A Hero Turned Villain: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Annihilation of Myanmar’s Rohingya

A Hero Turned Villain: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Annihilation of Myanmar’s Rohingya

A Hero Turned Villain: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Annihilation of Myanmar’s Rohingya

They potentially face the final two stages of genocide—mass annihilation and erasure from the country’s history.


I recently met Penny Green to discuss the situation in Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in the perpetration of the horrific crimes carried out against the Rohingya.

A professor of law and globalization and the founding director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University of London, Green has been closely monitoring the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar for the past five years. In a 2015 report based on 12 months of field work and over 200 interviews, ISCI found ample evidence that the Rohingya have been subjected to systematic and widespread human-rights violations, including killings, torture, and rape; denial of citizenship; destruction of villages; land confiscation; and forced labor. Citing Daniel Feierstein’s Genocide as Social Practice, which outlines six stages leading to genocide, ISCI claimed that the Myanmar regime had already perpetrated four: (1) stigmatization and dehumanization; (2) harassment, violence, and terror; (3) isolation and segregation; and (4) the systematic weakening of the target group. Now the Rohingya potentially face the final two stages of genocide—mass annihilation and erasure of the group from Myanmar’s history.

Neve Gordon: Can you provide some background about the Rohingya’s plight and the processes that have brought us to where we are today?

Penny Green: Burma, known today as Myanmar, received independence in 1948. The country had been part of a vast British colony, and not unlike India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, Burma’s borders were determined partly according to religious lines, with the Bengal state being mostly Hindu, Bangladesh mostly Muslim and Burma mostly Buddhist. The Rohingya, who are Muslim, had been living for centuries mostly in what became Rakhine State in the newly established Burma. In 1950, they were issued citizenship identification cards and granted the right to vote under the first post-independence Prime Minister, U Nu. Until the late 1970s, the Rohingya held important government positions as civil servants, the official Burma Broadcasting Service relayed a Rohingya-language radio program three times a week, and the term “Rohingya” was used in school textbooks and official documents.

In the early 1980s, we start to witness the beginning of the process that ultimately aims at erasing the Rohingya from Myanmar’s history and geography. In 1982, the Rohingya were removed from the list of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognized ethnic minorities and stripped of citizenship. A little more than a decade later, the government suddenly refused to issue birth certificates to Rohingya babies. It then began to completely erase the term “Rohingya” from the official texts and even to condemn anyone who uttered the word. After the 2012 government-sanctioned Rakhine violence, the Rohingya were restricted to secure zones, detention camps, ghettos, and prison villages, and were excluded from higher education, all professions, the military and the public service.

Finally, in 2014, the Rohingya were excluded from the census. This is crucial in my mind, even more so than the prohibition to participate in the November 2015 elections, since, as history teaches us, when the state stops counting people it means that the state no longer considers them subjects of management and control, and when people are no longer monitored and managed, it means that they are considered superfluous.

NG: Before turning to the current crisis and to Aung San Suu Kyi’s role, can you explain what led to the concentration of Rohingya in camps, prison villages, and ghettos, and could you tell us about the living conditions within them?

PG: The concentration of the Rohingya in camps was a key part of the 2012 violence, which was, in turn, a consequence of a concerted hate campaign backed by the government and orchestrated by a hard-line group within the Buddhist Sangha (a term used for the monkhood) led by Ashin Wirathu. You must keep in mind that even though there were periods of tension before 2012, the Rohingya used to go to school with all the other ethnic groups living in Rakhine, not least the predominant Buddhist population. They lived together, they shopped at each other’s stores, and they participated in each other’s celebrations.

Over the years, however, an anti-Muslim fever effectively gripped the country. While the degree of xenophobic nationalism inside Myanmar is astonishingly high and penetrates every level of society, rendering life extremely difficult for Muslims residing in Mandalay, Yangon, and other parts of the country, the Rohingya in Rakhine State experience a double sense of persecution: both general xenophobia and a specific racial hatred directed against their ethnic group.

The 2012 violence was directly precipitated by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Rohingya men. This was the pretext for the violence in and around Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, which was perpetrated by Rakhine nationalists and fomented by hard-line Buddhist monks and local Rakhine politicians. From the people we interviewed, it was very clear that the security forces did nothing during the first three days, allowing the violence to run its course before they intervened. There were no prosecutions following this violence, even though 200 people had been killed.

