I Saw a Genocide in Slow Motion | Facing History & Ourselves

I Saw a Genocide in Slow Motion

Nicholas Kristof provides insight into the lives of Rohingya men, women, and children who have remained in Myanmar since the outbreak of violence in August 2017.
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In the following New York Times op-ed, Nicholas Kristof provides insight into the lives of Rohingya men, women, and children who have remained in Myanmar since the outbreak of violence in August 2017.

RAKHINE STATE, Myanmar — Sono Wara spent the day crying. And even after her tear ducts emptied, her shirt was still wet from leaking milk.

Her newborn twins had died the previous day, and she squatted in her grass-roof hut, shattered by pain and grief. She is 18 and this was her first pregnancy, but as a member of the Rohingya ethnic minority she could not get a doctor’s help. So after a difficult delivery, her twins lie buried in the ground.

Sometimes Myanmar uses guns and machetes for ethnic cleansing, and that’s how Sono Wara earlier lost her mother and sister. But it also kills more subtly and secretly by regularly denying medical care and blocking humanitarian aid to Rohingya, and that’s why her twins are gone.

Myanmar and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, are trying to make the Rohingya’s lives unlivable, while keeping out witnesses. Some 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in recent months, but the fate of those left behind has been less clear, for Myanmar mostly bans foreigners from Rohingya areas. The government fired a warning flare when it arrested two Reuters journalists for reporting on an army massacre of Rohingya; the reporters face up to 14 years in prison for committing superb journalism.

Entering Myanmar on a tourist visa, I was able to slip undetected into five Rohingya villages. What I found was a slow-motion genocide. The massacres and machete attacks of last August are over for now, but Rohingya remain confined to their villages—and to a huge concentration camp—and are systematically denied most education and medical care.

So they die. No one counts the deaths accurately, but my sense is that the Myanmar government kills more Rohingya by denying them health care and sometimes food than by wielding machetes or firing bullets.

Scholars at Yale University and the U.S. Holocaust Museum have already warned that this may be genocide, as has the United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. This genocide sometimes consists of violent attacks, but now mostly of denying food or medical care.

“These tactics are right out of the genocidaires’ playbook,” said Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, a human rights group specializing in Myanmar, also called Burma. “Underfeeding and systematically weakening a population has been characteristic of other genocides.”

. . . One theory is that Myanmar is trying to create such misery and fear that the Rohingya will flee on their own, so that the army doesn’t need to bother with the messy business of massacres. . . .

Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing became impossible to hide with the exodus in August of Rohingya bearing stories of massacres and pogroms. In interviewing those refugees late last year, I was particularly shaken by the account of a woman, Hasina Begum, who told me how soldiers had executed the men and boys in her village, had made a bonfire of their bodies and had then taken the women to a hut to be raped. “I was trying to hide my baby under my scarf, but they saw her leg,” Hasina Begum said. “They grabbed my baby by the leg and threw her onto the fire.”

What’s happening to those left behind in the villages is a more banal kind of brutality. In one remote hamlet reachable only by boat or footpath, I saw a stunted 4-year-old, Umar Amin, being bathed by his big sister.

I pulled out a MUAC strip, used to assess child malnutrition by measuring the upper arm, and Umar Amin was in the red danger zone, signifying severe acute malnutrition. He can’t walk or talk and desperately needs help, but he has never been able to see a doctor.

International aid groups are ready and eager to help children like Umar Amin, but the government often blocks them, especially in northern areas near the Bangladesh border. It is difficult to understand this denial of humanitarian access as anything but an intentional policy of grinding down and driving out the Rohingya—one reason I see this as a slow-motion genocide.

What of “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi, who won her Nobel for her resolute struggle for the human rights of Myanmar? She is now the effective leader of Myanmar’s government and has emerged as not only an apologist for this genocide, but also as complicit in it.

Suu Kyi does not control the army, which committed the massacres, but she has helped keep aid groups away. She has also tried to erase the existence of the Rohingya, rejecting the term and saying that they are merely illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. (In fact, a document from 1799 shows the Rohingya were well established here even then.) And it is her government that is proceeding with the criminal case against the two Reuters reporters.

. . . The Rohingya have been confined to their villages and the concentration camp for almost six years now, with restrictions tightened further after the August massacres. Elders complained to me in particular about the loss of education, as Rohingya aren’t allowed to attend regular schools. Villages try to run informal schools of their own, but without textbooks, desks and proper teachers, not much learning happens, and even the most brilliant children have no hope of ever attending high school or a university. The result is a lost generation.

Many Myanmar readers will find my reporting unfair, for their narrative is very different. Htun Aung Kyaw, a leader of the Arakan National Party, the main political party here in Rakhine State, told me the key points as he sees them: The Rohingya are illegal immigrants, they have been trying for decades to create a separate Islamic state, they include armed insurgents who commit atrocities, and they burn their own villages so as to discredit the Myanmar government.

That is mostly nonsense, although it’s quite true that a Rohingya rebel group precipitated the August violence with attacks on police stations. The army responded with scorched-earth tactics that, by the count of Doctors Without Borders, resulted in at least 9,000 Rohingya deaths. The army has for decades waged ferocious counterinsurgencies against other ethnic minorities, such as the Shan and Karen, so raping and murdering civilians may have reflected not so much military strategy as muscle memory.

. . . The West doesn’t have much leverage over Myanmar, and China protects it on the United Nations Security Council. David Mathieson, a longtime human rights analyst in Myanmar, said that outside protests about the Rohingya have been largely ineffective, and sometimes counterproductive, as when exaggerations play into the Myanmar narrative of victimhood.

Still, we can work with other countries to raise the cost of ethnic cleansing, and under international law we have an obligation to take steps to address genocide (although the law does not stipulate that these actions must be particularly significant). . . .

The suffering in these Rohingya villages is easy to ignore at a time of global and domestic upheaval. We all suffer distraction and compassion fatigue. But as Elie Wiesel, the great survivor of a different genocide, said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

By that standard, the grass-roof hut where Sono Wara weeps over her lost twins cries out to us as a center of the universe.

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