By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, May 17, 2019 — “During 1988, my family fled from Burma — Rakhine State — to Singapore. I was very fortunate to flee Burma because my father bribed the military,” said Ko Ko Naing, founding member and community and public relations manager of the Los Angeles Rohingya Society. Naing was one of three speakers who spoke at the Rohingya Genocide Awareness Panel held in UCLA Powell Library on May 2, 2018.
“At the time there was a big student revolution and mass demonstrations,” so my father and my family fled,” said Naing. “Then from Singapore, I managed to come to the United States 15 years ago, where I was granted asylum.
“I grew up in Arakan [former name of Rakhine State] in what was like segregation,” he recounted. “I witnessed [the military] take my uncle and my cousins to do forced labor . . . I also heard horrible stories about my female cousins being raped,” he related.
Cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Center for India and South Asia, Burkle Center for International Relations and UCLA Library, the May 2nd panel addressed the causes and consequences of the atrocities taking place against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar — over 700,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 — as well as potential legal and policy responses to the genocide and how individual citizens can take action.
The two other featured speakers were Amjad Mahmood Khan, Esq., partner at Brown, Neri, Smith & Khan LLP and adjunct professor, UCLA School of Law; and Aliza Luft, assistant professor of sociology at UCLA. UCLA Professor of History and human rights expert Geoffrey Robinson moderated the event and contributed to the discussion that followed.
All participants in the event issued a call to action about the atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar, vividly expressed by Robinson: “[V]iolence of this kind is fueled by international silence and inaction. So when we see a genocide unfolding before our own eyes, in our own time, it's not enough to watch and wait. We must also seek to understand and to act on what we know.”
This article represents a distillation of the presentations and discussion at the panel.
From left: Aliza Luft, Amjad Mahmood Khan, Ko Ko Naing and Geoffrey Robinson.
The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim minority in Myanmar (formerly Burma), which is roughly 88 percent Buddhist. The indigenous people of Rakhine State (formerly Arakan), located in the far western part of Myanmar that borders Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal, Naing noted, have lived in that territory since the 12th century. “The Rohingya,” added Amjad Mahmood Khan, “are an ethnolinguistic religious minority — a minority within a minority within a minority.”
The Rohingya have suffered repressions in the region dating back to the World War II, yet were members of parliament in Burma in its early years of independence — Ko Ko Naing’s own grandfather was once a member of parliament. However, state policy and organized military repressions since the 1970s have several times caused Rohingya to flee in large numbers by foot and by boat to neighboring countries and to migrate to countries as far away as Australia and the United States.
Currently, said Naing, 200,000 Rohingya live in Saudi Arabia, 10,000 in the United Arab Emirates, 350,000 in Pakistan, roughly 1 million in Bangladesh, 5,000 in Thailand, 150,000 in Malaysia and 1,000 in Indonesia. Not to mention 150,000 who are internally displaced within Rakhine State itself.
Rohginya arriving in Bangladesh. Photo: Saiful Islam/ Lost Hope via Flickr, 2018. Public domain.
Current atrocities and their causes
Since August 2017, Myanmar’s military— together with local militias — have carried out an armed campaign against the Rohingya in Rakhine, burning their villages, conducting mass rapes of women and torturing and executing Rohingya men. The campaign was launched in response to attacks by an armed Rohingya group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), against border posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, resulting in the deaths of several Myanmarese border guards.
Close to three-quarters of the estimated one million Rohingya residents of northern Rakhine State have since fled into Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest Muslim-majority nations. Others have fled by boat to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Many did not survive their journeys.
“Nearly 14,000 people have died, over 700,000 people have fled. We're talking about 354 villages burned. So there is really no debate about the atrocities being committed,” said Amjad Mahmood Khan.
An appalling humanitarian and health crisis is now occurring in Bangladesh, where the refugees are living in woefully inadequate housing and suffering preventable illnesses due to inadequate humanitarian assistance. The approaching monsoon season in Southeast Asia threatens to worsen this crisis— a dire situation that calls for an immediate increase in humanitarian assistance, said Geoffrey Robinson.