As the Rohingya fled their burning homes, they were herded into an area that we now call the camp detention complex. That is where they have been contained for the past five years. A relatively small number of Rohingya remained in Sittwe and live in Aung Mingalar ghetto. They were apparently protected by a Burmese commander, whom we have been unable to locate, but testimonies suggest that he stood up against the Rakhine nationalists and other members of the security forces, protecting the Rohingya from the mob. Aung Mingalar is a very deprived ghetto. It does not receive aid from the World Food Program because it is not a registered camp, and therefore the Rohingya there rely on aid from Muslim communities and limited rations from the state.

When we visited the camps and ghetto in 2014 and 2015, the conditions were utterly deplorable. It was as if we were witnessing a process of social death, to cite Claudia Card’s analysis of genocide. The camps were squalid, and the only livelihood that we witnessed was the collecting of cow dung and drying it off to sell as fuel. There is hardly any access to health care—there are clinics but no local doctors, nurses, medical equipment, or drugs. It is said that Rakhine doctors offer services for two hours per week in camps housing thousands of people. Médecins Sans Frontières were offering emergency health care, but they were expelled from Rakhine State (and later the whole of Myanmar) in 2014 after issuing a report that they had treated 22 people from the village Dar Chee Yar Tan for gunshot, beatings, and knife wounds.

Toilets in the camps are collective and located on the camp’s outskirts, a long way from the living quarters, which could, I would think, be dangerous for women. People are terrified of leaving the camps for fear of violence, and as our fieldwork suggests, their fear is justified, given the vicious attacks perpetrated against those who dared go to Sittwe.

The people we saw were profoundly depressed. We visited the overly crowded huts, and people would just be lying on the floor because there was nothing to do, no work, no food to prepare, nowhere to go, and indeed very limited opportunities to do anything. In all these senses, it felt like we were witnessing first hand Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life.”

NG: In your 2015 report you claim that the Rohingya are under threat of genocide. Do you think what we are witnessing is actually a process leading to genocide, or would ethnic cleansing be a more appropriate term? I ask this because, according to the United Nations, ethnic cleansing is defined as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” In other words, the violence associated with ethnic cleansing is directed at emptying a space of certain populations and has a spatial dimension that is vital to the definition of the violence. Genocidal violence, by contrast, focuses on the extermination of populations, and its object is the human body, while the spatial dimension exists but is incidental.

PG: The term “ethnic cleansing” is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it has no legal recourse, rendering it easy for foreign governments to describe what they are witnessing in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing because it places no obligation on them to intervene, either to prevent the violence and protect the Rohingya or to punish the culprits. Another problem is that the term “ethnic cleansing” was initially used by Slobodan Milosevic to mask the genocidal elements of the attacks against the Bosnian Muslims. It is the perpetrator’s term.

Raphael Lemkin understood that genocide is a process when he first coined the term and campaigned for the introduction of an international law against it. Genocide begins with practices of stigmatization and dehumanization, which we have witnessed in Myanmar for a very long time. In the process of othering the Rohingya, the stigmatization continues, but we move into a stage of harassment, where civil rights are gradually removed, such as the right to vote, the right to take certain forms of transport, and the right to have as many children as you like. The Rohingya have been denied these rights as well as many others. During this period of harassment, you often witness instances of sporadic violence, violence used to test the local population’s capacity to engage in violence against the target group. As I explained earlier, as a result of the 2012 Rakhine-led violence the Rohingya were forced into concentrated spaces and were removed from the sight of the rest of Rakhine’s communities. They were completely isolated. All of these practices are necessary for securing the compliance and active involvement of the local population in the annihilation process.

The history of the Jews in the 1930s teaches us that when a group is isolated and systematically weakened—through lack of food, limited access to health care, work and livelihood—and their community is deliberately fragmented, the group becomes extremely vulnerable. This is what has been happening to the Rohingya, and the Myanmar government has been an active supporter of this process. We know, for example, that local politicians were involved in planning the violence of 2012; they organized buses that picked up Rakhine men and women and brought them to Sittwe to torch Rohingya houses. Rakhine nationalists who carried out the pogroms recounted in the interviews with ISCI how free food was laid out for them and how they were given weapons.

Moreover, it is crucial to understand that genocidal annihilation is not only about decimating the body but also about destroying the ethnic identity of a people. This is what the Myanmar state has been embarking on. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has effectively been the equivalent of a prime minister for over a year and a half, called the US ambassador to her office and told him that the term “Rohingya” was not to be used. Along similar lines, when ISCI was still allowed to work in Myanmar, we had to be very careful not to use the term “Rohingya.” This process of annihilating an ethnic identity fits well with Lemkin’s notion of genocide.

