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Conflicts fueled by religious intolerance

Myanmar army's genocide of the Rohingya.
A conflict between the Buddhist majority
and a Muslim minority:

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The genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar:

Myanmar is sometimes referred to by its earlier name: Burma. It is located to the East of India and to the west of Indonesia. Until recently it was a dictatorship ruled by an oppressive military junta. The current president of the federal government is U Thein Sein. He was widely praised for introducing major democratic reforms in the country. But it remains one of the most ethnically divided countries in Asia.

Distrust between the Bamar Buddhist majority, and the Rohingya minority who are mostly Muslims, goes back decades. During World War II, the two groups supported opposite sides' The Buddhists supported Japan; the Muslims: Britain.

Throughout the 2010's, conflicts and violence in Myanmar have been escalating. This is a surprising development to many observers, because Buddhism has long been considered an unusually peaceful religion whose members are strongly opposed to the use of violence.

Rakhine State is located in the western part of Myanmar on the coast that faces India. It was a major focus of violence which escalated there during mid-2012.

In late 2012-OCT, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

"The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped. If this is not done ... the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized."

The estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar at the time were stateless. The government regards them all as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship, even though some of their families of origin have lived in the country for multiple generations.

The Free Rohingya Campaign (FRC) reported on 2012-OCT-28 that in Myanmar:

"... 50 to 100 boats full of Muslims escaping mid-Rakhine State violence remain[ed] afloat at sea, some for 4 days and with women and infant passengers that have already died. These boats have been denied awaiting UN and INGO relief and refuge and pushed out to sea by national military and border security, despite President Thein Sein’s assurances otherwise. Other Muslim boats have been attacked with no reported survivors when attempting to come ashore in near Taung bro, Northern Maungdaw Township [of Myanmar]." 2

During 2017-AUG, there was an increase in mass violence involving massacres, mass rapes, and the burning of the Rohingya villages to the ground. This caused hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee Myanmar. Most reached safety in Bangladeshi refugee camps. 3

In the minutes of a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on 2017-DEC-05, Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, was quoted as commending:

"... the Council for holding this critical and timely special session, and also commended the people and the Government of Bangladesh who had opened their borders, homes and hearts to Rohingya, the most persecuted minority in the world.  The stories heard from the Rohingya were heart-breaking and simply unimaginable, acts of unmitigated brutality against women and girls.  Those acts were not random, and included rape, gang rape by multiple soldiers, forced nudity, and sexual slavery and captivity by the military. The establishment of an independent body to ensure accountability was indispensable." 9

By mid 2018, tens of thousands of Rohingyas had been killed. More than a million have fled their homes and taken up residence in very primitive conditions in Bangladesh camps.

Human Rights Watch reported that all of the refugees who were interviewed preferred to return:

"... to Myanmar but only when conditions allowed them to return voluntarily: [including] citizenship, recognition of their Rohingya identity, justice for the crimes committed against them, return of homes and property, and assurances of security, peace and respect for rights."

That would be seen as simple justice to many outside observers. However, hatred and fear run so high in Myanmar that this solution is probably impossible to implement, at least at this time.

Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner said:

"Creating a conducive environment for return rests with Myanmar, not here. We cannot force them back." 4

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Assessing responsibility for the violence:

Hannah Beech, writing for the New York Times during 2018-JUL said that:

  • Top military officers, including the army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, "... claimed that the military reacted with restraint following the deadly raids by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army" during 2016-OCT and 2017-AUG.

  • An advocacy group, Fortify Rights, had interviewed 254 surviving Rohingya Muslims over 21 months. They issued a 162 page report on 2018-JUL-13, concluding that the Myanmar military systematically planned an anti-Muslim genocidal campaign. They identified 22 military personnel and police officers who they concluded had directly planned the attacks and recommended that the UN Security Council refer them to the International Criminal Court.

