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No Genocide in Rakhine State – But the Warning Signs are There


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Photo taken from Foreign and Commonwealth Office (February 20, 2013)

Over 100,000 displaced people, nearly 5,000 burned houses and a death toll of at least 78 people (probably many more) was the result of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State only in June 2012 ; violence has continued in October with similar proportions and has continued sporadically since. It seems that the victims were mostly members of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group, although this is also far from clear as there were also several Rohingyas involved in violence against ethnic Rakhines. This perceived one-sidedness of the conflict has led some journalists and activist groups to label this outbreak of violence as ‘genocide’. But how apt is this categorisation?

To begin with the term ‘genocide’ should be clarified. One of the best definitions comes from Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn’s 1990 book The History and Sociology of Genocide where genocide is defined as “a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.”

At a first glance this definition may well fit the Rohingya case – the Rohingyas are a Muslim minority in Myanmar and have long been discriminated against by the central Burmese state. The government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has denied the nearly, one million Rohingyas in the country citizenship rights, claiming they are illegal settlers from Bangladesh.Thus the group is clearly defined as the Muslim Rohingya group and has a history of being targeted for discrimination. Furthermore, the violence was perceived as primarily one-sided, and this is why most observers have chosen to label the conflict genocidal.

But this alone is not enough to constitute genocide. In Myanmar it does not appear that there is any intention on the part of the government, the ethnic Burmese majority or the security forces to actually destroy the Rohingyas. Their aim is to undermine their presence in Myanmar and push these people into Bangladesh, where the government claims they have emigrated from. To be clear, the aim is not to annihilate them all but to transfer the population elsewhere. While it is reprehensible to kill tens of people in order to scare the rest away, this does not constitute genocide itself. The government has demonstrated in the past that if it actually wanted to kill all Rohingyas it would have the capacity to target a lot more than those killed in June. This naturally could be a ploy not to displease the international community, while testing the international reaction.

The potential risk of genocide in Myanmar

While this conflict should not be termed genocide, history has shown that it is out of situations not unlike this that genocides have emerged. According to well-acclaimed research there are several factors which are the core features of “genocide” – here are the five most important ones.

First, genocide have so far exclusively occurred in pluralistic societies, societies in which there are strong ethnic and political divisions. This criterion most certainly applies to Myanmar, with 135 distinct ethnic groups and deep splits within society, demonstrated by years of numerous civil wars between the Burmese central state and ethnic rebel groups.

Another major characteristic of genocidal circumstances is major political upheaval, such as a revolution. While popular revolutions have been brutally suppressed in the past (such as the 1988 uprising), Myanmar today has seen a period of unprecedented change since former General Thein Sein came to power in March 2011. The speed of reform has surprised even the most optimistic analysts and can tentatively be seen as a time of political upheaval, with all sides still unsure what democracy could bring to the country.

Furthermore, genocides are mostly found in the context of war. While Thein Sein’s government has negotiated ceasefires with eleven rebel groups in the country’s twelve civil wars within the last 18 months, the divisions are still deep, military skirmishes continue and the result of the peace processes remain open. Even if Thein Sein manages to bring the last remaining violent civil conflict with the Kachin Independence Army to a ceasefire, it is hard to see how he will manage to negotiate lasting peace deals with all other groups. It is possible and Thein Sein is investing significant political clout into this, but should some more ceasefires break down, the country could see more armed conflict than with just the Kachin in the future.

The penultimate circumstance which provides a conducive environment for genocide is a suitable ideology, most prominently demonstrated in the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. Maltreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar goes beyond state-led discrimination to a deep-seated societal hatred. The exclusion of the Rohingya goes so far that even many pro-democracy activists do not recognise their citizenship rights or their right to live in Myanmar. The grande dame of the political opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, known for taking on the thorniest issues, has repeatedly refused to broach the subject as she recognises how widespread negative attitudes are, even within her own movement. This anti-Rohingya sentiment certainly prepares the ground for a potential genocidal scenario.

Lastly, there must be some kind of impetus for genocide to ensue, a spark which will set the genocidal fire alight. This can be if the victim group becomes seen to have provoked the perpetrators, or if politicians see their chance to win political capital from the genocide, for instance be rallying their ethnic kin closer around them. The recent anti-Rohingya riots were sparked by rumours of two Muslims having raped and murdered an ethnic Rakhine woman. Such incidents and further rumour-spreading could, in future, spark even wider violence.

High risk of genocide is compensated by lack of incentive by elites

To sum up, while the riots of 2012 in Rakhine State should not be labelled genocide, there is certainly the fundamental background situation for genocide to occur in the future. Taking the insight of academic scholarship and historical cases one sees soberingly that the potential risk for genocide is evident in Myanmar. This does not, however, mean that genocide will occur, particularly as genocide is inherently authority-led and the government and other community leaders at this time has no incentive to turn on the Rohingyas. Thein Sein is too intent on securing Western reconciliation with his country to jeopardise this with genocidal action. However, the foundations are laid in Myanmar and it is a situation that the global community must carefully monitor in the years to come and civil society actors capable of bringing about a transformation of the conflict must actively engage with stakeholders in the country.

Written by Timothy Williams and published on 02-June-2013




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