WARNING: Graphic content.
When hundreds of thousands of women and girls fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh last year over field, marsh and river, many of them had difficulty walking due to torn, bleeding genitals, wounded in brutal gang rapes carried out by the infamous 33rd and 99th divisions of the Burmese Tatmadaw.
The men of their families had been killed, maimed, or forced to watch while their female relatives and friends were victims of a brutal campaign of state planned and executed sexual violence, the smoke of their burning homes and villages filling their nostrils.
Maung Zarni, a Burmese Buddhist and human rights activist who founded the Free Burma Coalition, told me one particularly harrowing and shocking story he heard in a refugee camp in Dhaka. Speaking of a refugee he interviewed there, he said, “She told me that her younger sister, who is 16 years old, was dragged into a hut by a group of Burmese soldiers wearing red scarves around their necks while she watched from a hiding place, clutching her baby. They tied up the sister with her hands above her head. Any woman who was captured was stripped naked and raped, and this in a culture where modesty is to a fault. The sister had beautiful long hair. She saw the soldiers cutting her sister’s hair with a knife as they were raping her. Their father, an old man, realized that his younger daughter was in the house being attacked, so he attempted to run to the house. She saw her father shot dead from behind as he ran; they shot him in the head. One of the soldiers came over and stuck his fingers into the broken skull, then tossed bits of brain to the chickens free-ranging in the yard.”
These atrocities have now been exhaustively studied by human rights organizations and political bodies. Fortify Rights, after two years of research on the ground, concluded that the Burmese military had prepared for this violence months beforehand, arming local villagers, removing fences from around Rohingya houses, and confiscating knives and tools from them which they could use to defend themselves. At the end of the brutal siege, over 700,00 Rohingya fled for their lives to Bangladesh. In recent weeks, the UN has officially concluded that high level officials in the Tatmadaw should be charged with genocide, and the prosecutor of the ICC is investigating laying charges against Myanmar.
These official manoeuvers to hold someone accountable might seem to be reasons for hope, but they are thin soup indeed, as are the mild sanctions the EU, Canada, and the US have brought against members of the Burmese military. Effective international pressure against Myanmar needs to be backed by those with real political and economic power, and those actors are signaling clearly that they don’t much care.
Among the businesses that continue to invest in Myanmar are Microsoft, Starbucks, Visa, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Motors, General Electric, the GAP, KFC, and many others. China and Russia have been covering for Myanmar in the UN. Japan has been busy cultivating strong military ties with the Tatmadaw in the middle of the genocide, and was kind enough to their Burmese freinds to abstain from voting on a UN resolution condemning the violence. Just one day after the UN issued a its report calling Myanmar’s actions genocide, Japan’s Ambassador to Myanmar met with General Min Aung Hlaing, who several sources, including the UN report, have identified as it’s main architect, for the sake of “promoting friendship between the two armed forces.
What about the country itself forged in the fires of persecution and later genocide, built on the cries of “Never Again”?
What about Israel?
As I wrote in the Forward last year, Israel has continued to cultivate military ties with Myanmar, including selling it weapons, throughout its genocidal attacks on the Rohingya. A petition brought to the Israeli High Court to stop arms deals with Myanmar reached an unknown conclusion after its proceedings were classified at the request of the State. In May, Israel and Myanmar signed a shocking agreement allowing the two countries to edit each other’s textbooks. The agreement allows the countries to “through their competent authorities, endeavor to mutually verify school textbooks, particularly concerning the passages referring to the history of the other state and, where needed, introduce corrections to these textbooks.”
It seems fair to assume that this agreement has something to do with the fact that both states claim that they are the victims of smear campaigns which exaggerate their human rights abuses and accuse them of crimes they didn’t commit, towards the Rohingya in one and the Palestinians in the other. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely tweeted the news of the signing of the agreement on her official Twitter account with the headline: “Education agreement with Myanmar, continuing cooperation with our friends around the world.”
There is little comfort to be found there for those who would like Israel to make the statement “Never Again” apply to anyone other than Jews.
The UN and the ICC should be applauded for their steps to hold Myanmar accountable, but it should also be recognized that without the will of the global community to help the Rohingya, little will be done to relieve their current statelessness and suffering, nor to stop Myanmar’s “slow-burn genocide” against them from continuing. Bangladesh, who has hosted the Rohingya refugees with incredible generosity for the last 13 months -the total population of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is now more than a million, with most of them in squalid, poverty stricken camps- has recently begun indicating they may eventually force the return of many of them to Myanmar. Rohingya leaders and human rights groups are unanimous in opposing such a move, pointing to the apartheid like conditions the Rohingya still in Myanmar live with, including lack of access to education, health care, and freedom of movement and legal limitations on their ability to marry and reproduce.
“The only viable solution for the Rohingya,” Zarni wrote me in an email, “is international protection to return to their homeland in Myanmar, not a forced return to an ongoing genocide.”
A protected return would require an international community who considered the lives and freedoms of a million Rohingya Muslims a priority, one they were willing to take risks for. If such a community has ever existed, it doesn’t seem anywhere to be found now. Failing that, one would hope people would at least refuse to do business in Myanmar, but even in a country built in response to anti-Semitic persecution and genocide, money talks, and that feeble and minimal response cannot even be mustered.