Wrongs of rights activism around Rohingyas

Maung Zarni | Update:

Rights campaigns and humanitarian NGOs get an easy pass when it comes to their own moral failings, notwithstanding a few largely ignored academic studies that attempt to shed light on the wrongs of the rights campaign. This is in large part owing to the fact that these campaigns are anchored in the discourses of virtues and humanity, and get the needed wind from the mass media where a handful of compassionate journos work hard to call the world’s attention to the plight of Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”.

 

This is how Myanmar’s genocide of Rohingyas climbed to the top of the “conflicts to watch” list, if we take at face value the ranking by the International Crisis Group, whose sole mission is to integrate zones of conflicts and wars into the global economy, that is, strip malls, assembly lines, special economic zones, transport routes, pipelines, and so on.

 

Of all these causes celebre, Myanmar human rights activism has far greater share of wrongs than others. Given that my country of birth has remained a world’s infamous basket case, and our activism to promote the rights of all Myanmar peoples and safeguards their collective well-being is, by all indications, a lost cause, it is time to take a hard look at the human wrongs committed by human rights campaigners. Myanmar’s on-going genocidal process against Rohingyas, the internal colonial war of “pacification” of Kachins, Ta’ang, Arakanese resistance, the attacks on local journalists who would not toe the official genocidal line, the deadly assault on civil society activists, and the bigoted persecution of non-Buddhist activists, continue unabated.

 

As I have warned repeatedly over the last 7 years, the ‘Burmese Spring’ has proved to be nothing more than the Burmese

military’s elaborate scheme of realigning its institutional interests with those of the external corporate and military players. The rights organisations themselves were among those who helped create the mirage of a “democratic transition”. I watched with deep dismay a plane-load of Human Rights Watch officers and board directors go to discuss human rights with the then ex-President Thein Sein while 120,000 Rohingyas were being interned in barb-wired IDP camps from where they have never been allowed to leave.  Harvard human rights researchers who documented the Burmese military’s war crimes met with mid-level commanders with decent command of English to talk about these international crimes over a cup of Burmese tea.

 

The landscape of the ‘Burmese Spring’ - the budding of democracy and the flowering of reforms - has turned into ghostly mass graves, charred villages and bulldozed mosques. The iconic Aung San Suu Kyi’s colonial era villa in Yangon, a symbolic Burmese Robin Island minus the famed prisoner, breaking rocks under scorching heat, is no longer the Mecca for human rights promoters, “world leaders” and celebrities from the world of writers, academia, finance, Hollywood and INGOs. The Lord of the villa herself stands, alongside the Burmese military partners, accused rightly of genocidal culpability and criminal responsibility even by the likes of former Milosevic prosecutor Sir Geoffrey Nice of Grey’s Inn and UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein.

Today it is Bangladesh, across from Western Myanmar, where nearly one million Rohingya survivors are lumped together in less than human conditions, where the same crowds would undertake their new pilgrimage of human rights.

 

Human rights activism has failed when we human rights campaigners fail to make the UN system of territorially-bounded states led by the war-making Security Council, to issue a single non-binding resolution on the genocide. This body discharging its binding responsibility to protect the sizable human population of Rohingyas is the only viable means to end Myanmar genocide and protect the survivors. This desperately needed intervention remains a pipedream.

 

Painfully for the victims, the buck stops at the Security Council, and the Security Council has long been in a coma from which it will not come back to life. Having grown in the Burmese culture where I witnessed as a child many a funeral dances and processions particularly around the corpses of famed Buddhists monks, lobbying “key” UN member states, compiling and disseminating the documentation of Myanmar’s human wrongs, do have a feel of a necrophilic mass ritual, with the dead council as the symbolic corpse.

Five independent examinations of Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingyas over the last three years - published by the University of Washington School of Law, Yale Law School Human Rights Clinic, Queen Mary University of London International State Crimes Initiative, the Permanent Peoples Tribunal on Myanmar and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum - have reached a common conclusion about the UN member state of Myanmar, that has ratified the inter-state treaty known as the UN Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948).  OIC has its own human rights documentation mission; Canada has a special envoy who will make his lawyerly report on the 40 years of genocide after three whirlwind visits to the survivors’ camps; news organisations Reuters and AP have conducted their studies; the UN-mandated fact finding mission made up of three grey eminences, are gathering facts and a myriad of human rights and humanitarian NGOs are engaged in similar mission.  Alas, all of us appear guided by the delusion of the vicarious salvation for the victims, that “Thou shall know the Truth and Truth shall set you free.”