Causes. Ko Ko Naing traced the current atrocities to several causes: a 1982 citizenship law that denied the Rohingya citizenship and excludes them from official censuses, a state propaganda campaign that depicts the minority group as foreign invaders, organized acts of genocide carried out by the military, Islamophobia and economic development interests of the Myanmar government. He emphasized that the government was deliberately allowing extremist Buddhist groups — such as the 969 movement led by the extremist monk Ashin Wiratu — to spread hatred in the country.
Geoffrey Robinson identified two additional causes of the crisis: Burman Buddhist nationalism and “the structure, ideology and norms of the Burmese military, which has been in power for the better part of a half of century…. and its way of treating those who are not part of the ethnic majority as threats and as enemies.
“Burma’s nationalism has always been a nationalism of the majority ethnic group, who are Burmans, not Burmese,” explained Robinson. “The Burmans… have been predominantly Buddhist since about the 12th or 13th century.
“And because nationalism in Burma has been so firmly a Buddhist phenomenon,” he added, “and not a trans-ethnic or cross-religious phenomenon, you see that in difficult times, nationalism turns into bigotry.”
The Tatmadaw (Burmese military), said Ko Ko Naing, is conducting a propaganda campaign against the Rohingya based on ideas of race and religion, ideas he said were codified by General Ne Win (a former Burmese leader who seized power in a military coup in 1962 and ruled Burma until 1988). Naing said the military was consciously using hate speech and a divide-and-conquer strategy to convince the people of Myanmar that the Rohingya are a security threat.
Amjad Mahmood Khan concurred. Pointing to a recent CBS report on the weaponization of social media in Myanmar, he said, “This crisis is largely the result… of a Facebook campaign to discredit this minority and that campaign was enabled and supported by those in government, including in the civilian government.”
“The Burmese government calls the Rohingya a cancer on Burma, they [disrespect] their religion, they call them terrorists,” said Ko Ko Naing. “Rohingya cannot travel outside of Rakhine State,” he said. “They cannot receive an education, they’re not allowed to get married to non-Rohingya.”
“There is a two-child policy,” remarked Naing. “If a family has more than two, parents can be arrested, tortured or even killed. Their farmland is seized.” The Myanmar government has also banned the use of the word “Rohingya” and uses the term “Bengali invaders” to identify the group.
Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh. Photo: Ashraful Alam/ Lost Hope via Flickr, cropped; 2018. Public domain.
“[The Rohingya],” said Naing, “are not considered one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.”
Noted Amjad Mahmood Khan, “[T]he 1982 law created three classifications of citizens that specifically excluded [this] over one-million [strong], thriving ethnic group from calling themselves citizens. That religious-political, apartheid-like practice created a 25- or 30-year arc of atrocities that have metastasized to such an extent that we are now at the precipice, or if not at outright, genocide,” he observed.
“This is the fundamental problem that exists in the region, not just in Myanmar,” concluded Khan. “Until and unless… identity and legal citizenship is conferred on an oppressed minority, you cannot begin to repatriate them and have them be meaningfully part of a country….[T]he denial of citizenship rights of religious minorities,” he continued, “ foments extremism and extreme acts against that community, which in turn create forcible deportation and ethnic cleansing.”
Potential policy responses
The Obama administration made a mistake in lifting the U.S. government sanctions against Burma in late 2016, said Ko Ko Naing, a decision that made it possible for the genocide to occur. Amjad Mahmood Khan agreed, calling the decision “a fundamental miscalculation in U.S. policy” that diminished the ability of the U.S. to now play a leadership role in responding to the crisis.
Naing discounted both the possibility and utility of international sanctions to address the crisis, noting that China and Russia were likely to veto any decision in this direction by the U.N. Security Council. China, he noted, has close business ties with Myanmar. “The regime is surviving because of countries like China, Singapore and Russia,” he insisted.
