I was shocked and deeply repulsed beyond words to witness the apparent coordinated attempts by the administrations of Boris Johnson and Joe Biden at bleaching Myanmar’s international legal crime of genocide on the very day Rohingya survivors around the world have come to recognise as Genocide Remembrance Day.
While the British Embassy @UK-in-Myanmar was busy tweeting “Today marks the 4th anniversary since the military’s committed ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” the US State Department issued a press statement, entitled “Marking the 4th Anniversary of Ethnic Cleansing in Rakhine State”. The American version of spin begins with the opening sentence, “Four years ago, Burma’s military launched a horrific ethnic cleansing against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State.”
In a different moral universe where rights activists such as myself and dozens of scholars and activists firmly anchor ourselves, human rights are lived principles. International crime codes like the Genocide Convention are lived law.
The West’s liberal democratic regimes - in this case the Anglo-American governments - manipulate the principles of human rights and international treaties such as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to suit their geopolitical and corporate interests.
The Johnson and Biden regimes have added insult to the injury of several million Rohingya survivors
For the Americans, the Myanmar genocide is viewed through its paranoid prism that Beijing is dislodging the US as the global hegemon.
Post-Brexit Britain is chiefly concerned about maintaining its market access and shoring up corporate profits in emerging markets, however evil their business partners may be as evidenced in the Independent’s headlines “European allies are alarmed by the UK’s ‘de facto recognition’ of the Myanmar junta by sending a new British envoy” two days ago.
But even my 30 years of international human rights activism did not prepare me for the level of moral depravity to which American and British policy-makers are prepared to sink. Washington and London in effect denied and dismissed the crime of genocide on the very day Rohingya have set aside each year to mourn their dead families and friends, and burning of their villages and destruction of their way of life. Blindly the two great powers throw humanitarian crumbs at the survivors who live in sub-human conditions in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
By misnaming Rohingya genocide as “ethnic cleansing,” they employ the favourite euphemism for genocide invented by the Serbian genocidal leader Slobodan Milošević. The Johnson and Biden regimes have added insult to the injury of several million Rohingya survivors. The survivors are trapped in refugee and IDP camps and in diaspora dislocation. They drown when their boats are driven back out to sea by the navies of governments like Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
UK and US leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, routinely use the morally loaded term “genocide,” to score points against their enemies, such as China, Libya, or Syria. But Washington and London now seem to coordinate their Milosevicesque use of the term "ethnic cleansing," dismissing the Rohingya demand that they call a spade a spade, a genocide a genocide.
The Biden administration’s refusal to officially recognize Myanmar's intentional physical destruction of Rohingyas as "genocide," as defined by the Genocide Convention, stands in sharp contrast with the overwhelming recognition and condemnation of Myanmar’s crime of genocide by the US Congress.
US Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Representative Gregory W Meeks (D-NY-5), the two leading lawmakers, who chair the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee respectively, have publicly pressed US President Joe Biden “to make a formal determination that these crimes (against Rohingya) constitute genocide.” On the day of commemoration of the Rohingya genocide, Gregory Stanton, former State Department official and the world’s foremost legal and anthropological scholar of genocide – trained at Yale Law and the University of Chicago – read his poem “What is justice?”, at the Free Rohingya Coalition Genocide Memorial Event on 25 August. He asked pointedly, “What is justice for a lawyer who still won’t call it genocide?”
In his forthcoming publication, entitled ‘“Ethnic Cleansing” is a Euphemism Used for Genocide Denial,’ Stanton argues persuasively that “ethnic cleansing” is tantamount to genocide denial.
As used by Milošević, the press, the UN, and many governmental policy makers, the term “ethnic cleansing” is used to avoid using the word “genocide.” "Ethnic cleansing" has become a euphemism used for genocide denial.
In Stanton’s scathing words of indictment: “The UN, press, human rights groups, and many governments still call the Myanmar Army's aggression, genocidal massacres, and forced deportation against the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing.” “Ethnic cleansing” is a term invented by Slobodan Milošević and Serbian propagandists as a euphemism for forced deportation and genocide.
“Ethnic cleansing” in common usage means forced deportation. But unlike the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer of population, and the crime of genocide, it is not a term that appears in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It has no legal meaning in international law. There is no treaty outlawing it. No national legal codes prohibit “ethnic cleansing.” No prosecutor can charge anyone for committing it. The term is a license for impunity.
As used by Milošević, the press, the UN, and many governmental policy makers, the term “ethnic cleansing” is used to avoid using the word “genocide.” "Ethnic cleansing" has become a euphemism used for genocide denial. Because Article 1 of the Genocide Convention implies the obligation to act to prevent genocide, avoiding use of the term “genocide” has the same practical outcome as genocide denial. Users of the term “ethnic cleansing”—like genocide deniers—are freed from their duty to prevent or stop genocide.”
