The tragedy that has unfolded on the border between Burma and Bangladesh over the past two months is one that was predicted, should never have happened and should have been stopped before it reached this point. More than 600,000 people – more than half the entire Rohingya population – have now fled across the border from Burma to Bangladesh. Thousands have been killed. Thousands more face starvation. International experts are warning of genocide.
We should not have got to this point. A year ago, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta and human rights activist Benedict Rogers wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “A human tragedy approaching ethnic cleansing is unfolding in Burma, and the world is chillingly silent.” They concluded: “It’s also time for the international community to speak out. If we fail to act, Rohingyas may starve to death if they aren’t killed by bullets first. We could end up as passive observers once again wringing our hands belatedly, saying ‘never again’. Let us act now before it’s too late.” A year later, it is almost too late.
Yet the stark simplicity of the ethnic cleansing and religious persecution unfolding before our eyes is matched by a more complex context. For while the desperate plight of the Rohingyas is without doubt the most grave, acute illustration of religious and racial hatred in Burma, it is not the only one.
Over the past years, it seems that a warped understanding of Buddhism has arisen in Burma, mixed with extremist nationalism and populism, a lethal cocktail that has led to an outpouring of hatred against the “other”. This is in keeping with the horrific trends around the world, and is in part fuelled by fear of the global rise of Islamist intolerance and terror. While until recently Burma had few problems with radical Islamism, by tugging the tail of the tiger it may well have provoked one.
The failure of the international community to respond adequately to the latest potential genocide may well fuel more radicalisation of Muslims, both in Burma and elsewhere, further compounding the problem. In the 1990s, I saw for myself how the West’s failure to prevent genocide in the former Yugoslavia gave radical Islamists a new card to further their agenda. In 2017, the West’s failure to prevent genocide in Rakhine State might well be a new recruiting sergeant.
Muslims throughout Burma who do not identify as Rohingya have also suffered persecution. There are villages now closed off as “Muslim-free” zones. Muslims struggle to obtain identity cards. In the past five years there have been sporadic outbursts of violence against them in other parts of the country, most notably in Meikthila, Oakkan, Lashio and Mandalay.
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