By Jennifer Bergman
A couple of years ago I wrote my master thesis on the failure of the United Nations to prevent violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. During my time writing it, and over the years since, I have had to explain to people who the Rohingya are and the genocidal violence they have experienced. Despite being reported on in the news, it seems to not have stuck in the Western general consciousness. However, it provides an important overview of how Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has built up their strength and usage of violence over decades – a process that culminated with the military coup in January this year. The coup and the violence the Tatmadaw have used to quash the following protest does not represent a break in an otherwise peaceful democracy. By placing it in a historical context, it illustrates how the events that are currently unfolding in Myanmar are part of a continuum of violence and of international failure to protect human rights.
To understand the Tatmadaw’s treatment of the Rohingya and what differentiates it from the current events, we need to look at it through a historical lens. Genocides do not just happen overnight, instead, they are the accumulation of years of rhetoric and actions aimed at reducing an undesired group to a sub-human status. In that way, when you start subjecting that group to violence, others will not intervene and may even encourage it. This is what happened to the Rohingya. As a Muslim minority in a Buddhist majority country, they have been the target of decades of de-humanising campaigns rooted in the argument that the Rohingya are not Myanmar citizens but rather Bengali. Based on this, the state gradually implemented policies that governed how the Rohingya could live their lives by controlling things such as residence, marriage status, and voting rights (Wade, 2017: 39-40). These strategies culminated in 2016 when the military began a killing campaign against the minority group which led to a mass exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya into neighbouring countries (UNOCHA). As a result of the decades of normalisation of violence against Rohingyas, these events transpired without the same level of public outrage that we are currently seeing in Myanmar. Throughout all of this, the international community failed to step in and address the violence.
There is a consensus within international politics that the actions against the Rohingya constitute clear violations of human rights. In situations like these, the international community is expected to intervene, which is done through the UN. Under the article of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) the United Nations Security Council has the mandate to deploy a humanitarian intervention in sovereign countries where there are violations of human rights. However, this remains a contested practice with the critique that R2P is primarily used to serve the self-interest of powerful states and in the absence of that self-interest, conflicts are instead framed as humanitarian disasters (Damboeck, 2012; Shearer, 2000). In regards to the Rohingya, there is no apparent international interest to intervene and by framing the events as primarily a humanitarian crisis the UN were able to deploy a response primarily aimed at treating the consequences of the violence rather than the cause (see note 1). In this case, it meant focusing on assisting refugees in neighbouring countries rather than the root causes of violence against the group within Myanmar. This example not only shows the UN’s failure to address the violence against the Rohingya but also shed light on why this was the case.
The experiences of the Rohingya demonstrate how Myanmar was by no means a perfect democracy before the coup but has a long history of military violence. It is important to note that while the Rohingya have been the main target of military violence other minority groups have also experienced similar persecution and discriminating policies (Human Rights Watch, 2020). However, there is one important difference between the Tatmadaw’s previous actions and those of this year which is that the current violence against civilians has not been preceded by years of dehumanising language. As mentioned above, this is a key component of legitimising violence and just as the presence of it enabled the violence against the Rohingya in 2016, it can help shed light on why it is causing such a large domestic outrage now. The protesters, which are mostly comprised of younger citizens, have lived a large part of their life in what they perceive as a democratic society and with the freedom that entails (Mitchell, 2021). For these citizens, Aung San Suu Kyi, although she has been critiqued for her failure to condemn the violence against the Rohingya, represents the country’s democratic progress. The coup that removed her was an attack on that democracy.
A few weeks after the military coup I attended a virtual panel consisting of activists, academics, and civil servants from Myanmar, who discussed the coup and the current domestic situation. Although they spoke of the civilian organised protests, their outlook for the future was bleak, with the military raiding households at night and a gradual diminishing of free press. Throughout this, they highlighted the failure of the international community to step in and address the abuse of human rights that were taking place. Both neighbouring and Western countries, they argued, must protect democracy in Myanmar. However, just as genocides, military coups do not happen overnight and the historical inaction by the international community has allowed the Tatmadaw to gradually increase its power, laying the foundation for January’s coup. Even though the coup led to a shift in who is the target of Tatmadaw’s violence, there has not been a shift in the international community’s interest to intervene and the UN’s actions have been limited to condemning the violence (UN News, 2021).
After the coup, military violence against civilians has continued to escalate and has also left those Rohingya remaining in Myanmar fearing at increased risk of persecution (Westerman, 2021). This article can only begin to cover the complexities of the political situation in Myanmar but argues that we need to understand the events of this year as the latest development in a continuum of violence and how the international community’s lack of self-interest has kept them from intervening to address this. In doing so, it can help explain why, even though there is currently a larger domestic outrage against the Tatmadaw’s use of violence than before, it is unlikely that the international community’s role will change. A conclusion that, unfortunately, does not bode well for any group within Myanmar.
Note 1: This is a core tenet of the critique against framing conflicts as humanitarian crises, it disregards the roots of the conflict and allows the international community to refrain from taking political action. See for example on Rwanda: De Waal (1997) and Rieff (2002).
Damboeck, Joanna. (2012). Humanitarian interventions: Western imperialism or a responsibility to protect? An analysis of the humanitarian interventions in Darfur. Multicultural Education & Technology Journal, (6)4: 287-300.
De Waal, Alexander. (1997). Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (London: African Rights and the International African Institute).
Human Rights Watch. (2020). World Report 2020: Myanmar events of 2019. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/myanmar-burma# 17 April 2021.
Mitchell, Derek J. (2021) The looming catastrophe in Myanmar. 15 April. Foreign Affairs, retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/burma-myanmar/2021-04-15/looming-catastrophe-myanmar 17 April 2021.
Rieff, David (2002). A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. (New York: Simon & Schuster)
Shearer, David. (2000). Aiding or Abetting? Humanitarian Aid and Its Economic Role in Civil War. In Berdal, Mats & Malone, David (eds.) Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (London: Lynne Rienne Publishers, 2000), 174-204.
UN News. (2021). Myanmar violence ‘must cease immediately’: UN agencies. 12 April. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/04/1089492 17 April 2021.
UN OCHA. Rohingya refugee crisis. Retrieved from https://www.unocha.org/rohingya-refugee-crisis 17 April 2021.
Wade, Francis. (2017). Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (London: Zed Books).
Westerman, Ashley. (2021). What Myanmar’s coup means for the Rohingya. 11 February. NPR, retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2021/02/11/966923582/what-myanmars-coup-means-for-the-rohingya?t=1618668487685 17 April 2021.