The Rohingya Muslims in Burma are on the verge of facing genocide, and we can help stop this


4:40 pm - July 8th 2013

by Paul Cotterill    


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Genocide is not a term to be bandied around willy-nilly. The whole point of the UN’s post-war Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is that it marks out genocide as being on a different scale of evil from, let us say, mass indiscriminate killing undertaken in the pursuance of state expansion.

So even though I’ve followed, for a number of years now* the mistreatment and murder of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living principally in the Burmese state of Rakhine, I have been reluctant to see the ongoing atrocities as genocidal.

Until now.

Developments in the scale, manner and motivation for the killing of Rohingya people now seem to meet many if not all of the pre-conditions for a coming genocidal phases. Using Gregory Stanton’s Eight Stages of Genocide as a useful starting point, it is fairly easy to see that the first six of these have fallen or are falling into place:

Classification: the Burmese authorities, in collusion or at least in fear of a now rampant militant Buddhism, have overseen the development a popular conception of Burma as a bipolar society – Buddhist Burmese vs. Muslim minority (cf. the artificial disaggregation of Tutsis from Hutus). This has intensified in recent months as Muslims from outside the Rohingya community and beyond Rekhane state have been targeted, increasing the bipolarisation. This is not to say that the Christian minority in Kachin state have not also suffered terribly, but increasingly it is the Muslim minority which seems to be being portrayed as the sole enemy within.

Symbolization: The stripping of citizenship (and thereby travel) rights and the herding of Rohingya communities into ghettos, where they can be increasingly marked out as ready and waiting for killing. This goes alongside the narrative of the Rohingya as fairly recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the clear evidence of settlement in the pre-colonial period.

Dehumanization: An important phase, in which the normal revulsion against murder seems to be being overcome by significant sections of the population, for example in this episode of the merciless killing of teenagers, in which an exhortation to “Burmese courage” propels a group of people to do the hitherto unthinkable. Here it would seem, the ‘moral’ authority provided by extreme ‘969 Buddhism’, under the guidance of ‘Bin Laden Monk’ Ashin Wirathu, is of importance.

Organisation: The all-too-common process of state denial, whereby the state at the very least turns a blind eye to atrocities carried out by local militias, seems to be developing in Burma. In Burma, this local organization seems to be in the hands of the religious community, though there are some doubts as to whether some of the leaders – including the one able to drive heavy machinery – are actually monks.

Polarization: For example, a law effectively outlawing intermarriage has been drafted by extremist Buddhist groups, with the apparent approval of the state.

Preparation: As noted, the herding of Rohingya communities into barely liveable ghettos, sometimes “for their own safety” has begun in earnest, in a process which makes later killing more ‘manageable’ but at the same time furthers the dehumanization process.

In short, all the warning signs that a truly genocidal phase is coming, and maybe coming soon, are there.

The deepest irony, perhaps, is that all this is happening as Burma moves seemingly inexorably towards democracy, and as Western nations (and China) start to invest/extract heavily.

It is surely with the narrative of a new, open and free Burma that its Prime Minister is due to arrive in London and Paris this month for talks with Cameron and Hollande. Back home, the (ex-) Junta, and arguably even Aung San Suu Kyi, are focused increasingly on how they might best build up their vote for the approaching elections, and it seems increasingly unlikely that they will do so by appealing for tolerance towards the Rohingya community.

But genocide is not inevitable. Outside attention can create the impetus for even a weak state to step, especially if it fears losing the foreign investment and allied political legitimacy it craves, and in this case may help to embolden the opposition, who do appear strangely quiet.

So what can we do as bystanders? Well there’s a useful petition, asking the European leaders that meet the Burmese President to go beyond the usual platitudes about welcoming democracy. Please do sign it.

Perhaps more importantly, we might remember the ‘never again’ commitments of our governments when the scale of the horror in East Pakistan, then East Timor, then Rwanda & Burundi became apparent, and Srebrenica appeared on our screens, and ask our own elected representatives about what they can do about evil on a scale beyond mass murder.


To follow developments, I recommend French journalist @sophieansel (in English and French) and @voicerohingya as good starting points, though the New York Times also keeps a good eye on things.

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About the author
Paul Cotterill is a regular contributor, and blogs more regularly at Though Cowards Flinch, an established leftwing blog and emergent think-tank. He currently has fingers in more pies than he has fingers, including disability caselaw, childcare social enterprise, and cricket.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,South Asia

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Reader comments


1. Charlieman

Thank you, Paul.

2. Golam Murtaza

ONE reader comment on this very good and very important article.

*sigh*

(On the bright side maybe it just means everyone entirely agrees with what has been written, so don’t see any point in commenting…)


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