Myanmar still in deep denial: The Star Columnist

Pakistani people hold a banner and shout slogans during a protest against Myanmar in Karachi, Pakistan on Dec 9, 2016.
Pakistani people hold a banner and shout slogans during a protest against Myanmar in Karachi, Pakistan on Dec 9, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

Bunn Nagara

The Star/Asia News Network

In just 14 months to October 2004, Gen Khin Nyunt was Prime Minister of Myanmar.

The former intelligence chief had closed universities and arrested 10,000 people, many of them tortured or handed long sentences by kangaroo courts.

Yet by Myanmar's standards he was a "moderate" who clashed with junta head Senior Gen Than Shwe. After Khin Nyunt was sacked, he spent seven years under house arrest.

Next came Prime Minister Soe Win, "the butcher of Depayin" who engineered the Depayin Massacre the year before. A mob of thousands had attacked an opposition convoy and killed scores of people, reportedly on Than Shwe's orders.

After Gen Soe Win died in 2007, the "moderate" Gen Thein Sein took over. He retired from the military in 2010, held and won the 2011 election, and assumed the position of President.

Thein Sein expanded contacts abroad and presented his leadership as a break from the past.

In 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar, followed by President Barack Obama a year later. These visits signalled acknowledgment of reforms and encouraged more.

Thein Sein approved of peaceful protests, declared a truce with the Shans, stopped army operations against the Kachins and signed a ceasefire with the Karens.

From the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" when monks rose against the government, the deep state learned that the monkhood could be turned into a useful force outside the control of politicians. So Ashin Wirathu was paid to sponsor monks to act against their religion and karma by attacking Rohingyas.

Aung San Suu Kyi has shown no intention or ability to surmount this dual-key challenge. She cannot plead innocence, since as the most powerful figure in government the world will still hold her responsible.

But while Myanmar gained international credentials for reforms, its treatment of the Rohingyas deteriorated.

The 1982 Citizenship Law had already deprived them of citizenship, despite Rakhine being their home for generations. Their plight would worsen drastically through a campaign of intimidation, repression, murder and terror.

In June 2012, mobs attacked four Muslim townships, killing scores of people and displaced nearly 100,000. Then in October, nine Muslim townships were hit, with more people killed and 35,000 displaced.

Rakhine's Rohingya and Kaman Muslims were the victims. But "moderate" Thein Sein accused them of "threatening national security" and sought to remove them from their homeland.

He set up an inquiry to investigate. Typically, the Muslim community attacked by mobs would only be targeted in court prosecutions.

From 2012, Thein Sein dangled the carrot of leadership for opposition leader Suu Kyi. It helped contain any protest action she might have considered.

He told the BBC he would accept Suu Kyi as President if she could win. Less highlighted was how the Constitution had already barred her from contesting.

In March 2013, the Muslim community was again attacked, in Meiktila, resulting in dozens dead and 12,000 displaced. All seven persons convicted and jailed were Muslims while non-Muslim perpetrators suffered no penalty.

If earlier "peace deals" impressed Washington, they had no effect on fighters on the ground - in 2014 the army fought the Kachins again. Still, publicity abroad on pledged reforms diverted attention from the violence at home.

For all the planned violence against minorities, the Rohingyas have long borne the brunt of attacks. Officials conveniently sidestep all allegations by simply denying Rohingyas even exist.

Then they would say that the problems take time to resolve. Of course, given time the Rohingyas would have vanished altogether through mass murder and forced expulsion.

From at least 2012, international rights groups had accused the government of laying the groundwork for genocide against Rohingyas. That groundwork has led to a sordid superstructure in 2016.

An eight-month investigation by Al Jazeera and Fortify Rights, with Yale University Law School and the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, found strong evidence of genocide.

Evidence comes from secret army documents and witness testimonies by current and former military officers, Rohingya villagers and former UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana.

Three main criteria helped evaluate the situation as genocide: the Rohingyas constituted a specific group, the acts perpetrated against them were genocidal, and these acts were deliberate.

By the political expediency of denying the Rohingyas as a group, the government implicitly acknowledged the Rohingyas as a specific group.

The genocidal nature of extermination is as clear: mass murder, often with torture and rape; forced expulsion; restrictions on marriage and childbirth; and other atrocities. These crimes are being committed wilfully by and in collusion with state authorities, including the military, the police and the border forces (Nasaka).

Added to shameless official denials of genocide is a virulent campaign of false histories about the Rohingyas, accusing them of the very crimes perpetrated on them.

After years of persecution, some once-passive Rohingyas have started to fight back. If foreign militants join in, Myanmar's stoking of revolt would "reward" Asean with a regional terrorist threat after Asean had worked hard for its membership.

To its credit, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide is also doing valuable documenting work on the genocide against Rohingyas.

Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch has developed a more detailed formula to define genocide. Beginning with eight and then 10 criteria, he regards genocide as a phased campaign of heinous victimisation.

These are: dividing people between the majority and the victimised group; use of hate symbols; a process of dehumanisation; organised persecution; spreading polarising propaganda; physically separating the target group from others; extermination; and denying any wrongdoing.

Myanmar government agencies have engaged and colluded in all these stages.

The International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide established the definition of genocide in UN General Assembly Resolution 260A (III), Article 2.

It defines genocide as an act "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group", such as killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, bringing about the physical destruction of the group (wholly or partly), preventing births within the group, or forcing the transfer of children from the group to another.

Again, Myanmar conforms to the definition.

After spending one day in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission on Rakhine State tried to avoid using the word "genocide". It ended its government-chaperoned survey within a week. Almost immediately, Myanmar publicists spread the "news" that Annan had come to Myanmar, assessed the situation, and found no genocide there.

The Commission will complete its report only next year. Six of the nine members are Myanmar citizens, none of them a Rohingya.

Annan said the charge of genocide is a serious one, and so it would require careful study. He could perhaps begin by considering the careful studies already done by others.

Annan is also chief advocate of "responsibility (of states) to protect" innocent civilians. Given what is known of Myanmar's genocide, avoiding use of the term would irreparably damage his reputation.

But no Myanmar official need worry. Annan's Commission did not seek to identify the culprits or assess guilt, only to see how long-term solutions can be reached. If only the Rohingya community can last the long term.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.