Building social change inherently asks that we speak truth to power. Human rights lawyer and founder of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, Amal de Chickera, reveals certain truths about the way in which power shapes our responses to humanitarian crises, resulting in the international community’s consistent failure to protect those in the most desperate need. Focusing on the international responses to the Rohingya crisis, de Chickera touches on many different issues, including the language we use, the “official” nuanced responses to state violence, and the humanitarian industry’s own relationship to human suffering. Ultimately he challenges us as distant and privileged bystanders: we can become part of the solution, but to do so we must speak the truth about power.
Two months ago, 20 days into the latest round of indiscriminate, unimaginable violence against them, I posted an article on the genocide of the Rohingya. My emotions were raw. My reaction to the stories and images coming out of Myanmar (via Bangladesh) was visceral and all-consuming. I was unable to focus on my life, my mind refused to allow me to “just carry on”.
Two months on, I have carried on. My emotions are less raw, the tragedy less all-consuming. This is both my guilt and my sanity. “It is perfectly normal,” I tell myself. But I dare not ask if “perfectly normal” is good enough, in the face of such cruelty, violence and hatred, so completely beyond the norm. And so, I am compelled to introspection.
This article is an outlet for this introspection and reflection. It does not attempt to add more to the mountain of coverage of the crisis: to critiquing Aung San Suu Kyi, exposing the scale of the humanitarian challenge or condemning the Myanmar military. This has all been done, and will be done again. Instead, my gaze shifts inward – to myself and others like me. Me the professional whose job it is to protect, provide coverage, analyse, advocate. Me the educated, middleclass layman, who is interested in the world and has a sense of social justice, but doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Me the consumer of news, armchair critic and part of the status quo. Me, who is one of Us, who if we really put our minds to it, can begin to change the world.
I hope this article will provoke some thought and debate. I do not claim to have the answers. But I do think a first step is acknowledging that I am part of the problem as well as solution.
1. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, inter-communal violence, a quarrel. Semantics matter
A journalist I have much respect for, whose coverage of the unfolding crisis has been immense, said of my previous article that it was not helpful to use the word “genocide” in this situation. According to him, “ethnic cleansing” is to be preferred. Indeed, this has become the phrase of global media consensus.
It is also one that I am deeply uncomfortable with. The term “ethnic cleansing” is not an inaccurate description of the situation, the same way “roughed up” is not an inaccurate description of torture. Both are non-legal euphemisms which do not connote or demand the accountability of perpetrators, and an obligation to prevent and protect. “Ethnic cleansing” was actually coined by the genocidaire Slobodan Milosevic, to gloss over the Bosnian genocide he presided over. At best, it is a journalistic term of art, which is widely understood today as being akin to a crime against humanity. And so, I find it difficult to accept that the use of the legal term “genocide” is “not helpful” and that the term “ethnic cleansing” is to be preferred. I find myself asking, “not helpful” to whom?
But these are questions at the pointy edge of the discourse. For far too long, the atrocities against the Rohingya were labelled both within and outside Myanmar as “inter-communal violence”. A phrase which implies parity between two conflicting parties and which extracts the state from the equation. In her recent first visit to Rakhine State, Aung San Suu Kyi even used the term “quarrel” to describe the situation. As if in her mind, the over one million Rohingya victims (who fled, were killed or are trapped) on the one hand, and the all-powerful military/state and racist civilian mobs on the other, could be reduced to an analogy of two grumpy teenage siblings having a spat over tv channels.
I offer two reflections on this question of semantics. First, we owe it to the victims and the issue, to choose our words carefully, not based only on the most recent crisis, but on a deeper, richer and longer-term understanding of the history of persecution, exclusion and suffering of the Rohingya. It is this deeper analysis that has led some (including me) to conclude that a genocide has been unfolding before our eyes for some time. If my only reference point was August 2017, my conclusion too may have been different.
Secondly, the technicalities of whether or not systemic rape, torture, arson, deprivation of nationality, enforced malnutrition, confinement in camps, denial of health and education, restrictions on marriage and children, and other gross human rights violations amount to genocide can and must be debated by experts. But we will do well to remember that the labels we use do not change the nature of the experiences of those at the receiving end. The enduring trauma of watching helpless as your child is being burnt alive, or your mother is being raped is as excruciating, unimaginable and life-changing, whichever label the international community decides to use.