As for negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, Naing said, “The Burmese military is trying to buy time via negotiations. They are playing a game. If [the refugees] return, they will return to concentration camps.” He argued forcefully that repatriation would require some kind of international arrangement in which the Rohingya were physically protected.
Naing further doubted that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was likely to take meaningful action against Myanmar. ASEAN, he said, has a long-standing policy of non-interference in what it deems the “internal affairs” of member states, few of its members are democracies and several of those members have close business ties to Myanmar.
Holding the Myanmar government accountable
While the reluctance of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the atrocities has contributed to the current crisis, panelists concurred that Myanmar’s military leadership was ultimately responsible for acts that the UN describes as “bearing the hallmarks of genocide.” The state campaign being conducted against the Rohingya is, moreover, rooted in nearly a half-century of repressive state policies and social hostility toward the group, observed Geoffrey Robinson.
Suu Kyi leads the nominally civilian government in Myanmar as State Counselor, but real power remains in hands of the military, which controls the “power” ministries of Home Affairs, Defense and Border Affairs. And the 2008 constitution, which the military wrote, awards 25 percent of parliamentary seats to military appointees, giving the Tatmadaw the ability to block constitutional reforms that would restrict its power.
Nevertheless, all three panelists — Ko Ko Naing, Amjad Mahmood Khan and Aliza Luft – believed that Aung San Suu Kyi should be publicly held accountable for her failure to defend the human rights of the minority group.
As Amjad Mahmood Khan observed, “In the face of irrefutable evidence of villages being torched and raised and ethnic cleansing, she [Suu Kyi] has denied a lot of it publicly. She has also refused to use the word ‘Rohingya’ to reference this entire population,” he added. “In so doing, she has created a narrative that says using the word ‘Rohingya’ gives a status to this community that they don't deserve,” he said.
Luft added, “Not only are journalists not allowed in [to Rakhine state], but the journalists that were there have been arrested and detained. She has control and power and authority and is widely seen as a world leader and she is not doing what a world leader should do.” Naing went further, claiming Suu Kyi and the current head of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, were two of the masterminds behind the genocide.
Legal remedies under international law. Holding the Myanmar government to account for the atrocities against the Rohingya — whether under international human rights law, international humanitarian law or international criminal law — will be very difficult, said Amjad Mahmood Khan. He argued that international criminal law offers the most promising avenue for holding the government accountable, but said such a strategy remained uncertain.
Documentary evidence indicates that the country has violated a broad array of internationally recognized human rights, said Khan, including incitement to hatred and religious intolerance; arbitrary deprivation of nationality; restrictions on freedom of movement; threats to life, liberty and security; sexual and gender-based violence; denial of the right to housing and education; limitation of political rights; forced labor; and human trafficking.
Unfortunately, Khan noted, most of the human rights being violated in Myanmar are protected under the one UN human rights covenant that the country has not signed: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966). Nor is Myanmar a signatory to the Rome Statute (1998), which created the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Myanmar is a member of the United Nations and has signed most of the other major human rights covenants promulgated by that body,** but those covenants mostly lack enforcement mechanisms, explained Khan. From a strictly legal point of view, he said, “whether it is a genocide or not is… a debatable question.” Genocide is a specific-intent crime: an attempt to eliminate an entire race or community, in whole or in part. “And it's very difficult to hold Myanmar as a state responsible for genocide because it is not a party to the Rome Statute,” he concluded.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Photo: News Measurements Network via Flickr, crooped; 2018. Public domain.
“What the UN is trying to do is to get Myanmar to hold its own military accountable under the ratified treaties that exist already, including the genocide convention,” said Khan. “But that, I think, is very difficult.” He also found it unlikely that Myanmar could be held accountable under international humanitarian law (governed by the four treaties and three protocols of the Geneva Convention).
“I would argue that a case can be brought for genocide against Myanmar [under international criminal law], but it is not a slam-dunk case, it requires a lot of discussion,” he remarked. Specifically, he explained, there is the potential that a “first impressions” case could be brought against Myanmar for the criminal effects of its genocidal actions in Bangladesh (a country that is signatory of both the ICCPR and Rome Statute and a member of the ICC).
