By Selin Calik Muhasilovic
In a rare exclusive interview, Myanmarese scholar and democracy advocate Dr. Maung Zarni spoke to Anadolu Agency on the ongoing humanitarian crisis involving Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence and persecution in the Rakhine state and Turkey’s important role specifically to help them return to the ‘Protected Homeland’.
- ‘The Rohingya are misframed as a proxy for terrorists’
You are a Buddhist academic but you support the Rohingya Muslims. How did the genocide take place? Why do you oppose the genocide as a Buddhist?
Well, I am not supporting Rohingya Muslims because they are Muslims.
I am supporting that they are fellow humans from my country and they are oppressed not because they take up arms, not because they are trying to gain independence or separate from Burma, but because they are Rohingya and they are misframed as a threat to national security.
As you know, they are misframed as a proxy for the terrorists in the Middle East. They are also seen and misperceived basically as local proxies for Bangladesh, if Bangladesh were ever to decide to take the Rohingya region.
So, essentially the Rohingya are innocent and they have a small number of radical or young angry Rohingya who want to fight back because they do not have any option because they have lost everything.
But, that does not justify what the Burmese military has been doing, which is essentially “genocide”.
If I do not speak out and oppose, I would be less than a human being, because this kind of genocide can destroy our community and poses a threat to the territorial integrity of Burma.
In the case of the Rohingya, we have been engaged in different ways of killings since 1978 when the Burmese military decided that this community must not be allowed to exist as Rohingya or their numbers must be reduced by terrorizing them so that they would run away to Bangladesh or other places.
So, on the religious or philosophical ground, the killings must not be condoned, especially given that I know that the Burmese military destroys their livelihood, food systems, and restrict their access to farms where they can raise or harvest food crops like rice.
If I do not speak out, then it is my responsibility, then I am complicit.
In this kind of situation when you keep your mouth shut, you know that a large number of human beings are being slaughtered; then I am complicit.
Similar to the situation in the Nazi Germany, when some decent and good Germans kept their mouth shut as they were afraid for their lives.
But, there were also a very small number of Germans who said Nazism was bad for everybody, including the Germans.
So, they opposed when a lot of people were executed by the SS, or the Hitler regime. In my case, I have been declared the top enemy of the state and a national threat.
But, if you do not want your children to be raped and killed, you should not want any other people’s families to be hurt either.
The Rohingya are not small in number. We are talking about 800.000 Rohingya who have run away from their lands.
They are someone else’s wife, husband, brother, teacher... They are human beings like us. I personally know some of the people that rewrote the citizenship law against the Rohingya in 1982.
I also know the top leader of the military that organized the genocide. As a researcher, I know. So, on these grounds, I have no choice but to oppose these inhumane acts.
That’s why I am the first Buddhist who publicly says this is wrong. I named these acts as crimes as early as 2013 when everybody basically ridiculed me, saying that I was exaggerating because they did not see the large numbers of people being killed.
The government has often restricted access to the northern Rakhine State for journalists and aid workers. What kind of restrictions have you experienced as an academic and activist? What kind of price have you paid? Has this price been worth paying?
Firstly, let me tell you that I have been active for 30 years in different campaigns or movements to try to stop the military government in Burma and to introduce the principles of human rights, women’s rights, environmental protection etc.
Rohingya is the latest issue that I want to do something about, to end the genocide. In the last 30 years, I haven’t suffered in the form of imprisonment, torture, or restrictions as I come from a privileged, urban, and educated family.
But I do get some “treats” from time to time. When I was living in Brunei and teaching there, the Burmese Embassy tried to have me fired from the Brunei University because the Brunei government wanted to do business with the Burmese government.
Brunei is a Muslim country but they are more interested in making money with the Buddhist government. So, unfortunately I resigned from my position under pressure because I had written a number of articles in support of the Rohingya Muslims.
- ‘Kofi Annan Commission is a failure’
In September 2016, an advisory commission headed by Kofi Annan was established to sustain the peace and stop the massacre of the Rohingya Muslims. Do you think that this commission has been successful in its efforts?
The Kofi Annan Commission is a huge international shield to protect the Burmese government because Kofi Annan is seen as a credible individual.
I have never held Kofi Annan in any high regard particularly because Kofi Annan was the man on whose watch two genocides took place.
The first genocide was that of the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, who were slaughtered in 1995 when Kofi Annan was the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in New York.
