No Delusions

A conversation with Dr. Maung Zarni on the Rohingya genocide

by Chris Packs & Isabel DeBre

Illustration by Eve O'Shea

published November 17, 2017

content warning: state violence, sexual violence, genocide, Islamophobia, graphic bodily mutilation

This fall, the persecution of Rohingya people overwhelmed global media in the wake of renewed waves of military violence. Yet the uptick in brutality against Myanmar’s Muslim minority does not represent a rupture in the history of ethnic violence—rather a continuation of a genocide lasting over four decades. Since the late 1970s, Myanmar’s Buddhist government has systematically disenfranched and persecuted its minority Rohingya Muslim population in the Rakhine state. Over one million Rohingyas have fled their historic homeland to harsh camp conditions in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Malaysia, among other countries. Hundreds of villages have burned and thousands have been killed. Meanwhile, the Burmese government conceals precise numbers, circulates false narratives, and denies accusations that it is initiating a genocide. 

As these atrocities escalate, the Independent Skyped with Dr. Maung Zarni, a longtime Burmese human rights activist and a research fellow with the Genocide Documentation Center of Cambodia. Merging scholarship with activism, Dr. Zarni has organized numerous international conferences on the Rohingya crisis, published extensively on Burmese politics and peace processes, initiated the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on Myanmar in 2013, and founded the Free Burma Coalition in 1995. 

When we spoke this November, Dr. Zarni had just returned from Bangladesh, where he worked with international investigators to gather testimony from interviews with Rohingya refugees. 

The College Hill Independent: Can you tell us about your work in Bangladesh? What did you discover from talking to survivors? 

Dr. Maung Zarni: The stories survivors told me were unimaginable. We’re looking at over a million stories right now, each usually including one death. That is a staggering number. And this is not just overnight; it has been occurring for over 40 years. In last year’s wave, close to 90,000 Rohingyas fled across the border to Bangladesh. I interviewed children, rape victims, young mothers, and older men who had survived previous waves of attacks and have been living at the refugee camps for decades. 

One girl told me about how she watched from the window as her father ran into the house where her sister was about to be gang-raped by Burmese soldiers. A soldier shot her father in the head, stuck his hand into his skull to show the remnants of his brain in the village yard. I’ve visited Auschwitz—we’re talking about a situation in that league. This is systematic and sadistic killing, mass executions, based on racial, religious, and ethnic hatred. These people are not raped or burned alive as individuals; they are members of a group singled out for extermination.  

I’m starting a long-term project that involves collecting these stories to preserve the memories of this genocide. It’s one thing to lose your family, but another thing to forget what happened to them. That’s the least those of us privileged to live through this crisis can do, despite the overwhelming power of my country’s fascist state. If their identity is recognized and they are given a home, perhaps not all is lost. In the long run it is the perpetrators that lose, not the survivors.

The Indy: What accounts for the recent surge in global attention? 

MZ: The issue first hit the headlines around 2012, which coincided with media reforms in Burma that enabled foreign reporters to open offices in Burma (of course in conjunction with government-controlled media organizations). This liberalization of the media—a way to placate the international community, occurring coincidentally as Western commercial interest in the country grew—was the only positive thing to come out of the government’s military-led, top-down reform process. For the past four years, the formerly inaccessible areas of the Rakhine state became accessible, and their stories began to find the spotlight. 

More recently, Western media coverage has surged largely due to social media—much more so than mainstream media (since banned from the Rakhine state). Social media has enabled Rohingya activists to set up the information infrastructure. This is the first ever Facebooked genocide in the 21st century. It’s a genocide brought to you by your service provider on your mobile phone. You can see footage of women and children running for their lives while you wait for the train. 

The Burmese military made a mistake in not considering the power of social media when it turned the Rakhine state into an informational black hole. Now, the government is scrambling, accusing humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies of aiding and abetting Rohingya militant groups.

The Indy: What is your view on the way Western media has covered the crisis so far? 