At the same FRC Genocide Memorial Event, Dr Katherine Southwick, another Yale-trained American legal scholar who warned of genocide against the Rohingya as early as 2014, vented her frustration. Southwick said to the Facebook LIVE audience of 20,000+ viewers on Wednesday, “so with frustration with the international community’s own lack of accountability, yet with hope and gratitude, the international community must do nothing less than acknowledge genocide and renew our solidarity and support for the Rohingya and equal rights for all in Myanmar.”
Taking a non-legal perspective, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the leading scholar of post-colonial studies and University Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, was emphatic with her demand for legal acknowledgment of genocide – which Rohingya have long been subjected to – when she invoked “common sense”.
Genocide in a shared death
The Indian scholar told the worldwide audience at the FRC Genocide Memorial Facebook LIVE yesterday thus: “I want to speak to my Rohingya brothers and sisters and talk to them about a possible future. It is the unacknowledged genocide that has made it impossible for me to do what I want to do today. I don't think our conscience needs to go to legal definitions to acknowledge that a Rohingya is killed simply because she is a Rohingya. By common sense, that is genocide. But we must have an international legal acknowledgment in order for the possibility of legal redress to begin.”
Rohingya – and their international friends – worldwide mourned the mass-death and destruction of numerous victims raped, maimed, slaughtered, and genocidally murdered – and lamented the absence of any effective acts by the “abstract international community” – to borrow Spivak’s coinage.
On the same day, General Sadat, a US-trained commander in the Afghan National Army, was writing in the New York Times, with justified anger towards the US government for having abandoned the Afghan people. (The Afghan Army Collapsed Against the Taliban. Here’s Why. - The New York Times) General Sadat writes, “I am exhausted. I am frustrated. And I am angry. President Biden said last week that 'American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.' It’s true that the Afghan Army lost its will to fight. But that’s because of the growing sense of abandonment by our American partners and the disrespect and disloyalty reflected in Mr. Biden’s tone and words over the past few months.”
The betrayal and a palpable sense of abandonment that the wretched of the earth who struggle for their right to life and liberty have felt towards the liberal West in general and the US in particular, with US signature honey-tongued support for human rights and “the rule-based international order,” is nothing new.
In the early years of the Cold War, after having made promises of solidarity which they never intended to keep, the US and western allies abandoned thousands of Hungarian rights activists in the wintery month of November 1956.
Almost 20 years ago, Matthew Daley, then serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian Affairs at the US State Department, met with me in his office in Washington, DC. Daley pointedly warned me against trusting and relying on the US government for the Burmese liberation struggle.
“My government’s Burma policy is unconscionable. We made empty promises to the Hungarian democrats in 1956. Then when they were slaughtered (by the Soviets), we did nothing. So, you Burmese must find your own solutions.”
The ugly truth is Western and Eastern birds of the same feather flock together in the UN Security Council, where they take turns denying their own war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocides, and where they flout international treaty obligations that conflict with their national interests
But it’s one thing for the US and its British poodle to abandon dissidents worldwide against corrupt and brutal regimes, be they Hungarians, South Vietnamese or, pro-human rights and anti-Taliban Afghan people. It is another moral low for British and American foreign ministries to coordinate their statements of genocidal denial as they did on the 4th anniversary of “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine State.
Ten years ago, my research colleague and partner Natalie Brinham (writing under the pen name Alice Cowley), and I conducted a 3-year path-breaking study based on hundreds of interviews with Rohingya survivors in Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar. We reached the unequivocal conclusion that Myanmar has institutionalised the intentional physical destruction of its Rohingya minority. The genocidal process started with the destruction of their group identity and denial of their history in Burma centuries before Burma or Myanmar came into existence in 1948. We published our findings as a commissioned peer-reviewed article entitled “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya” in the Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal of the University of Washington School of Law in the spring of 2014.
The Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG) was the Washington law firm that the US State Department hired to conduct a forensic investigation of crimes against the Rohingya, using a representative sample of 1,000 Rohingya survivors in Bangladesh in 2017. When the State Department refused to use the term "genocide" in the official State Department report of the findings, PILPG went public with its genocide findings.
PILPG’s Paul Williams told a press conference in Washington in 2018, “It is clear from our intense legal review that there is, in fact, a legal basis to conclude that the Rohingya were the victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.” But the Trump Administration decided to shelve its own commissioned report, when the findings did not suit the US government’s agenda.
British politicians were no more receptive of facts and findings about the Myanmar genocide, according to Queen Mary University of London Professor Penny Green, whose International State Crime Initiative, documented the evidence of the genocide in ‘Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar’ (2015). She spoke on the FRC Genocide Memorial Event on Facebook LIVE this week.
It is no wonder that the Taliban, the Xis and the Putins of the world, and rogue regimes everywhere pay no attention to Anglo-American joint statements that bark about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Nor do these rogue regimes think twice before they commit mass atrocities.
The ugly truth is Western and Eastern birds of the same feather flock together in the UN Security Council, where they take turns denying their own war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocides, and where they flout international treaty obligations that conflict with their national interests.
Those in high offices who have been entrusted to ensure the peace, security and well-being of humanity have turned out to be the worst enemies of "We the People."
* Maung Zarni is a co-founder and Burmese coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition and an advisor to the Genocide Watch