2. ARSA terrorists and the Burmese state – the world judges the perpetrators, not the crime
The most immediate reactions to the events since 25 August were very insightful. Many countries were nuanced in their response to the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military, which were touted as a “clearance operation”.
They were quick to point out the state’s right to protect its territorial integrity, and were supportive of state efforts to root out terrorism. No state questioned if the ARSA attacks were the excuse Myanmar had been waiting for, or looked at the atrocities in the context of Myanmar’s decades-long track record on the Rohingya.
The gripe was with the degree of force used by Myanmar and its indiscriminate nature. It was not with the fact that force was being used at all. And so, Myanmar was called on to carry out its clearance operation with restraint. This is akin to asking a rapist to in future, only commit sexual harassment.
By contrast, condemnations of ARSA – the fledgling militant outfit – were fast, furious and uncompromising. The killing of 12 police officers was condemned without qualification; not so, Myanmar’s killings, rapes, arsons, forced expulsion etc., of Rohingya in the hundreds of thousands.
This duality of response is telling of a deeper (perhaps the deepest) problem in global politics. And it is not just limited to state responses. States are at the centre of the status quo, and states will be extremely conservative and cautious in their criticisms of other states, while being liberal and (almost) uninhibited in their criticisms of actors who confront or threaten states.
It is not a love of other states, but self-interest, which drives this perspective that underlines much of mainstream discourse by state and non-state actors alike. Any statement critiquing a state must be qualified to be taken seriously. By contrast, qualified criticisms of terrorist outfits are often dismissed – you cannot talk to terrorists after all.
This duality is not limited to condemnations, it also relates to who is believed in the first place. A victim’s account will only be believed with supportive evidence. A state’s account will only be disbelieved with evidence to the contrary.
And so, we must be more critical of where we position ourselves in this discourse, and how we react to it. We must question power. We must question who controls the narrative. We must remember that states do commit acts of terrorism too.
3. Muslim, illiterate, distant, poor – some victims are not “us”
A related issue is the identity of the victims. The Rohingya are distant from the consumers of media. Geographically and culturally distant from the power centres of the west, and distant in terms of literacy, class, social status etc., from the elites closer to home. While the genocide of the Rohingya is dominating the media landscape like never before, the response it is evoking is more of sympathy than empathy. While there have been public protests, these have not captured the wider imagination. There has been no lighting up of global monuments in their name. For they are a “they”, and not an “us”.
Perhaps this is why inevitably, this current crisis will recede from our memories and be forgotten, until the next one yet again takes us by surprise.
4. Gender. Always gender
The gendered violence against the Rohingya is deeply distressing, and an extreme reminder of the prevailing inequality of women in the world today.
There is nothing new about the notion of sex as power and rape as a crime against humanity; but the “oldness” does not make this reality any easier to digest. Further complicating the picture is that advocates for Rohingya rights often struggle with how to process and articulate the place of women in Rohingya society. A conservative culture, it is not uncommon for Rohingya women to be controlled by men. Women are likely to be the last to flee, the last to eat, the last to be considered worthy of education.
When Rohingya women are sexually assaulted by their men, they often have nowhere and no one to turn to. If their assault comes to light, it rarely leads to the assaulter being held to account. The more likely outcome is the woman being blamed, punished and even outcast. Even in societies where women have access to relatively fair justice systems, the stigma around sexual assault remains a huge barrier to justice. And so, the impact of decades-long state policies of exclusion, which have eroded any access Rohingya may have had to the Myanmar justice system, should not be underestimated. Victims can be perpetrators too. Nothing is straightforward.
The rape of Rohingya women by the Burmese military – often in the presence of their families – may compel this persecuted community to confront its own inner demons. A woman who claims she was raped by her neighbour under the cover of night may be easily dismissed. Less so, a woman who was raped by the oppressive military in the light of day.
The power of men over women is often seen as a separate issue, to be addressed through separate strategies, after the “main” issue has been addressed, as if men and women live in different worlds. But victims can be perpetrators too. Nothing is straightforward. And so, the challenge we face is to speak the truth, even where this may undermine our own tidy narrative.
