Asia - Pacific

ANALYSIS - Conference calls for action to end Rohingya genocide

Victims demand that ‘Never again!’ must be more than an empty slogan

16.02.2019 - Update : 18.02.2019
ANALYSIS - Conference calls for action to end Rohingya genocide


On Feb. 8 and 9 at Barnard College in New York City, the Free Rohingya Coalition held a productive conference, drawing an audience of 200 researchers, activists and renowned academics from around 12 countries.

Amongst the nearly 40 speakers – two were pre-recorded – were the iconic American Black consciousness activist and renowned academic Angela Davis; Post-Colonial Studies cofounder and the author of the classic “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar Yanghee Lee; prominent member of the UN International Independent Fact-Finding Mission Radhika Coomaraswamy; and leading scholars of genocide Gregory Stanton and Alex Hinton. 

They were joined by a group of Rohingya genocide survivors, Karen and Burmese activists and scholars.

The conference was the first of its kind internationally on the vital issues of accountability for crimes in Myanmar and protection of national minorities in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states. 

It was co-hosted by top research institutes at Barnard College and Columbia University such as the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. It was also endorsed globally by a diverse network of institutions, including the Montreal Holocaust Museum (Canada), the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit at the University of Dhaka (Bangladesh), the (Genocide) Documentation Center of Cambodia and the Genocide Watch (US).

Rohingya and Burmese activists who lead the coalition had a surprise for Professor Spivak and Harn Yawnghwe, one of the leading Myanmar activists and former peace negotiator.  Both, West Bengali and Shan respectively, have set fine examples of what it means to lead lives of public service.  In fact, the Yawnghwes were crucial in establishing a modern post-independence Union of Burma, the fact that has been airbrushed out of Myanmar’s military-centred racist official history, in ways not dissimilar to the erasure of Rohingya history and those of other non-Burmese and non-Buddhist histories.  It is fitting that a Shan of Christian faith exiled in Canada after having escaped the military rule as a teenager some 50 years ago stands with the Rohingyas today. 

Angela Davis’s special message of solidarity for the coalition specifically and the oppressed national minorities in general set the tone and parameters of the discussion. Apparently having drawn on slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, Davis was emphatic about “the indivisibility of justice”, whoever the victims of systematic injustices are and wherever they may be. 

She linked the dots among seemingly disparate issues as diverse as the brutality of Israel-trained U.S. police towards Latina and black youth in the United States to U.S.-trained state troopers and their murder with impunity across Central and Latin American countries while explaining and justifying her support for the Palestinians and opposition towards the settler-colonial, racist and militaristic state of Israel. 

In her pre-recorded address to the conference, Professor Yanghee Lee categorically dismissed the claim that Myanmar is in a fragile democratic transition under Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian leadership. She pointed out the inconceivability of any real democratization under the 2008 Constitution; the constitution drawn up and adopted by the Burmese generals elevates the Armed Forces of Myanmar above the rest of society and exempts it from accountability or checks and balances. 

On Rohingya, Lee was emphatic that the conditions in Myanmar’s “killing fields” are not conducive for the much-hyped up schemes of repatriation for Rohingya criminally deported by Myanmar. 

On the subject of repatriation, the conference also heard from three scholars and activists with decades of professional experience dealing with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and/or refugees. 

Dr. Jeff Crisp, from the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford and formerly head of policy development and program evaluation at the UNHCR, shared his insider perspectives on the world’s main refugee agency mandated to strive for the protection of refugees worldwide. His fact-based PowerPoint presentation exposed the role and complicity of UNHCR in mass forced repatriations from Bangladesh to Myanmar in the past 40 years. He Highlighted the need for the refugee agency to commit to genuine participation and consultation with Rohingya in their current operations, and to priorities refugee protection over their relationships with the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments.  

Tapan Kumar Bose, an Indian journalist and former secretary general of the South Asia Human Rights Network, who has worked in support of Rohingya, Nepalese and Bengali (now Bangladeshi) and other refugees since the start of the 1970s, echoed Dr. Crisp’s damning indictment of the UN agency and called attention specifically to the UNHCR and its recurring practice of “imposed repatriation”. 

