The exile who warned of ‘genocide’

A Myanmar academic living overseas can claim a prominent role in getting Myanmar to answer genocide charges at an international court.


For many years, Myanmar has been accused of violating the human rights of the Muslims living in Rakhine State who call themselves Rohingya, although the government does not recognise the existence of any such ethnic group and refers to them as “Muslims in Rakhine State”.

In August 2017, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militants launched coordinated attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine and the Tatmadaw responded with a clearance operation that resulted in more than half a million Muslims fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh. Many Muslim villages were torched during the operation.

The clearance operation led to a recommendation by investigators appointed by the United Nations that those responsible be investigated for genocide. In response, The Gambia, acting on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, launched proceedings at the International Court of Justice at The Hague on November 11, accusing Myanmar of having violated the Genocide Convention.

The case will focus on state responsibility and whether Myanmar has committed or failed to prevent genocide in northern Rakhine. The government of Myanmar, which became a party to the convention in 1956, has announced that it will defend itself at the ICJ, with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi leading the delegation.

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There is wide agreement in the international community that the Tatmadaw committed crimes against the Rohingya and violated their human rights, however it is a matter of dispute whether the crimes amounted to genocide.

One person who can claim a prominent role in getting Myanmar to answer genocide charges at an international court is Dr Maung Zarni, 56. Maung Zarni, born in Mandalay, left Myanmar just before the 1988 national uprising and went to the United States, where he earned a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1998.

He was one of the founders of the Free Burma Coalition that urged the world to impose sanctions on the military junta. He was also one of the first to accuse the government of committing genocide against the Rohinyga in the aftermath of the communal violence that erupted in Rakhine in 2012.

He is the co-author, with Ms Alice Cowley, of “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingyas”, published in the Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal in 2014. He first used the word “genocide” in that monograph, which said the Myanmar government and the Tatmadaw were trying to slowly eradicate the Rohingya.

At academic seminars he has helped to arrange in Southeast Asia and Europe, Maung Zarni, who now lives in the United Kingdom, has argued that the Rohingya are undergoing the successive “stages” of genocide.

The first involves singling out members of targeted racial or religious groups, such as the way Jews in Nazi Germany were required to identify themselves by wearing the Star of David. In a later stage, members of the targeted group are concentrated in one area; Maung Zarni said this was achieved in Rakhine when about 100,000 Muslims were confined to camps for the internally displaced after the violence of 2012.

The ninth stage involves the mass killing of the targeted group; the 10th and final stage is “denial” that it ever happened. However, many prominent Myanmar lawyers, writers and journalists rejected Maung Zarni’s genocide theory. They said that under successive military governments, it was not only Muslims who were brutally repressed but also the Bamar and members of ethnic minorities; many were jailed for many years and endured torture.

Moreover, several Myanmar activists and public figures, including Buddhist and Christian religious leaders, spoke out courageously about the crimes against Muslims that the government ignored or pretended not to know about, though they didn’t accept that it was genocide.

Before the National League for Democracy took office, Maung Zarni was also a marginal voice in the international community, which was generally eager to support to Myanmar’s transition to democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi, who became state counsellor.

The preceding government of President U Thein Sein, which segregated Muslim and Buddhist communities in Rakhine in 2012, is responsible for much of the racial and religious strife. The NLD government adopted a new approach: Aung San Suu Kyi regarded poverty as a key factor in the situation in Rakhine and saw development as offering a solution. She oversaw improved roads, communication and electricity supplies and headed a committee to address problems in Rakhine.

Her government also appointed the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by the late former United Nations secretary-general Mr Kofi Annan, and has begun implementing its recommendations. It was difficult for Aung San Suu Kyi to act because she did not have the approval of the Tatmadaw, which is not under her government’s control. Nor did she have the support of ethnic Rakhine politicians and people who have a long history of conflict with Muslims.

The moves taken by Aung San Suu Kyi and her government were a step in the right direction for Rakhine, but her efforts were not welcomed by Rohingya activists who live in foreign countries.

The ARSA attacks in August 2017, which followed smaller coordinated attacks in October 2016, involved hundreds of villagers organised by the militants who attacked about 30 security posts using crude weapons. The Tatmadaw response began immediately, triggering an exodus of Muslims to Bangladesh, which continued for many months after the end of the military operations.

The flight of people to Bangladesh occurred because of the severe response of the Tatmadaw and the organisation of villagers by ARSA. ARSA knew that villagers armed with daggers, spears and sharpened bamboo had no chance against Tatmadaw forces in northern Rakhine equipped with automatic weapons, gunboats and air support.

ARSA knew its attack would invite a strong response from the Tatmadaw. This is why few can dispute that ARSA’s coordinated attacks played a significant role in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. But it was the actions of the military, not of ARSA, that would draw the world’s outrage.

Muslim villages were torched, and when the government bulldozed these ruined villages and announced that returning refugees would be settled elsewhere, the situation attracted the international attention that eventually resulted in accusations of genocide – including at the International Court of Justice. Maung Zarni can now claim to have been vindicated.

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