5. The UN, the EU, ASEAN, the OIC. The international community will consistently fail those that matter least
The international community’s response to the crisis has been weak and fragmented. The UN Security Council, which is best placed to intervene, has not acted beyond issuing statements. The recent UN General Assembly Resolution exposes the moral deficit of the Security Council. Nonetheless, the number of abstentions and votes against, even for a relatively “light touch” Resolution when considering the gravity of the situation, is telling.
The EU still does not use the word “Rohingya” in its statements and even welcomed the repatriation deal signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh, which could see Rohingya returned mass-scale into internment camps run by their persecutors. The principle of non-interference continues to hamstring the ASEAN and the OIC has not been able to exert much pressure.
All states have skeletons in their closets, indeed, for many, the skeletons are on public display. The world order, ostensibly based on the principles of international law, is in reality maintained through a delicate balance of geo-political self-interest and power. And so, while lip service is paid to noble ideas, in truth, a group as powerless as the Rohingya has no true friends.
This is not a new revelation. Myanmar has time and again been given the signal that it will be allowed to exterminate and expel the Rohingya with impunity. If 2012 and 2016 were test runs, this is closer to the real deal. Still, some opinion pieces advise caution, warning of derailment of Myanmar’s supposed democratisation and calling for international restraint. As if, what the world needs is more false reasons to not protect people from being massacred.
But in the face of “nation-building”, “state-sovereignty” and “geo-politics”, the powerless are but for bargaining away. The global response to the Rohingya crisis, not just since August 2017, but for many decades, exposes the falseness of words such as “never again” and “no one left behind”, which flow so easily off the lips of world leaders.
And so, advocates for Rohingya rights have to keep up the pressure, but also find new ways to do so. How to be principled, pragmatic AND effective in the face of such apathy to suffering is the perennial dilemma.
6. The politics of power also plays out among the media and NGOs
The big fish – be they international media or NGOs – swoop in when an issue becomes newsworthy. This is inevitable, and indeed, this is an important role that must be played. But often, the manner in which this happens, by drowning out the small, grass-roots, single-issue organisations that live and breathe the Rohingya issue, is both problematic and counterproductive.
While there has been a lot of excellent coverage of the crisis, some of the analysis provided by the biggest media outlets has been simplistic and naïve, failing to take into account the history of the issue. Those who work every day on the ground are not given enough airspace to weigh in. They do not have the right affiliation, or do not speak the right language.
The reputations and livelihoods of celebrated journalists, photographers and organisations are often built on the expertise and contacts of “local fixers”, who remain invisible. The internationals (of whom I am one) come to the issue with their own worldviews. They are outsiders, with their own baggage and perspectives, and their own limited understanding of the politics and culture of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Their writing and recommendations shape the views of media consumers. The perspective of a small NGO or national activist may be resolutely ignored, but the same point being made by an “international” is less likely to be.
There are of course exceptions, and great examples of strong collaboration. But this is an area where much needs to be done. Not only because it is morally indefensible to build reputations, receive accolades and increase income off the expertise of those who are not credited. But also because of the expertise and wisdom we are denying the world, by not promoting voices on the ground.
7. The west’s simplistic and naïve understanding of Buddhism is ignorant orientalism
Despite this being 2017 and Buddhism being a world religion, it continues to be viewed as being exotic and mystic by an alarming number of people, who are simply flabbergasted that such violence and hatred can be carried out in the name of a religion so peaceful. It is the same ignorance, which perceives Buddhists as peaceful, that perceives Muslims as violent.
In truth, all religions are flawed, but by and large, promote peace, tolerance and love. It is not religion which is the problem, but the closeness of religion to centres of power. When religious institutions are in the seats of power, or when religions are seen as routes to power, terrible things are done in their name. This has historically been true of Islam in the Middle East and some Asian countries, Christianity in the west and some African countries, Judaism in Israel, Hinduism in India and Buddhism in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. There is nothing profound about this insight. But the failure to see Buddhism this way, provides a deeper insight into how and why the images of certain religions are carefully shaped.
8. It must be exhausting to hate
One of the things which struck me more than before, with the August 2017 atrocities, was the level of hatred being spewed against Rohingya and anyone advocating on behalf of their rights. As a close follower of the Rohingya issue for almost ten years, I am no stranger to hate speech against them. However, just as the violence has now ratcheted up a notch, so has the hatred.