Matthew F. Smith, the CEP at Fortify Rights, a non-profit human rights group, implied that the genocide must have been carefully planned. He commented:

Genocide doesn’t happen spontaneously. Impunity for these crimes will pave the path for more violations and attacks in the future." 7

Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights nonprofit advocacy group, visited Myanmar and Bangladesh, where she interviewed military and government personnel and Rohingya victims of violence. She said:

"What the United States should be doing is to insist that the military and security forces that orchestrated this genocide are held accountable through targeted sanctions so this violence won’t repeat itself. ... We need more sanctions that target the people responsible for these abuses, like the over 20 officers that Fortify Rights names, to ban their travel, freeze their assets. What we don’t want is sanctions that hurt the Myanmar population as a whole, which would harm the most vulnerable people." 7

During 2018-AUG, the UN's Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded that the mass killings of the Rohingyas constitutes genocide. They found that some of the police, militias, and Buddhist monks joined with the Tatmawdaw (the military) in committing the atrocities. The Mission recommended that leaders of the Tatmawdaw should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity because the soldiers were acting under a chain of command which makes the leaders accountable. The UN report said that the crimes are:

"... shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity [and] for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them. Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law."

They also concluded that government officials did not participate in the violence, but did contribute to the crimes by their inaction, denial, destroying of evidence, and interference with investigations.

The UN Mission dismissed Tatmadaw's claim that justification for its attacks on the Rohingyas were justified, saying:

"Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages. The Tatmadaw’s ... tactics are consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats, especially in Rakhine state, but also in northern Myanmar. They are shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them. The Tatmadaw’s contempt for human life, integrity and freedom, and for international law generally, should be a cause of concern for the entire population." 11

The UN Mission concluded that:

"Unless impunity is addressed, and all ranks within the security forces are held accountable for their past, current and future actions, similar outbreaks of violence and associated atrocity crimes can be expected to continue, with further devastating domestic and regional impact."

Their report indicates that discrimination against the Rohingya has existed for decades:

"The result is a continuing situation of severe, systemic and institutionalized oppression from birth to death. ... [the arson attacks] disproportionately affected the elderly, persons with disabilities and young children, unable to escape. In some cases, people were forced into burning houses, or locked into buildings set on fire."

Unfortunately, the Mission was not allowed to visit Myanmar and personally investigate the violence activities on the ground. They had to rely on satellite images, photographs, and "... 875 in-depth interviews with victims and eyewitnesses."

Colin Dwyer, writing for National Public Radio, referred to sanctions initiated by the U.S. He said that they were:

"... quickly criticized for aiming at the middle tiers of Myanmar's security apparatus and leaving its highest rungs untouched. The official notice also avoided using strong labels such as 'genocide' to describe the military's actions, referring only to 'serious human rights abuses'." 3

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Two reporters were arrested in Myanmar:

On 2017-DEC-12, two Reuters reporters -- Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo -- were detained after working on an investigation into the mass killing of Rohingyas in Rakhine state. During their trial, a Myanmar police officer, Moe Yan Naing, testified that he had witnessed a plot by senior police to frame the two journalists by planting secret documents on them.

During 2018-SEP. a Myanmar court in Yangon found them guilty of breaking the Official Secrets Act by reporting on a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. 5 They were both sentenced to seven years in prison. The reporters' lawyer, Than Zaw Maung, said:

"This is disappointing -- and a blow -- to democracy, rule of law, and press freedom."

Knut Ostby, the United Nation's Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar. said:

"The United Nations has consistently called for the release of the journalists and urged the authorities to respect their right to pursue freedom of expression and information. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be allowed to return to their families and continue their work as journalists."

Stephen Adler, Editor-in-Chief at Reuters, said that the court ruling was "a sad day" for the organization, for the two men, and for:

"... the press everywhere; [the verdict] must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency. ... This is a major step backward in Myanmar's transition to democracy and it cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech. ... [Reuters] will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum. "

Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, tweeted:

"This conviction of the two Reuters reporters is a hammer blow against media freedom in Myanmar, showing just how afraid the Tatmadaw and Myanmar government are of investigative journalism and critical commentary [that are] customarily found in a real democracy."

Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists said:

"Today's ruling against Reuters reporters ... on bogus charges marks a new press freedom low for Myanmar. The process that resulted in their convictions was a travesty of justice and will cast Myanmar as an anti-democratic pariah as long as they are wrongfully held behind bars. We call on Myanmar's civilian authorities to immediately release the journalists." 5

Stuart McDonald is the founder of independent guide Travelfish, one of the main travel guides for south-east Asia. He suspended his company's coverage of Myanmar in response to the genocide and the trial of the Reuters reporters. He said:

"When Burma experienced its democratic gains five years ago there was considerable optimism where the country would head, but those hopes were buried in the ashes of the genocide in the west of the country. ..."