The second one was Rwanda. 800.000 people were slaughtered and Kofi Annan concealed the telegram that had come from the head of the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda to his office in New York.
Additionally, Kofi Annan did nothing in South Sudan when the South Sudanese were being killed by the regime. Nonetheless, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the UN.
His commission had two other foreign members; the former Dutch ambassador and the former Lebanese minister of culture.
On this issue, their mandate was not to document the human rights abuses or decide whether a genocide is being committed in Burma. Their mandate was to look at the situation from our conflict-mediation perspective.
His commission’s framework is fundamentally flawed because the nature of the Rohingya persecution is not a conflict; it is a genocide. Genocides are not conflicts.
Genocide is essentially the destruction of an ethnic or religious or racial group of people by the political state that is controlled by the majority ethnic or religious group.
In our case, the Buddhist majority that controls the arm forces and the Rakhine state wanted to get rid of all the Rohingya or a large number of Rohingya who happen to be Muslims from their own homeland.
In ignoring the international criminal nature of the Burmese state and its policies and then taking a “conflict resolution” or “conflict management” approach, the Kofi Annan commission is deeply flawed conceptually.
But even with that conceptual flaw, I would say that maybe some of the recommendations are worthy, like granting the Rohingya citizenships. The Kofi Annan Commission was never ever accepted by the Burmese military anyway.
We have a situation in Burma, where the government is kind of hybrid; there is the military and the Aung San Suu Kyi government. They jointly run the country depending on the issues.
On the Rohingya issue, the military never accepted Kofi Annan’s involvement, because he was widely seen within the military leadership as someone connected with the responsibility to promote an intervention, although our responsibility to protect has never been mentioned and used by the UN to stop the mass atrocities.
So, his commission had absolutely no chance of succeeding from day one. The military attempted to derail his commission within the parliament by introducing a motion that would oppose Kofi Annan’s involvement.
The military worked with the Rakhine nationalists to stage protests whenever Kofi Annan and his commission came to the Rakhine state. The military also encouraged the Rakhine people not to collaborate with Kofi Annan. So, this commission is a complete failure.
- ‘Serious leadership from a powerful state like Turkey is needed’
According to a Turkish government statement, President Erdogan was the first to manage to get permission for humanitarian aid to enter Myanmar. The Burmese government had, at the peak of the violence, blocked all UN aid for the Rohingya. How does Turkey support the oppressed Rohingya?
On the issue of Rohingya, Turkey has been extremely good. Turkey apparently highly prioritized the oppression of the Rohingya people.
Turkey’s first lady (Emine Erdogan) visited Rohingya and Cox’s Bazaar and met with the Rohingya. Turkey has provided humanitarian aid by the help of TIKA, AFAD and other NGO’s of Turkey.
I think the support that the Turkish leadership has shown towards Rohingya Muslims seems to be genuine and that is very commendable from a human rights perspective.
I think there are two things Turkey can do: one is to increase the level of humanitarian assistance to Rohingya very significantly. There are about one million Rohingya in Bangladesh alone, 200,000 Rohingyas are in the IDP (internally displaced person) camps.
The other is that Turkey can mobilize the political opinions among the governments within Muslim blocs, the 57-country OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), and Western blocs such as Canada, France, Germany and others with the purpose of holding high-level international conferences to discuss the future of the Rohingya people and what they need to rebuild their communities.
They were expelled from the region where they were born and raised in. There is a 100-km stretch of land where the Rohingya people used to live.
They were driven out violently, a massive number of the Rohingya were slaughtered and women raped. We are looking at the killing fields of the northern Arakan, a stretch of a hundred kilometers.
Turkey and other governments around the world should mount a serious opposition against the Burmese government’s plan to turn the killing fields of northern Arakan to economic zones.
Turkey’s leadership and role would be the most important contribution; Turkey can do more than feed the Rohingya and give them medicine.
In reality, no one can keep feeding one million people forever. What the Rohingya need is essentially their homeland, where they can grow their own rice or they can set up little shops. Their area is also not landlocked. They can do cross-border trade.
So, what is needed is serious leadership from a powerful state like Turkey. Western governments are not showing any commitment to address the issue.
They keep framing this as a conflict but there is actually a genocide being committed by a state against a people who just want to simply live in peace in that country.
That’s why Turkey needs to step in more to stop the hegemony of the Western governments on the Rohingya issue.