MZ: The first major problematic aspect of the media coverage is that mainstream news outlets have long adopted the spin that Burma’s quasi-civilian government feeds it. This is that the military are just attempting to maintain social order in a Balkans-like scenario, where  animosities have erupted into mass violence after the democratic transition. In the midst of the chaos, the military (the institution initiating genocide), peddles the view it is just playing referee. The media fell for it. 

Second, the fact that the Buddhist military is persecuting Muslims plays into these meta-templates of stories that the West knows how to consume. It’s Muslims versus Buddhists; two religious civilizations fighting head-to-head as the military is trying to sort things out. As a result, the segregation and ghettoization of Rohingyas becomes normalized, because the logic goes that if these communities are not separated by the state, they will just kill each other. In other words, the Burmese military plays up the local conflicts between Buddhists and Rohingyas in their shared Rakhine state, and doesn’t talk about the fact that its pitting these groups against each other. So the media looks at these non-Western civilizations as still premodern and fighting based on primordialist emotions, instead of understanding the ways in which the Burmese military has fabricated a divide-and-rule strategy, playing the race and religion cards which were never front-loaded historically. 

Lastly, two different orientalisms play into Western coverage of this conflict. There’s negative orientalism in that there’s the problematic association of Islam with violence. Some of my old fellow dissidents now openly say that human rights don’t apply to Rohingyas because they are a threat to national security. And then in the case of Burma and Buddhism, there’s positive orientalism. The West romanticizes the Buddhists as peaceful, meditating people who wouldn’t kill a fly. But the reality is that Buddhism can be violent, vile, and hateful like any other religious community—it has nothing to do with the religion.

All of these discursive problems make Western media much more susceptible to accepting government lies that Rohingyas are not among the indigenous national races of Burma—which I keep hearing reporters say. All it takes is a Google search to understand Rohingyas are from Burma, but no—the media continues to go with the state narrative. The society—from Suu Kyi to the ex-generals to the vile racists on the street of Yangon to the racist Burmese journalists—unanimously says that Rohingyas are Bengali and don’t belong to Burma. It’s like saying Mexicans don’t belong in California; they were there before the others arrived. 

The Indy: International critics have been talking a lot about the silent complicity of Nobel Prize-winning activist and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Can you talk a bit about the paradox between what she symbolizes—Burma’s supposed democratization of its recently-installed civilian government—and the state’s heightened militarism? 

MZ: Something seriously flawed is going on in the Western thinking if people think that out of a genocidal process there still is a possibility of a liberal democracy and human rights regime rising from Burma’s civilian government. The US government, EU, UK, and others assumed Suu Kyi, a presentable media-genic woman who speaks English with a posher accent than the Queen of England, would invest in democracy when she came to power. This delusion continues to be entertained despite overwhelming evidence that Burmese society has turned fascist. 

We cannot separate Suu Kyi and her civilian government from the actions of the military. It is true that Suu Kyi and the military leadership do not see eye-to-eye on democratization, and Suu Kyi would ideally like a liberal regime with more human rights and faster implementation of reform. But on the question of the Rohingyas, these historical antagonists are on exactly the same page. Suu Kyi has dismissed allegations of ethnic cleansing as an exaggeration. 

In my country, human rights activists like Suu Kyi speak the language of their former jailers [the socialist military government that the West so opposed], which is national security and defense. In a society supposedly undergoing a democratic transition, we’re seeing a surge in vulgar nationalism and deep Islamophobia—an essentially totalitarian ethos. History has reversed: the regime, society, spiritual leaders, and the Burmese media, who fought so long for press freedom and called for solidarity with imprisoned activists, now work to justify genocide.

The Indy: The international community has so far failed to act, raising the specter of another Rwanda. What would a responsible humanitarian response look like? How should foreign governments negotiate between immediate aid and long-term intervention, given the risks of the latter? 