"Travelfish suspended our research to the country, as we felt that the popular support in much of the country for what was happening in Rakhine made travel there, for us, unconscionable. That the government has now elected to imprison those responsible for raising international awareness of what was actually happening has sadly only reinforced our belief that our decision was the best approach." 8

He indicated that revenue from hotel bookings in Myanmar made through the Travelfish website would be donated to the families of the journalists.

He said that:

"... the accusation of genocide being perpetrated in Myanmar -– against various groups -– has been raised repeatedly over the last two decades. It is essential that today the attempt to define whether genocide has been perpetrated does not continue to serve as a distraction to addressing the situation itself. ..."

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A suggestion that a genocide claim is not the best approach to resolving the tragedy in Myanmar:

Charles Petrie was a past assistant secretary general of the UN, and was the UN Deputy Humanitarian coordinator during the horrendous 1994 genocide in Rwanda. That inter-tribal conflict between members of the two main tribes in Rwanda resulted in the deaths of over 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribe who were killed by Hutus during 100 days of slaughter. The countries of the world and the UN itself did essentially nothing to stop it.

Writing for The Guardian newspaper (UK), he titled his article:

"Debating the definition of genocide will not save the Rohingya. The time for talk is over. The international community has to act, or it could fail in Myanmar just as it failed in Rwanda." 6

Pursuing a genocide charge could fracture international efforts to stop the atrocity. He recommends two simpler charges: war crimes, and crimes against humanity. These are simpler to understand, confirm, and accept. Making an airtight case for genocide would be difficult because the Government of Myanmar did not allow the UN access to on-the ground inspections of the areas where the atrocities were committed.

He concluded:

"... immense crimes have been and are being committed in Myanmar. It is time for the world to stop debating how to categorize them and focus on finding the necessary resolve to act." 6

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2018-SEP-06: International Criminal Court (ICC) declares that it has jurisdiction:

Myanmar is not a member of the ICC. However, the court decided that the cross-border nature of the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees was sufficient to create jurisdiction. A three-judge panel at the ICC said:

"The court has jurisdiction over the crime against humanity of deportation allegedly committed against members of the Rohingya people. The reason is that an element of this crime – the crossing of a border – took place on the territory of a state party [Bangladesh]. ... The court may also exercise its jurisdiction with regard to any other crime set out in article 5 of the statute, such as the crimes against humanity of persecution and/or other inhumane acts." 10

Kevin Jon Heller, a University of Amsterdam international law expert, said that with this decision, the prosecutor:

"... has no choice but to submit a request [to open a preliminary examination.]"10

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Tim MclaughLin, "Origin of ‘most persecuted minority’ statement unclear," Myanmar Times, 2013-JUL-08, at: https://www.mmtimes.com/
  2. "Press Release," Free Rohingya Campaign, 2012-OCT-28, at: http://www.rohingyablogger.com/
  3. Camila Domonoske, "Myanmar's Military Leaders Should Be Tried For Genocide, U.N. Investigators Say," National Public Radio, 2018-AUG-27, at: https://www.npr.org/
  4. " 'Bangladesh Is Not My Country'," Human Rights Watch, 2018-AUG-05, at: https://www.hrw.org/
  5. Euan McKirdy and James Griffiths, "Myanmar: Reuters journalists investigating Rohingya killings sentenced to 7 years in prison," CNN, 2018-SEP-03, at: https://www.cnn.com/
  6. Charles Petrie, "Debating the definition of genocide will not save the Rohingya," The Guardian, 2018-SEP-04, at: https://www.theguardian.com/
  7. Hannah Beech, "Myanmar’s Military Planned Rohingya Genocide, Rights Group Says," New York Times, 2018-JUL-19 at: https://www.nytimes.com/
  8. Hugh Morris, "Myanmar boycott announced by travel guide – will tour operators follow suit?," The Telegraph, 2018-SEP-10, at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/
  9. "Human Rights Council opens special session on the situation of human rights of the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine State in Myanmar," Office of the High Commissioner, United Nations Human Rights, 2017-DEC-05, at: https://www.ohchr.org/
  10. "ICC rules it can investigate crimes against Rohingya," Independent, 2018-SEP-07, at: https://www.independent.co.uk/
  11. "Rohingya: UN calls for Myanmar generals to be prosecuted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity," Independent, 2018-AUG-27, at: https://www.independent.co.uk/

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Copyright 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Originally posted: 2018-SEP-05
Latest update: 2018-OCT-01
Author: B.A. Robinson


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