On her part, Natalie Brinham of Queen Mary University of London, who researches the use of registration and ID documents as a weapon of persecution, discussed why Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and India have long resisted numerous pressures to accept what Myanmar calls “National Verification Cards”. Rohingya rightly view these cards as “genocide cards”, such as the officials of the special envoy of UN Secretary-General are astill promoting these "genocide cards" inside Myanmar and as part of repatriation agreements within the Myanmar government.  

Speaking as a member of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Radhika Coomaraswamy talked about the extreme nature of Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya as a group protected under international law. 

“Is what happened to the Rohingya genocide? What else could it be?... In our report, we finally stated that there was 'sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide,'” she said.

She went on to offer her take as to why there has been a shocking absence of any meaningful and effective measures by the system of states – called the United Nations – to end what her fact-finding mission observes is a situation of on-going genocide: “Though we have a very comfortable majority of the international community who want to condemn in the strongest terms the actions of the Myanmar government, only a much smaller group wants to go toward sanction and accountability. The fear of accountability is linked in the minds of many developing countries with a fear of losing sovereignty. Accountability is resisted by countries like India on the face of it because of their theoretical stance on sovereignty.”

As the UN member states fail to discharge their responsibility to protect the most vulnerable – not just the Rohingya, but other oppressed minorities of Myanmar such as the Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, Muslims and Christians -- the conference’s host professor, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University, pointedly observed that we the people, activists and scholars of conscience must step in and offer concrete acts of solidarity, not so much in the neo-colonialist sense of “empowering” the victims or offering them “education” as we know it in advanced industrial countries of the West, but to put at the center of global consciousness the ongoing tales of de-humanization, demonization (of Rohingya genocide survivors as prospective “Muslim terrorists”) and deprivation.

Myanmar's Ministry of Education which runs all universities and 99% of pre-collegiate schools (K-10) is one of the main engines behind anti-Rohingya racism, Islamophobia and Bama or Myanmar-ethno-central colonial history and knowledge about the country and its birth.

For me as a Burmese who grew up nationalistic, racist and feudal, the most powerful moment of the two-day conference came when a Rohingya refugee, Ahmad Ullah, recalled a deeply traumatic moment of seeing a 5-year-old orphan girl being beaten up by Bangladesh police for having cut into a line of Rohingya refugees waiting for their food ration for hours.

With tears streaming down his cheeks, Ahmad asked the visibly moved audience at Barnard College: “What kind of a world do we live in when a 5-year-old girl is beaten up by authorities [in full view of the public] for simply wanting and asking for food?!”

Ahmad told the audience that that little girl reminded him of his past, as he grew up under similarly harsh and inhuman conditions. He was born in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar to two Rohingya survivors of the 1991-92 waves of mass killings and violence by Myanmar.

To paraphrase the late Hannah Arendt, the acclaimed Jewish scholar of totalitarianism, refugees are humans without the earth beneath their feet. The United Nations has failed categorically to discharge Chapter 7, which requires the Security Council to intervene firmly in situations that threaten world peace. 

While the world’s policy circles frame, typically and falsely, one million Rohingya as “potential terrorists” prune to “radicalization”, no state and no regional bloc (EU or ASEAN or South Asia grouping) is lifting a finger to really end the genocide.

That is why, in the final minutes of the conference, virtually all Rohingya activists and many scholars and activist supporters publicly called for the boycott of Myanmar -- intellectually, educationally, institutionally, commercially and culturally.

Just as Germany in the 1930s was not reformed through engagement -- really acts and policies of “appeasement” by the Old Europe -- Myanmar’s political society in 2019 has already sleep-walked into the zone of mass genocide and other grave crimes.

As painful as it is, as a Burmese who blew the whistle on his society’s gravest crimes – including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, I wholeheartedly support this call.

Thankfully, we were joined by Angela Davis, who expressed her support for the Rohingya's leadership and call for “Boycott Myanmar, End Rohingya Genocide and Other Crimes Against Minorities”. Davis gave the audience a powerful endorsement: “I will boycott Myanmar until it stops its persecution of national minorities such as Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, Karen and Rakhine.”

Impersonal states -- man-made Frankensteinian institutions -- may not feel the pain or hear the cries of Rohingya and other wretched of Myanmar. But as humans of conscience and compassion, many of us hear and heed their cries. Together, we can make “Never again!” a reality for Myanmar’s oppressed. 

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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