 

While social science and legal interpretations are not rocket science, you can’t get any more objective or scientific than this. Myanmar is committing 4 out of 5 genocidal acts legally coded in the Genocide Convention of 1948, and yet the United Nations is failing the victims of yet another genocide under its watch.

 

The Security Council’s failure to issue a single non-binding statement as the survivors of Myanmar genocide - the majority of whom were women and children - filed at the rate of 100,000 per week across the Bangladesh borders with their terror-struck faces - may be attributed to the two bad guys, Russia and China.  These illiberal states have consistently undermined, through their two vetoes, any attempt to pressurise Myanmar to end the genocide. But the other three veto-wielders have never shied

away from taking decisive action without the Security Council endorsement, when it is in their geo-political and concomitant commercial interests. There are the examples of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, and so on.

 

But for the victims of mass atrocities, the Security Council is dead.

 

No member state will deem genocide prevention and protection a policy priority for their nations.  Admittedly, the human rights activism around Myanmar genocide that is being led globally by the two western INGOs, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, operates within the institutional arrangements that are definitely not conducive to the advancement of human rights as a global norm or ending large scale mass atrocities such as genocides.

 

To make matters worse, human rights as a UN-driven set of new civilisational norms were born with untreatable ideological defects at birth, immediately following the end of the holocaust and World War II. The victorious nations of USA, UK, France and Russia had their own skeletons in their respective closets:  Britain and France with their ‘colonial possessions’; USA with its institutionalised racial injustices against the blacks and the native Americans; Stalinist Russia with its gulags and China with its Maoist totalitarianism.

 

In fact, in the ensuing 25 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1945, all the veto-wielding members of the Security Council simply shelved the document.  The entire post-WWII generation was not really exposed to the ceremonially adopted global norms of human rights as the self-styled ‘peace and human rights promoters’ at the august body were themselves engaged in the Cold War.

 

Recently the Canadian Ambassador to Indonesia, Peter MacArthur, made news with his rather stupid tweet, bragging about how “pleasing” Myanmar’s pristine beaches were where he and his lovely family vacationed - while his bosses in the Canadian foreign ministry have officially accused Myanmar of “ethnic cleansing”.  Irwin Cotler, the country’s highly regarded former Justice Minister and counsel to the likes of Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky, has gone public with his observation that Myanmar is committing genocide against Rohingyas.

 

Mr MacArthur’s genocidal insensitivity is only symptomatic of the inter-state system which has failed to “internalise” the humanist norms of human rights.  When a senior diplomat from a liberal democratic regime thinks Myanmar’s ‘pleasing beaches’ are worthier of his tweets than the country’s genocide, we know how hopeless the status of human rights as a global norm really is.

 

The sad truth is even a social democratic country like Sweden, which promotes its “feminist foreign policy” under a woman foreign minister, did not make any appreciable efforts during its rotating presidency of the Security Council, to mobilise the other 14-members, even when the reports of mass sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls began pouring in.

The irony is the minister had previously served as UN special envoy on sexual violence.   I know it’s not fair to single the Swede for her failing to use her feminist ministerial power to stand with thousands of Myanmar genocidal rape victims when the issue did not make much splash in the collective gendered consciousness of much-publicised #MeToo Twitter campaigners against sexual harassment.

 

So, what chance is there then for meaningful human - or even gender - solidarity for Rohingya survivors and victims of genocide? Despite the world’s “awareness” of Myanmar’s Facebook-ed Live genocide, human solidarity has proven to be ‘a lie’, as the Yemenese journalist Tawakkol Karman put it.  As the famed author of “A bed for the night” David Rieff quipped, “Never again!” really means Germany will never slaughter the Jews in Europe.   Enter the Chinese in Indonesia, Bangladeshis, Cambodians, Sudanese, Rwandans, Bosnians, Kurds and now Rohingyas.

(To be continued…)

*Maung Zarni is a Burmese human rights activist, an adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism based in Cambridge, UK and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia.  He blogs at maungzarni.net

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