It wasn’t long ago that the ethnic cleansing – quite probably genocide – against the Rohingya people of Burma (Myanmar) made headlines. Beginning near the end of August last year, the most recent and violent episode of a gathering storm of discrimination, deprivation, and destruction, the Burmese military murdered at least 9,000 Rohingya, quite possibly many more, as part of a campaign of unfathomably cruelty. It was not long before world leaders and top UN officials recognized the atrocities as ethnic cleansing, with some, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, suggesting that what was unfolding was quite possibly genocide, that “crime of crimes.”
There was a blip in coverage in the last eek or two as the United Nations and government of Burma (Myanmar) signed an agreement on a framework for the return of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, even as it is difficult to imagine the refugees voluntarily returning soon to a country that seems bent on the utter degradation of their humanity, that not a year ago burned their villages to the ground, murdered them, and raped them. As Matthew Smith of the NGO Fortify Rights observed: “If they [Burma] want to repatriate refugees they should start by shutting down the internment camps [in Rakhine State] and supporting Rohingya from those camps to rebuild their lives with dignity.” And they should grant the Rohingya citizenship and lift restrictions on their movement. Yet Burma’s government has done none of this.
The agreement comes even as a report emerged that it seems that the Burmese military targeted educated Rohingya “so there would be no community leaders left willing to speak up against the pervasive abuse” – still more evidence of genocide. Moreover, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported after managing to visit Rakhine State earlier this year, the Rohingya who remained in Burma were being denied education, medical care, and food. Refugees are expected to voluntarily to return to this?
There have been a few other recent developments. In the U.S. Congress, the House has taken a step towards sanctioning Burmese military officials linked to serious human rights abuses in Burma, in a slow move towards perhaps some level of accountability. Yet 9 1/2 months after the extreme violence against Rohingya began, and we have not even been able to manage highly targeted sanctions???
Fears for the safety of refugees grow with the arrival on monsoon season. Cox’s Bazar, home to the refugee camps for the Rohingya in Bangladesh, “is one of the most frequently flooded regions of one of the most flood-prone countries on Earth.” The Wall Street Journal wrote of the deadly danger of elephants. The Los Angeles Times examined the difficult choices facing women who had been raped by Burmese soldiers, whether to give birth out of wedlock (which has great stigma) and while living through a humanitarian crisis, or whether to terminate their pregnancies.
But for the most part, it is hard not to feel that the world has moved on. A crisis persists, but now chiefly as one more – if one that is a particularly large and fraught – refugee crisis, where the central question is, as in other refugee crises, how to ensure basic provisions and safety for the refugees, and how to get them home. That the refugees are so recently displaced as a result of genocide seems almost secondary. And this even as what Nicholas Kristof called “genocide in slow motion” continues.
With the world’s primary response to the genocide little more than a collective sigh, and some words of condemnation that reverberate as loudly as silence insofar as their apparent impact is concerned, the Burmese authorities have continued with a campaign of prosecution against non-Buddhist Burmese, with the military having launched an air and ground campaign against the Christian Kachin.
Elie Wiesel, when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, said, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” How far now are the Rohingya from the center of our universe. But it is no surprise. If we glance back to recent genocides, we see how we have, in these too, averted our eyes even as victims were still victimized, perpetrators still not held to account. Many Yazidi in Iraq, whom Daesh (ISIS) has targeted, leading to significant international intervention against ISIS, remain without enough food and other basics, and feel abandoned. The genocidal government of Sudan remains in place, yet from both American and European policy perspectives, has largely been able to re-enter the international community.
The plight of the Rohingya is the latest part of an intolerable (and yet tolerated), grievous (yet how many are grieving) trend: the normalization of genocide. As we look to battle intolerance and hatred around the globe, which fuels so much of today’s conflict, discrimination, death, and despair, we cannot forget that horrific apex of the “pyramid of hate,” genocide. For if we, the global community, fail to address even that, how can we hope to level the pyramid built of intolerance of “the other” in its entirety?