On 22 June the ABC’s Four Corners presented one of the most disturbing reports this year, but it went by without a peep from most observers. It was called ‘Journey into Hell’, and this was exactly what it presented.
Ostensibly the program was about the murders of Rohingya refugees by people smugglers in Thailand, but it was about something even more terrible. It was about the genocide—and I use this word deliberately—of the Muslim minority peoples of Myanmar. It was about the deliberate ethnic cleansing being perpetrated by the government of Myanmar, abetted by certain Buddhist groups and others inside the country with the tacit agreement (what else can it be?) of all the governments in the region, including Australia’s. The picture Four Corners painted can be compared in many respects to the situation that confronted German Jews from 1933, and it looks very much as if the rest of the world will stand by and let the genocide happen in much the same way.
Arena Magazine has published occasional pieces about the Rohingya of Myanmar, but it is incumbent on us to consider their plight once again. While there seems to be some dispute about when and how this people ended up in modern-day Myanmar, this much can be claimed to be fact. As a result of British colonial domination in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, large numbers of people from other parts of the Indian subcontinent were moved into Burma. They were mainly Muslims from Bengal, but there had been a presence of Rohingya in what is now Rakhine state, Myanmar, for many years before. According to some academics, the term ‘Rohingya’ first appeared in 1799. Rakhine state is dominated by a non-Burmese Buddhist ethnic group that, while not always pleased with the central government over some issues, has shared with the powers in Yangon a hatred of the Rohingya.
In any case, this group has been living in Burma/Myanmar for well over 200 years. The fact that they were ethnically and religiously distinct from the majority Buddhist population placed them in a precarious position. There were secessionist uprisings by the Rohingya in the post–Second World War period, and in 1982, according to the Middle East Institute, a citizenship law essentially legitimised ongoing discrimination against them. In the early 1990s, more than 240,000 Rohingya were displaced because of violence against them by the government, including mass murder, rape, torture and forced labour. Indeed, a new report has been released that outlines the continuing use of Rohingya as forced and slave labour by government forces in other parts of the country.
After 2010, the period in which a whiff of democracy has emanated from the generals, the violence became worse. A new movement, the ‘969 Movement’, led by militantly nationalistic Buddhist monks, has wreaked havoc on the Rohingya of Rakhine state once again. And it is this latest move against this group of people that parallels the treatment of German Jewry in the 1930s.
In 2012, riots led by militant Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist monks and watched by the security forces beat, killed and burned out the Rohingya from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. Hundreds of people were killed and the survivors forced out of their homes and herded into camps in swampland where they have been left to starve and rot. These sound very like versions of the Jewish ghetto. Mark Davis on Four Corners interviewed people in Sittwe who clearly told him that the Rohingya were not wanted in that city or state—that it would be better if they went far away, or even died. Like Nazis who claimed that Jews were intent on taking over the ethnically pure Aryan race, some of the people Davis spoke to claimed that they did not want to be ruled by the Rohingya, that they were unwanted in this ethnically pure state.
The program filmed a celebration of Rakhine nationalism, Rakhine Day, an official event that only began after the 2012 riots that drove out the Rohingya. The Rohingya formerly of Sittwe now live in camps behind barbed wire surrounded by police checkpoints, which means movement in or out is almost impossible. The only part of their camps not behind wire is that which is open to the sea.
The Rohingya are now a non-people. The Burmese refuse to call them Rohingya; even Aung San Suu Kyi calls them ‘Bengali Muslims’ and has been noticeably quiet about their plight.
In 1933, one of the first things the Nazi regime did was take away Jews’ citizenship, making clear that they were not Germans. Everything else flowed from there. The right to study and to work in certain occupations was denied them. Then the attack of Kristallnacht in 1938 made clear (if it needed to be made so) that the Jews were unwanted and would be hounded to their demise. The Nazi ‘final solution’ to the ‘problem’ of the Jews was an incremental process for the most part until the Wannsee Conference of January 1942.
Until then, the extermination of the Jewish population of Nazi-occupied Europe had been haphazard, with plans to move the Jews to Central Asia or even Madagascar to be rid of them. Jews were harassed, Jewish money and property were stolen, and Jews were encouraged to emigrate. But no country was willing to take them. Many a politician in Australia at the time spoke of not wanting to take on the ‘Jewish problem’.
Historian Raul Hilberg suggests that there were four key stages in the process of genocide against the Jews. First, there was registration of them as non-citizens, then expropriation of property, then ghettoisation and, finally, annihilation.
I am not suggesting that the government of Myanmar has a plan to rid itself of a problem population in a systematic way, but it does seem to want these ‘impure’ Muslims out of a ‘pure’ Buddhist country, and they seem willing to make or allow it to happen by any means. Burmese Buddhists have burned the Rohingya out of the cities, locked them up in ghettoes and let them starve. The only thing the Rohingya can do is leave Myanmar. Mostly this has meant escaping by boat to Malaysia, or to Bangladesh, or even further afield to Australia. And this escape by boat to an imagined place of resettlement that is in reality a final resting place reminds me again of the fate of the European Jews. Now we see these dreadful boats transporting people across dangerous seas; seventy years ago there were cattle cars on trains chugging towards the final solution. Just as the world in the 1930s did not want the Jews, so the world now does not want the Rohingya. Malaysia does not want them, and Bangladesh has recently begun expelling them. Australia absolutely rejects them.
It has also become clear that there are mass graves of Rohingya refugees in the forests of southern Thailand. Davis spoke to Rohingya in Myanmar who described how relatives escaped via people-smuggling boats, only to be held hostage in Thailand. On mobile phones, they heard their relatives being tortured. The only way to stop this torture was to send more money. Of course, this did not necessarily prevent their deaths and relatives in Myanmar are becoming increasingly desperate.
If the Rohingya fight back in Myanmar, what little food they get from the United Nations is denied them. If they leave, they are likely to be used as slave labour or tortured for money. If they manage to get on a boat they are turned back by Malaysia, Thailand, Australia. Just as the world stood by and watched the annihilation of European Jewry, then was appalled at the outcome, so, it seems, we are doing much the same in relation to another minority ethnic group.
There will be blood on all our hands.
Grazyna Zajdow is a co-editor of Arena Magazine.