I have two thoughts on this. Firstly, it must be absolutely exhausting to hate with such intensity. How does one keep it up? And how does one square off such indiscriminate hatred and wilful ignorance against any notion of self-respect? Surely it must get tiring to send the same old caricatured responses and cartoons out in response to a growing mountain of credible information of atrocities against the Rohingya?
Secondly, how do we process and address such hatred? There have been some very good analyses of the growth of hate speech in Myanmar, but they all appear to falter at the point of solutions. They speak of building trust and peace between the communities, a discourse that takes us back into the territory of “intercommunal violence” and related assumptions of parity and shared responsibility. I am in no way suggesting that this is a straightforward issue.
But there must be clearer acknowledgement of the inequality of the situation and the deep structural disadvantage of one group. Relatedly, we need to be speaking the language of accountability louder, and emphasising that there is no place for hate speech in a rule of law-based society. It is only in parallel to this, that deeper engagement with the drivers and builders of hatred amongst the majority communities, and efforts to build bridges between communities will stand any chance. We need to be speaking the language of accountability louder, and emphasising that there is no place for hate speech in a rule of law-based society.
9. Human rights are not a factor. They are a framework, above factors
The UN Myanmar country team has come under severe criticism for its failings, including the shelving of reports which warned of the likelihood of further widespread violence. The World Food Programme withdrew a report on levels of malnutrition faced by Rohingya after receiving push-back from the state. In 2014, a senior UN official in Myanmar told me that the Rohingya, by insisting they be identified as “Rohingya” in the (then) upcoming census, were the drivers of the conflict.
It is no secret among those working on Myanmar, that some development actors have exchanged their silence (and complicity) for access. It is not just the UN, it is the international community writ large. The economy, national interests, state sovereignty, humanitarian protection: these are all factors thrown in the face of the human rights advocate. The answer is always “yes human rights, but…”
It is disheartening to see human rights being viewed this way by those who should know better. In reality, human rights should not be seen as one of many factors fighting for the same space, but rather, as a framework and set of principles which allows for various competing factors to be weighed against each other on the basis of proportionality, reasonableness and other tests. The human rights framework is sophisticated enough to provide answers, where such tensions exist.
The obligation of all UN agencies is to hold human rights at their very core, and to fulfil their respective mandates in accordance with principles of human rights. This does not happen in reality. Hostile states are able to pick the different arms of the UN apart, working with some, and not with others, because human rights are not at the core of all. Until and unless this changes, the UN will fall short of protecting the most vulnerable. Always.
It is not just the UN. It is NGOs as well. There needs to be greater cohesion and trust between the human rights, humanitarian, development and other NGOs. All our work must be underpinned by an unshakeable commitment to human rights. This is our duty.
10. The “industry” is enriched by suffering
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that it is the unimaginable suffering of groups like the Rohingya, which feeds the human rights and humanitarian industries. Organisations will balance their budgets and grow, will accumulate resources and strengthen their reach on the back of the Rohingya genocide. Funding applications will exploit the suffering of victims of persecution to strengthen their chances of success. The power imbalances between international and local actors will play out in new ways as more money is freed-up. It is this discomfort which will drive us forward.
There are no easy answers. Organisations have to survive and are often pitted against each other in an increasingly difficult funding climate. Nonetheless, we should be deeply uncomfortable with this reality. It is this discomfort which will drive us forward in more collaborative, respectful and effective ways.
A final thought
With the passing of time, fewer and fewer people will remain engaged and concerned with this issue. However, as we become more compartmentalised in our work, it is important to recognise that some of the challenges we face are common. They go deeper and affect us all. The world order is failing the Rohingya and it will fail others. With each failure, thousands of people will have been betrayed by a world that promised dignity and equality for all.
The question is, what will we do about it?
Amal is the Co-Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. He leads the Institute’s human rights engagement work. He also plays an important part in the Institute’s work on childhood statelessness, gender discrimination and the Sustainable Development Agenda, and on the Institute’s engagement with civil society and the arts. Amal has researched, advocated, written, spoken, delivered training and served as an expert on statelessness and related issues for the UN, NGOs and academia, since 2008.
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