restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, and the ever-present threat of violence and extortion.
The dark descent: Modern genocide is a form of social engineering, and often a long-term process. It begins not with mass murder, but with the dehumanization, isolation, and systematic weakening of a target group. Conceptualizing genocide in this way enables us to identify the genocidal process while in motion, and to intervene before it’s too late.

The destruction of members of a target group depends upon either the complicity or participation of the local population. An exclusionary ideology, designed to elicit support for the systematic removal of the “other”, is therefore central to the genocidal process. Exclusionary ideologies enable perpetrators to cope with the destruction of the stigmatized community, providing a psychological justification for their removal. By creating internal enemies, the natural human aversion towards murder is eroded.

Propaganda, agitation, and incitement deeply indoctrinate future perpetrators, paving the way for mass murder. In the early stages of the Rwandan genocide, radio propaganda encouraged fear and hatred of the Tutsis, labeling them as “cockroaches”, “snakes” and “devils who ate the vital organs of Hutus”. In an eerie echo, Myanmar’s state media has insinuated Muslims are like “detestable human fleas”; prominent nationalist monk Wirathu has said: “Muslims are like the African carp … They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.”

As well as making it easier for neighbors’ business partners and even friends to kill one another, labeling the target group an “enemy of the state” also reinforces popular support for the military and a nationalistic agenda. On September 1, Myanmar’s defence commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, declared that “entire government institutions and people must defend the country with strong patriotism”, going on to describe the “Bengali problem” as a longstanding “unfinished job, despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it”. “We openly declare that absolutely, our country has no Rohingya race,” he said.

This demonizing rhetoric not only makes eliminating the Rohingya psychologically acceptable, but frames it as a matter of protecting national interests: land, race, and religion. Adopting a narrative of Rohingya “terrorism” relieves the state of responsibility for the long-running structural grievances among the Rakhine community which animate local hostility against the Rohingya, and also ensures the military retains popular support for its indiscriminate violence against the entire Rohingya population. One Rakhine politician in 2016 claimed that “all Bengali villages are like military strongholds”.

Warnings that decades of discrimination and oppression against the Rohingya could lead to armed resistance in the region have become a reality. The pervasive persecution of the Rohingya is directly linked to the origins of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army – but instead of tracking down and prosecuting those responsible for recent attacks, the military has instead launched a campaign of collective violence against the Rohingya, systematically razing entire villages to the ground and killing civilians.

Harassed and terrorized: Genocide scholars document a range of strategies of physical and psychological destruction which take place prior to mass killings. Physical destruction involves overcrowding, malnutrition, epidemics, lack of health care, torture, and sporadic killings; psychological destruction involves humiliation, abuse, harassment or killing of family members, and attempts to undermine solidarity through collective punishment.

These forms of harassment and terror tactics are often deployed to force members of the out-group to leave, rather than killing them outright. One year before Bosnia’s Srebrenica massacre, a Republika Srpska Army report referenced a “crucial task” to be executed: “the expulsion of Muslims from the Srebrenica enclave”. “The enemy’s life has to be made unbearable and their temporary stay in the enclave impossible so that they leave en masse as soon as possible, realizing that they cannot survive there,” it read.

And yet conceptual difficulties with the legal definition of genocide, together with historical precedent, apparently mean that we need to wait for mass killings and a court ruling before we can call this form of structural violence what it is: genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi and the Kofi Annan Commission act as shields for brutal “clearance operations”. Western diplomats, unwilling to take a firm stance, hide behind a broken international system, arguing that it’s the UN’s responsibility to take action – knowing full well that any such action would be vetoed by China and Russia.

Focus on reconciliation: One thing is clear: the situation in Bangladesh requires immediate humanitarian and political responses. But it is too easy to opt for simplistic, black and white positions.

While responding promptly, we must not lose sight of the need to grapple with the complexities involved in achieving long-term political and cultural reconciliation. We thus reject calls for a boycott or sanctions (targeted or general), and call instead for a policy of productive, principled engagement.
Boycotts and sanctions would be counterproductive, harming prospects for long-term reconciliation for five key reasons. First, the Burmese military had a legitimate responsibility to respond to militant attacks on security posts across an entire township area. While their response was disproportionate, and their action may have provoked the attacks, they also have an important role to play in any long-term solution. Their cooperation will not be gained without acknowledging their duty and the difficulties faced. Second, sanctions will further increase the power of the Myanmar military over the government, and risk even more extreme action. Third, they will frustrate and delay further democratic reform in the country, weaken the only forces that can control the military, and limit the chances of a resolution to the immediate crisis. Fourth, they will undermine still nascent efforts to rebuild the educational, health and legal infrastructures and delay the emergence of new leaders who can support much-needed, long-term cultural development. And finally, decades of recent experience demonstrate that sanctions and boycotts rarely work, and are incapable of generating progressive social and political change.

How can and should the international community intervene? It is difficult to see how these waves of killings and forced expulsions will cease without international involvement.

While her supporters will say she can do little in the face of ongoing military power, government leader Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen to inflame rather than calm the situation. Her office has referred publicly to “Bengali terrorists”, claimed aid agencies are assisting Rohingya militants, stated Muslims are burning their own houses, and denied any wrongdoing by the military.

Regional and international states should intensify their pressure on the Myanmar government and the military to halt the violence and protect all civilians, whether citizens or not. ASEAN states in particular should pressure Myanmar to bring the crisis to an end.

Once this has been achieved, several measures might help reduce the frequency and intensity of the violence. The first and most important step is to grant the Rohingya naturalised citizenship and the rights that go with it. The group would then continue to live in the state, be allowed to vote and hold politicians to account.

To deflect the concerns of Rakhine, the Rohingya will need to rescind their claim to indigenous status and their ties to a traditional homeland in Rakhine. The implementation of certain electoral mechanisms – such as requirements for parties to win a portion of the votes from each community and for pairs of running mates to include a member from each group – will also slowly depoliticize ethnicity in the state.

The provision of aid, which must be rapid and substantial, must be carefully balanced so as not to cause further anger. It should be delivered to both displaced and non-displaced communities from both Rakhine and Rohingya. None of these measures will be easy. All will face substantial resistance. But the alternative is ongoing mass killing and displacement, and further radicalization.

The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR), Dhaka, Bangladesh

E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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