Under international law, the concept of “ethnic cleansing” was first officially investigated by the United Nations during the Balkan genocide in the former Yugoslavia during the mid-1990’s. A U.N. commission of experts generally defined the term “ethnic cleansing” as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” This same U.N. commission also found in its final report that ethnic cleansing was “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” These brutal coercive practices used to ethnically cleanse populations could include anything from murder, torture, arbitrary arrest/detention, extrajudicial executions, rape/sexual assaults, and forcible exile to summary deportation and more.
Similarly, the international law definition of “genocide” resides within Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which defines the crime of genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
This is exactly what is happening to over one million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma) under the watchful eye of 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi as she does nothing to stop the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from her country.
The Economist recently said that the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar may be “the most persecuted people in the world.” In a predominantly Buddhist country, they are an indigenous ethnic Muslim group who have lived for centuries in the Rakhine province of the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. Although the Myanmar government disingenuously claims that these Rohingya Muslims are migrants from other neighboring countries like Bangladesh, the Arakan Rohingya National Organization has stated quite unequivocally that, “Rohingyas have been living in [the area known as Myanmar] from time immemorial.”
In 1982, Myanmar passed a citizenship law recognizing eight different races and 130 minority groups — but somehow omitted the country’s one million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s 60 million people. Many Myanmar Buddhists have always viewed the Rohingya as Muslim interlopers brought in by British colonialists from modern-day Bangladesh, which is why some of the most egregious Islamophobic incitement is coming from right-wing extremist Buddhist monks in Myanmar.
The flames of this genocidal ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims are currently being fanned by a Buddhist extremist movement known as “969” which portrays itself as a grassroots movement. Its chief proponent–an extremist Buddhist monk named Wirathu–was once jailed by the former military junta in Myanmar for anti-Muslim violence. He urges his fellow Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and shun interfaith marriages with them. He also calls mosques “enemy bases” and he was once sentenced to 25 years in prison for distributing anti-Muslim pamphlets that incited communal riots in his hometown.
Most notoriously, this famous extremist Buddhist monk even once proudly referred himself as the “Burmese bin Laden.”
“I am afraid to call him Wirathu because even his name scares me,” highly-acclaimed Swiss director Barbet Schroeder told Agence France Presse (AFP) after making a documentary about the genocidal Buddhist monk. “I just call him W.” Mr. Schroeder’s chilling documentary about the extremist monk who has been accused of preaching hate and inciting attacks on Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority was hailed by critics at the 2017 Cannes film festival as a “stirring documentary about ethnic cleansing in action” against Muslims in Myanmar.
Even TIME Magazine prominently featured Wirathu in a July 2013 TIME magazine cover entitled “The Face of Buddhist Terror: How Militant Monks Are Fueling Anti-Muslim Violence in Asia”
“It’s very sad,” the Dalai Lama once told ABC News about extremist Buddhist monks like Wirathu who are calling for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. “Nowadays even Buddhists are involved [in terrorism],” the Dalai Lama later said about the Rohingya crisis during a speech at the University of Maryland on the anti-Muslim violence. “Buddhist monks destroying Muslim mosques or Muslim families – it’s really very sad.” He begged Buddhists in Myanmar to look to their own religion to end the recent escalating violence against Muslims.
This recent escalation in genocidal ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims is not an overnight phenomenon. For example- in April 2013- Human Rights Watch (HRW) publicly stated that the government of Myanmar was conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. In November 2016, a United Nations official also accused the government of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims.
After she became the de facto ruler of Myanmar, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi stunned the global community by not recognizing the Rohingya Muslims as an official ethnic group and she even had the nerve to tell BBC News in a rare interview that she thought the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was “too strong” a term to describe the campaign against Rohingya Muslims in her country, even with well-documented cases of mass murder, systemic rape and torture.
“I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on,” the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said during her BBC interview. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.”
Contrary to Ms. Suu Kyi’s bizarrely jingoistic views- which are completely detached from reality on the ground- the United Nations and several prominent human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have consistently decried the treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s government.
Furthermore, the UN has said that it is “very likely” that Myanmar’s military itself committed grave human rights abuses in Rakhine province against the Muslim minority that may amount to war crimes, allegations which the government obviously denies.
Most recently, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” about the ongoing violence against Myanmar’s Muslims.
“Stop the violence. Today we have seen pictures of small children killed by Myanmar’s security forces,” said 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said in a statement about the anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing. “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting,” she added.
As this crisis continues to unfold, human rights organizations and aid workers are reporting widespread rapes, beheadings and arson attacks being carried out by the Burmese army, which has reportedly set fire to thousands of Rohingya homes as it seeks to flush out the militants. Human Rights Watch has documented at least ten areas over a 100 km stretch of land in Rakhine province where massive fires are blazing. It noted a similar phenomenon from October to November 2016, the last time major violence flared in the region, triggering an exodus of some 87,000 Rohingya refugees to neighboring Bangladesh. A United Nations official at the time described government reprisals as acts tantamount to ethnic cleansing.
The genocidal ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is a direct result of blatant Islamophobia spewing from extremist Buddhist monks while Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi blithely observes. Our deafening silence on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar shows that the world only cares when Muslims are villains and does not care when Muslims are the victims of global atrocities.
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, Senior Research Fellow for The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University.
The Bridge Initiative