MZ: The UN and Human Rights Council in Geneva have both officially described this crisis as ethnic cleansing. But I object to that word. Ethnic cleansing is a euphemism [infamously used by former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević to conceal the genocide in Bosnia]. As murderous as Milošević was, he was smart enough to know that there was no international law that would indict him at the International Criminal Court if his crimes were just called ethnic cleansing, a word that carries something positive with it, as though it’s merely preventing future violence between ethnic groups. 

For me, the best scenario would be what was implemented in Kosovo. Rohingyas would return to their birthplace under UN protection in a completely demilitarized zone. Bangladesh should open the border and allow the Rohingyas to participate in the economy. Of course, you can’t simply repatriate people and allow them to languish as Burmese society neglects them. Perhaps it will take a generation or more to reverse the psychological effects of the past 40 years of Burmese state propaganda and to convince society that Rohingyas belong in their homes and are not illegal. 

But before we can change the social psychology of the nation, we have to make sure Rohingyas have access to livelihoods. We have to staff the clinics, give them access to health care (currently there is one doctor for every 150,000 Rohingya patients), provide nutrition (80,000 children under the age of five are living in a famine), build schools (80 percent of Rohingya adults are illiterate). If Burmese society neglects them, let the Rohingyas interact with the larger world. This to me is the only viable solution, provided that there is the political will, which is a different story. 

At the moment, UN military intervention is unlikely because it requires Security Council authorization. Even the ICC requires Security Council authorization. And because China and Russia have made it clear that they consider this a Burmese internal affair and a complex humanitarian situation (Russia even considers it an issue of rebel terrorism), any intervention would likely face a veto from either of these countries. 

It’s a trope at this point—every genocide requires the paralysis of the Security Council. The difficult situation here is that there is no regional or world power that will put its foot down and say we must stop this genocide. That is why the Burmese military is so confident that there will be such few consequences. 
If you look at international involvement in economic and strategic projects within Rakhine state itself, humanitarian intervention becomes even less likely. In this small strip of the state, you have China exploring titanium deposits and building a deep-sea port, India building a deep-sea port, and a massive special economic zone designed for corporate tax-havens. Japan, South Korea, Vietnam—everyone’s invested. And offshore, you have gas deposits where over 30 countries have a stake.

The current killing fields, 100 kilometers long, are going to be turned into a special economic zone. The Burmese government has already said that if the Rohingyas return, they would not be going back to where they have lived for generations, they will be quarantined in an apartheid-like situation. It doesn’t pay to end genocide, and the Rohingyas control nothing that is valuable to these powerful countries. Only concerted international effort could make a difference. If Russia and China don’t get on board, there are still 180+ member states of the UN that can exert pressure. 

The Indy: As we continue to see this genocide streamed live, along with all the other violence in the world, how might we break out of what some call ‘compassion fatigue,’ paralysis in the face of this horror, and toward deep solidarity, engagement, and direct action? 

MZ: You can never be fatigued if you know that there’s a genocide going on. Genocide is not war. The only way we can honor Jewish victims who walked to the gas chambers, and all those killed in past genocides, is to speak out. ‘Never again’ is not just a bumper sticker. It has to mean something. It has to be sacred. 
Yes, we’re just individuals, but there is strength in numbers. We need to keep screaming, saying that this is unacceptable, that this is not in our name. It’s not just about Muslims or Rohingyas, but about a human community being slaughtered. After watching on your cell phone, what are you going to tell your children? ‘Oh, I watched a genocide on Facebook when I was 20, but I was powerless’? 

I was the only Burmese five years ago to blow the whistle and say, look, this is genocide. I was called all kinds of names, portrayed as a mad-activist exaggerating things. My job is to tell it like it is, and that’s what I’m doing still. 
I think we’re not as powerless as we often feel. Whether the world listens is separate from whether we do what is right. 

Dr. Zarni will be speaking at the Watson Institute (Joukowsky Forum) at Brown University on Monday, November 20, at 12 PM.