Army trucks line up along a road in downtown Meikhtila on March 23. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy )
The Burmese majority are in a state of denial that Burma now displays the early warning signs of genocide, “ethnic cleansing” or “crimes against humanity.” Rights activists are among them. Aung Myo Min, the director of Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB), has called the findings of last month’s Human Rights Watch report into violence in Arakan State “unacceptable.”
By rejecting the use of the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the attacks on Rohingya Muslims there, these people have become both active and passive accomplices to the crimes. The criminals enjoy safe haven, continuing to pursue a situation where full-scale mass killings are possible. They run the risk of staying silent while all the warning signs are there.
Burmese tend to conflate “ethnic cleansing” and genocide based on two assumptions: that the outbreak of violence is sudden and that many thousands are killed. This is a misconception, leading many Burmese to assume genocide has not taken place in their country. The longer-term campaigns that lay the groundwork for the mass slaughter do not seem to matter. For them, speaking out about what might be coming is unacceptable incitement.
But internationally-recognized definitions are broader. The 1948 Genocide Convention defines genocide as constituted by acts committed with intent to destroy an ethnic, racial or religious group. Physical as well as mental injury is included in the definition, as is preventing births and transferring children to destroy a group’s existence.
Even the April 29 government-sponsored Arakan Conflict Inquiry Commission’s report, according to this definition, can be considered as part of a form of genocide. One of many potentially destructive recommendations in the report is promoting birth control among Rohingya women. Whether intended to be so or not, this policy is genocidal.
In the cities and towns, far removed from the violence, the killings are out of sight, out of mind. This is what happened in Rwanda in 1994, when in the space of about 100 days at least 800,000 Rwandans were killed, mostly from the Tutsi minority. Rwanda’s genocide was not a sudden “outbreak.” The conditions for full-scale killing were developed over many years, particularly the 40 months prior to April 1994.
Peter Uvin, a former UN officer and the author of Aiding Violence, explains these events. Shocking are not just the events, but the neglect over the signs of genocide. The signs were clear, but people simply ignored them. These signs are now visible in Burma. This does not mean that Burma will inevitably become the next Rwanda; but the point is that the signs of pre-April 1994 Rwanda can be detected in Burma today.
Prior to April 1994, the international community was congratulating the ethnic Hutu-dominated government for improved state capacity, and awarding it with aid money. What was the award for? Economic reform. Millions upon millions of dollars of developmental aid were channeled to the country. The government had complete control over foreign aid money in Rwanda. More than 80 percent went to the governmental sector and the rest needed government approval. Despite on-going gross abuses the US, for example, did not even bother reducing military aid.
Recent international engagement with Burma, the inflow of aid money, International Crisis Group’s award to President Thein Sein, and the US’s plan for military engagement, are the Burmese equivalent of Rwanda.
In Rwanda, the US, EU, the World Bank, bilateral donors, and international organizations all moved away from working with the community towards directly engaging with the government. Programs were designed to build up human capacity for the government. The government openly discussed genocide in cabinet meetings. But international donor governments ended up helping and strengthening it by pouring in money.
The government bought arms from abroad; 581,000 machetes were imported from China. According to British journalist Linda Melvern, an arms deal worth $26 million was signed with Egypt in 1990.
Hate messages against Tutsis were openly broadcasted on radio stations. Thousands of Tutsis were already being massacred. The international community not only failed to react, but continued to present a positive image of the government’s reform initiatives.
Although it was not sure how much power-holders within the international community knew what was happening in Rwanda, there were two reports published in 1993, one by four NGOs and another by the UN special rapporteur. They detailed massive arms distribution, extreme anti-Tutsi rhetoric, and government-backed killings mainly targeting Tutsis. No one reacted.
For Burma, the recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and statements by UN envoys to Burma, Mr. Tomas Quintana and Mr. Vijay Nambiar, detail mass killing, systematic and widespread violence against ethnic Rohingya. Mr. Quintana stated in the case of anti-Muslim violence in central Burma that he received evidence of state involvement, while Mr. Nambiar stated the violence was done with “brutal efficiency”.
Even more disturbing in the case of Rwanda is that the UN secretariat was well informed about potential genocide by General Romeo Dallaire, head of UN peace keeping in Rwanda. But information was ignored.
A Human Rights Watch report pointed out that a CIA analyst predicted in January 1994 that half a million people would die. In February, Belgium predicted mass killing. France also knew enough. But they did not react until late April.
International development aid workers in Rwanda were aware of killings and abuses. They did not speak out for various personal and organizational reasons. They kept silent as they did not expect the scale of violence to be so massive. They were in a state of denial, just like the Burmese today.
Genocide could not happen without turning a large portion of the population into thugs and killers. As Alison Desforges detailed in a Human Rights Report on Rwanda, genocide is a campaign to which potential killers are recruited over time.
But people did not simply become killers. They were turned into mass murderers by propaganda that drugged their mind with misinformation and lies. Some key points from the report detailed by Alison Desforges are worth paying attention to, as similar signs can be seen in Burma.
In Rwanda, the newspaper Kangura (meaning: “wake others up”) was the most vocal “voice of hate”. It was soon joined by other journals and newspapers that have ties to politicians and businesses linked to the regime. Radio stations were established. They performed their function by stroking racism and providing misinformation so that the people became delusional and bloodthirsty.
In Burma, local media is stirring up resentment of Rohingya and Burmese Muslims.
Since hate messages require validation, propagandists refer to the work of “intellectuals” or “professors”. In Rwanda, two professors, Nahimana and Leon Mugesera, played a key role. They both studied in the West. They taught at universities in Rwanda before becoming propagandists. The equivalents of these “intellectuals” in Burma are not hard to find.
In Rwanda, Tutsi were described as foreigners who stole the land from the rightful owners, the Hutu. Hutu propagandists accused “Tutsi Unity” to be the idea that facilitated Tutsi’s past conquest and helped in their quest for domination.
In Burma, ethnic Rohingyas, and now Burmese Muslims, are widely portrayed as foreigners. They are said to be taking over the land, race and Buddhist religion. Equivalent to “Tutsi Unity” was the number “786” used by Muslims. According to anti-Muslim preachers, 786 stands for Muslims take over of Burma and the world in the 21st century. According to Muslims, it represents a Quranic phrase: “In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate”.
Tutsis in Rwanda were labeled “cockroaches”. In Burma, followers of these propagandists have called the Rohingyas “viruses” and “dogs”.
As the case of Rwanda shows, the Hutu-led government was cunning and ruthless. Propagandists were drugging people with misinformation only to turn them into mindless murderers. Many people were being killed every day but the international community ended up supporting the regime in the name of economic reform. Even though the governments of the West appeared to know that genocide was coming, they could not take action until too late. Westerners staying in Rwanda did not expect a full scale slaughter. But it happened.
In Burma, most people reject the term genocide to protect the innocence of the nation they are so dear to. It is hard to imagine that their denial supports mass slaughter. But denying the warning signs is not really serving their purpose; it only blocks attempts to take preventive measures so that unimaginable cruelty is not unleashed.
Unlike Rwanda, Burma has been forewarned. Taking advantage of this, serious preventive actions must be taken. If such cruel human slaughter ever happens in Burma, all those who have blocked investigation and preventive measures are share responsibility. After all, it is the majority Burmese who have the power to shape the the country’s fate.
Sai Latt is a Burmese and a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in Canada. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policies of The Irrawaddy.