From August 25, 2017, we have been witnessing an escalation of this whole process. As far as I understand, the destruction of villages continues despite the denial of the Myanmar government. We do not know how many people have been killed, but it is undoubtedly in the thousands. Over half a million have fled, crossing the Naf River into Bangladesh. But what most people do not understand is that they are joining another five to seven hundred thousand Rohingya who have fled since 2012. So, all along the Bangladesh side of the Naf River, there are over a million Rohingya living in appalling conditions, in unregistered camps, while only a few hundred thousand are still living in Rakhine State.

In several senses, Myanmar has been successful. The Rohingya who are still living in Rakhine can only identify as Bengali and the term “Bengali” is coded as illegal immigrant. What we are now witnessing is the social reorganization after the annihilation of the Rohingya identity. Former Buddhist prisoners have been resettled under the government’s Na Ta La village program in an effort to change the demographic structure of northern Rakhine State, creating an ever-increasing hostile environment for the remaining Rohingya community.

NG: The world has condemned Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence. What do you think is her role, if any, in this new stage of violence against the Rohingya?

PG: I challenge this idea of silence. Aung San Suu Kyi has not been silent. Every step of the way she has exercised agency. I understand how difficult it is for people in the West to consider her as an active perpetrator of the horrific crime of genocide, given that she is the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, and literally scores of other significant awards. But let’s remember that Henry Kissinger was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, as he was carpet-bombing Cambodia. It is important to also understand that for the past 19 months, Aung San Suu Kyi has been Myanmar’s State Counselor, the equivalent of prime minister. She is definitely not a minor or weak actor in Myanmar.

During her tenure as premier, she has not once criticized the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya. She has condemned all violence, all human-rights abuses, as if somehow this was a symmetric conflict.… I cannot call it a “conflict,” because this is a one-sided annihilation of a particular people. She, as I mentioned, called the US ambassador and instructed him and all other diplomats not to use the term “Rohingya.” She has not condemned the hate speech pouring out from the monk groups that aim to destroy the Rohingya. She has continuously lied about the situation in northern Rakhine State while simultaneously denying international access to the region, and has actively participated in covering up her government’s crimes.

But even before the current crisis, she participated in sowing the seeds of violence. Although the National League for Democracy had Muslim candidates in the past, in the 2015 elections Aung San Suu Kyi refused to include any Muslims on the party’s list, thus pandering to her constituency and to the Islamophobic atmosphere in Myanmar. In 2017, following the publication of a UN Flash Report that documented mass killings and mass rapes by Myanmar’s security forces in northern Rakhine State, Aung San Suu Kyi’s office declared that these were “fake rapes” and fake news. This is precisely around the same time that Trump began using the term.

When the most recent cycle of violence began this past August, her office made the ludicrous claim on Facebook that the international community was aiding and abetting the terrorists, by which she meant the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which in August had attacked a security outpost. As a result, all aid and humanitarian agencies were forced to leave Rakhine State, and consequently Rohingya camps were left without food for weeks—another act that precipitated the massive exodus. She has also consistently and unreservedly aligned herself with the military, refusing to condemn its actions against the Rohingya.

Her relationship with the military is interesting, since in the West she is considered the one person who for years stood up against the military junta. We need to keep in mind that her father was Gen. Aung San, who led the independence movement in 1948, and therefore there is a historical family link with the military. She is also a member of Burma’s Bamar, the Buddhist elite. She was indeed held under house arrest for 15 years, but in a rather beautiful house on Inya Lake; she had servants and was on occasion allowed to meet with international visitors. Despite the fact that it was the junta that imprisoned her, she famously declared her love for the Burmese military not long after her release. How can one explain this apparent paradox?

In my mind, Aung San Suu Kyi is a very ambitious and utterly ruthless politician whose primary goal is to become Myanmar’s president, regardless of what it takes. According to the country’s Constitution, because she married an English citizen and her two sons were born in the UK, she is prohibited from becoming president. In the past 19 months, all of her political efforts have been designed to change the Constitution. This, however, is impossible without the military’s support, since according to the deal she brokered before the 2015 elections, the military retains 25 percent of the seats in Parliament, and, to change the Constitution, one needs over 75 percent of the votes. In other words, without the military, the Constitution cannot be altered. Consequently, she not only refuses to condemn the military but has also allowed it to continue controlling three key ministries, defense, interior and borders. She has, in other words, created an unholy pact with those who were her enemies.

The sacrifices Aung San Suu Kyi is willing to make are many. The annihilation of the Rohingya is one of them.

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