The tragedy that has unfolded on the border between Burma and Bangladesh over the past two months is one that was predicted, should never have happened and should have been stopped before it reached this point. More than 600,000 people – more than half the entire Rohingya population – have now fled across the border from Burma to Bangladesh. Thousands have been killed. Thousands more face starvation. International experts are warning of genocide.
We should not have got to this point. A year ago, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta and human rights activist Benedict Rogers wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “A human tragedy approaching ethnic cleansing is unfolding in Burma, and the world is chillingly silent.” They concluded: “It’s also time for the international community to speak out. If we fail to act, Rohingyas may starve to death if they aren’t killed by bullets first. We could end up as passive observers once again wringing our hands belatedly, saying ‘never again’. Let us act now before it’s too late.” A year later, it is almost too late.
Yet the stark simplicity of the ethnic cleansing and religious persecution unfolding before our eyes is matched by a more complex context. For while the desperate plight of the Rohingyas is without doubt the most grave, acute illustration of religious and racial hatred in Burma, it is not the only one.
Over the past years, it seems that a warped understanding of Buddhism has arisen in Burma, mixed with extremist nationalism and populism, a lethal cocktail that has led to an outpouring of hatred against the “other”. This is in keeping with the horrific trends around the world, and is in part fuelled by fear of the global rise of Islamist intolerance and terror. While until recently Burma had few problems with radical Islamism, by tugging the tail of the tiger it may well have provoked one.
The failure of the international community to respond adequately to the latest potential genocide may well fuel more radicalisation of Muslims, both in Burma and elsewhere, further compounding the problem. In the 1990s, I saw for myself how the West’s failure to prevent genocide in the former Yugoslavia gave radical Islamists a new card to further their agenda. In 2017, the West’s failure to prevent genocide in Rakhine State might well be a new recruiting sergeant.
Muslims throughout Burma who do not identify as Rohingya have also suffered persecution. There are villages now closed off as “Muslim-free” zones. Muslims struggle to obtain identity cards. In the past five years there have been sporadic outbursts of violence against them in other parts of the country, most notably in Meikthila, Oakkan, Lashio and Mandalay.
And it is not only Muslims who suffer. For decades, Christians in Burma, especially in the ethnic states such as Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni, have been attacked. The military has targeted churches, crosses and pastors. A combination of the Burma army and politicised Buddhist monks have lured Christian children to monasteries with a promise of education, only to forcibly convert them into novice Buddhist monks.
The response from the international community? Pathetic minimalism at best, apathetic inaction more often. Indeed, the few people who have spoken boldly have mostly been religious and civil society leaders. Pope Francis, who will become the first pontiff ever to visit Burma later this month, has spoken out repeatedly. Burma’s Cardinal Charles Bo has been one of the most courageous defenders of the Rohingyas and other Muslims in the country. Their voices, as leaders of one religious community defending the rights and dignity of another, are vital. But they deserve support from governments and political leaders around the world, not least Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Burma, within Burma itself.
Britain has led the way, and should be applauded for bringing the crisis to the UN Security Council agenda three times. But with what resulting action? Zilch. Britain has suspended military training – good. The EU has suspended visits by Burmese generals to Europe – good. But is that all? What about a global arms embargo? What about carefully targeted sanctions to ban investment in military-owned enterprises? What about a United Nations General Assembly resolution – one not led by the Islamic world, fuelled by an “us” versus “them” mentality, but a united resolution, led by the West and others not in the name of any one religion or race but in the name of humanity?
The apathy, the slowness, the stupidity and the inhumanity are obvious. And the counter-productiveness of the slow response has to be seen to be believed. As Edmund Burke once said: “The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Good men and women, of every race and religion, must now do something to stop yet another ethnic cleansing culminating in genocide, with severe collateral damage for the values of freedom of religion or belief for all. The time for action is now. Today, not tomorrow. Before it is too late.
The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali is the former Bishop of Rochester and now president of Oxtrad, which works with persecuted Christians. For more information, visit michaelnazirali.com
This article first appeared in the November 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here