“Democracy” comes to Myanmar: Discrimination, Mass Imprisonment and Death

            The pattern of politics leading to the brutalization of a people appears always to follow a similar course. First, a government leader or a would-be public leader (Adolph Hitler was a historical example) begins to assert that a minority group in a society is or has been creating alleged challenges for the majority group. For whatever the asserted cause or causes these leaders contend, members of the targeted group are both culpable and contemptible. In fact, and this too is always the case when these scenarios unfold, the people singled out, their attackers allege, should be regarded as “less than” other citizens. This claim of diminished and unequal status may rest on ethnic, tribal, religious, racial or other grounds. That is, the contention always arises from a perceived difference from a majority. Examples of this phenomenon are legion, but in recent history they surely include the Jews as targeted by the Nazis, the Cossacks as targeted by Stalin, the Akhdam in Yemen, the Dalit in India, the Tutsis in Rwanda and many more.

            Once a group has been singled out for opprobrium on the basis of some supposed perpetration of injustice (this sometimes includes simply existing), the next step is to convince a major social group or groups of the inhumanity of the “othered” population so as to be able to call on those citizens to treat the minority with contempt and worse. Hitler and his fellow Nazi leaders repeatedly exhorted Germans to revile the Jews in their midst as subhuman. Once a group no longer is regarded as human, it is far easier to single out for social and legal discrimination. In the most heinous cases, leaders move from such rhetoric to a call for genocide of the hated group based on that population’s supposed injurious actions and lack of humanity.

            But to be able to mobilize individuals for such a horrible undertaking, those pressing genocidal claims against minority groups must succeed in a third step: convincing the majority there are reasons to fear the targeted and marginalized group. These arguments for fearfulness, accompanying those alleging costs or injustice, need have no basis in reality, but must suffice to convince the broader population to be frightened. Those leading such efforts always claim that unless the majority acts, the injustices being pressed by the hated others will undermine their incomes or security or otherwise harm them and their families. The rhetoric is ever the same; the majority group should therefore be very fearful of the minority population and of such outcomes. The logical action leaders allege, is for the major group to take steps to eliminate those creating the fear.

            These three steps occurred in the Nazi genocide, in Stalin’s purges, in Mao’s mass killings and in Rwanda, among many other possible examples. In each case, the minority was depicted as a force to be feared and reviled as economic, political and social leeches. In a deeply concerning turn, this process of demonization is now occurring in Myanmar. Despite their small percentage of the population, a very popular and widely respected Buddhist monk in that country is now characterizing the Muslim Rohingya people as follows:

Muslims are like African catfish. They breed rapidly. They have violent behavior and they eat their own kind, and other fish (http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/a-new-video-of-modern-day-concentration-camps/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0).

            The monk quoted, while a leader, has been joined by hundreds of other Buddhist priests in his attacks. Ironically, in Myanmar this assault has been unleashed alongside continued democratization. Government and religious leaders have found that using hate-filled rhetoric and vilifying the Rohingya garners public support. Small matter that the overwhelmingly Buddhist population of the nation actually has nothing to fear from this Muslim minority that has been in the country for more than two centuries. Moreover, these people are not generally violent, but instead have themselves been the victims of terrible Buddhist-led and perpetrated violence in recent years. The point, again, is not whether the rhetoric accords with the facts, but whether the targeted audience believes it and is willing to act on it.

            Indeed, the situation now confronting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in their native land arose following mass violence against them in 2012. Thereafter, the army occupied the region where the attacks occurred and created “protective camps” for this population to separate them from the majority Buddhists allegedly to secure “peace.” Rohingya members from urban centers in Rakhine State where most reside are now housed in these facilities and not permitted to leave. Armed police guard them 24 hours per day. That is, they are prisoners in these camps and therefore cannot work and cannot pursue their traditional way of life. In addition, the government has expelled all international humanitarian aid organizations and refuses to provide medical care and education to the interned individuals. As a group, too, the Rohinyga have been denied citizenship. The nation’s parliament has also forbidden intermarriage between members of this group and the dominant Buddhists. In short, this population is being deprived of its most basic rights and imprisoned en masse without charges or evidence, simply because it exists. Conditions in the camps are often dire according to reports and they constitute a virtual hothouse for the development and spread of otherwise preventable and treatable diseases, including, notably, tuberculosis.

            Columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times recently returned from a week in the camps and has written movingly in a commentary of his experiences and shared a video shot on location of interviews (one of which was with the Buddhist monk cited above), with residents and with government officials (http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/a-new-video-of-modern-day-concentration-camps/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0). Kristof has labeled the Rohingya detention centers “concentration camps” because individuals are confined in them against their will and conditions within them are surely leading to needless deaths. While such is certainly occurring and is the result of government imposed privation and imprisonment, it is important to note there is no evidence that the nation is systematically murdering interned members of the Rohingya. Graeme Wood, in an earlier report for the New Republic published on January 21, 2014, also used the term and titled his article on conditions in the facilities, “A Countryside of Concentration Camps” (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116241/burma-2014-countryside-concentration-camps).

            The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Amnesty International and Refugees International and other human rights organizations have criticized the government for its policies and actions concerning the Rohingya. But despite Barack Obama’s high profile visit to the nation in 2012 and his decision to extend economic sanctions concerning Myanmar under the National Emergencies Act on May 14 of this year citing the situation especially in Rakhine State, the president has not made the camps a high profile diplomatic concern of his administration. Aung San Suu Kyi, that nation’s moral leader and the head of its major opposition party, has not highlighted the issue either. Some speculate she fears doing so because it would likely end her hopes of standing for her nation’s presidency while others contend that as the daughter of a nationalist Buddhist leader, she shares her countrymen’s contempt for this minority group. No one knows her motives with certainty, but like President Obama, she has said little publicly about a clear human rights travesty.

            The current situation in Myanmar concerning the Rohingya illustrates a tension inherent in self-governance: the difficulty of assuring all residents of heterogeneous nations their full civil rights and freedom despite the fears, prejudices and norms of the majority populations. It has always been so in democratic nations governed by majority rule, including here in the United States. It is clear that the concentration camps in Myanmar represent a systematic effort to deprive a group of its rights and freedom. That situation, which shows every sign of continuing and possibly worsening, looks unlikely to change unless the United States, European Union and Aung San Suu Kyi lend their standing to calls for immediate action on the government’s part to allow international aid for those currently confined, abolition of the prison facilities now in use and equal citizenship for the Rohingya.