This legal avenue is now being explored by the International Criminal Court, said Khan, where the war crimes prosecutor has asked the Court to give an opinion on whether it is has jurisdiction over the atrocities being committed by Myanmar. Nevertheless, Khan cautioned that there was no consensus among international jurists that such a case would be successful. And he noted that the United States was in no position to lead a campaign for such a case because the U.S. itself has not signed the Rome Statute and is not a member of the International Criminal Court.
“What I would say is that you should feel free to make the case that this is a genocide. You should use the term ‘genocide’ and advance an argument that it is genocide,” he said, noting that what was occurring in Myanmar met all the indicia for the legal standard of genocide. “Whether you call it a genocide or not,” said Khan, “it is a crime against humanity, it is ethnic cleansing and it is the largest forcible deportation of a population since Rwanda. Those are just the facts.”
Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh. Photo: News Measurements Network via Flickr), 2018; cropped. Public domain.
The need to take action
UCLA sociologist Aliza Luft, whose research focuses on decision making during genocides, encouraged members of the audience to take immediate, direct action to stop or at least slow the violence in Myanmar. “We don't have to rely on our government to intervene, we don't have to rely on international law to declare something a genocide,” she said. “We can pressure [companies] to divest or to put limits on their relationship with the government in Myanmar.”
“The goal is [to] deepen a link between investments and operations abroad and commitments to human rights by pressuring companies over their complicity in genocide,” she explained. “That is something we can all do. We don't have to wait for some other organization to take charge. Research,” she continued, “shows that economic and reputational concerns motivate companies to change their policies.”
Luft in particular pointed to “No Business with Genocide,” an emerging movement that seeks, among other things, “to cut off the Myanmar government's military financing by targeting companies that help fund their crimes against humanity. The International Campaign for Rohingya (ICR) is spearheading the movement by targeting the high-end jeweler Bulgari,” she explained. “The military dominates the gemstone industry in Myanmar and profits from these high-end retailers such as Bulgari, are being used to fund this violence,” she said.
Chevron, she continued, is another important target for social pressure. “We can pressure Chevron to divest or to put limits on its relationship with the government in Myanmar,” she said.
Geoffrey Robinson also encouraged audience members to take action, recalling that the UN Security Council eventually took action against Indonesia’s violence in East Timor because “many millions of people were writing letters and tens of thousands were demonstrating in the streets all around the world, making it embarrassing for their governments to do nothing.”
“Let us not be judged a decade from now as having watched mass atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar and having just condemned what's happening without actually doing something,” said Amjad Mahmood Khan. “This is a catastrophe,” he emphasized. “And as Americans, we can do a lot more and I hope that each of us will figure out things to help.”
The recommendations of Luft and other panelists are summarized in the table below.
TAKE ACTION AGAINST GENOCIDE IN MYANMAR
1. Join letter-writing and social media campaigns to:
• encourage companies doing business in Myanmar to divest from their operations there via movements
such as No Business with Genocide and Myanmar Private Investment Tracking Project
• advocate for immediate increases in U.N. funding for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to avoid
catastrophic illness and loss of life
• encourage the European Union and the U.S. to pressure Myanmar through potential cuts in World
Bank and IMF funding for the country
2. Support active human rights organizations in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia — all of which are members of ASEAN — to pressure ASEAN to take action against Myanmar, such as through an economic boycott or suspension of its membership in the body.
3. For students, faculty and scholars: research whether your universities are invested in companies that conduct considerable business with Myanmar and, if so, call for them to divest from such investments.
4. Encourage and/or join U.S. Buddhist groups in publicly rejecting the campaign against the Rohingya as contrary to the tenets of Buddhism.
*A student-led national democracy movement erupted throughout Burma in summer 1988. The movement, known later as “8888” in honor of the nationwide strike it organized on August 8, 1988, was suppressed after martial law was declared in September of that year.
** Khan specified that Myanmar signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in 1949, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1991; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDEAW), in 1997, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in 2011; and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in 2017.