Many Parties Complicit in Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing

The persecution of Rohingya Muslims goes beyond religious intolerance, says Dr. Elizabeth Hurd, professor of politics at Northwestern University

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Story Transcript

Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The U.N. says the persecution of the Rohingya in Burma has become the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare. Last month, a U.N. official called it “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres recently outlined the scale of the crisis.

António Guterres: At least 500,000 civilians have fled their homes and sought safety in Bangladesh. Although the total number of those displaced is unknown, it is estimated that 94 percent of them are Rohingya. We have received bone-chilling accounts from those who fled, mainly women, children, and the elderly. These testimonies point to excessive violence and serious violations of human rights, including indiscriminate firing of weapons, the presence of land mines, and sexual violence.

Aaron Maté: Joining me is Dr. Elizabeth Hurd, professor of politics at Northwestern University. Professor, welcome. Now you have a piece up where you talk about some of the common misconceptions about the crisis in Burma. But I want to start with just the most basic one, which is that when this conflict is discussed, this latest round of violence and exile, it’s often said that it began with an attack by Rohingya militants on Burmese troops in August. I’m wondering if you could start there?

Elizabeth Hurd: Yeah. So this is a narrative that the government has been perpetrating for a long time, which is simply that they are terrorists or they started it or they attacked legitimate state representatives, in this case the police. This is a story of an interested party, which is the state, which is one of the perpetrators of this crisis if not the main perpetrator of this crisis. So we can’t really take what the government of Myanmar or Burma is saying at face value right now. We need to step back, listen to other actors, look at a longer story. And unfortunately, it’s a much more complicated story in which many would say that these individuals and this group was driven to attack the state and the police, its representatives, as a last resort in a situation where they are literally seeing their homes and villages burned to the ground.

Aaron Maté: Right. And so another narrative, which you address in a recent piece, is that this is a case of religious intolerance. So the Burmese government has a certain strain of Buddhism, and the narrative goes that they’re simply persecuting a minority Muslim population. Now, there’s some truth to that obviously, but you point out that it’s not the full story.

Elizabeth Hurd: That’s right. That’s exactly right. I think that in this kind of situation we need to be very careful before we simply assign this to the box of religious persecution. It makes the story too simple. And it actually exculpates a whole bunch of guilty parties to this horrible conflict and this human rights catastrophe, as you mentioned earlier.

So my point in that piece is really to say let’s step back and consider all of the factors that are actually going into this dehumanizing and violent persecution of the Rohingya people. And indeed, religion is a small part of that, and the fact that there are powerful Burmese nationalist forces that are acting out their kind of national vision in Burma right now. And the Rohingya are paying the price of that. That’s a part of the story.

But there’s also a lot more going on here that has to do with the acquisition of their land. That has to do with the fact that China is running a pipeline through part of this territory and would like to have access to oil from the Gulf. There are all kinds of other interests that have a stake in pushing the Rohingya out and in delegitimizing them as Burmese citizens. So we have to look at this bigger, broader picture. And then we can understand the conflict for what it really is and start to deal with it for what it really is. And deal with the state, basically, have them face up to the crimes that they’re committing against these people.

Aaron Maté: When you say that a simplistic narrative absolves many guilty parties, who are the key guilty parties?

Elizabeth Hurd: Yeah. So I think what it does is it … The narrative of religious persecution kind of focuses us on the monks’ organizations, in particular, which have been the most vehemently and violently anti-Muslim, and the most vocally anti-Muslim. And 969 is one of those organizations, for example. There are a number of them. There are a number of them that are more loosely organized, kind of like networks of Buddhist monks who are definitely … have a great deal invested in linking Buddhist identity with Burmese identity. So if you’re not a Buddhist, then you’re not a real Burmese and you need to get out. And that kind of Buddhist supremacy, that form of nationalism has turned out to be very powerful and is galvanizing a lot of people.

However, as I was mentioning before, this case also involves economic interests. It involves business elite who would like to have access to the resources, to the land that the Rohingya and other marginal groups on the periphery of Burma have controlled. The Rohingya people, contrary to the official narrative, are not new. They are not refugees. Many of them have lived there for centuries. Some of them were actually brought under British colonialism to serve as workers for the British colonial projects. So they’ve lived in Burma for a long time. And they were citizens of Burma. They had their citizenship revoked in 1982. So when we see a story that this is all about some hoodlums who attacked the police and who are terrorists, we know this isn’t true. This goes back before 1982.

But you can really look at the 1982 revocation of their citizenship and say: Wait a minute, this is an attempt by the state to dispossess an entire portion of the population and to control their land, to control their resources, and then to control the narrative about what’s going on. So the fact that they’ve been pushed out in waves, in purges, you could say, over the past several decades, is evidence that this is indeed a long-term project to get rid of them and to “cleanse Burma” of the Rohingya.

Aaron Maté: The rhetoric that comes from the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese nominal leader, is pretty striking. A spokesperson for the National League for Democracy was speaking to Voice of America and was speaking about the Rohingya and said, “They are not our ethnic groups. They claim to be ethnic, but we can’t give it to them. In our history, there is no Rohingya.”

Elizabeth Hurd: That’s right. That’s exactly right. And this is the kind of ultimate dehumanizing move. So what they’re actually forcing them to do and have been forcing them to do for many, many years now is to disavow their own identity as Rohingya. And they’ve been forced to call themselves Bengalis. Through this move, the state is effectively trying to erase them as a people with an identity, as a group that has existed with a legitimate existence over time in primarily Rakhine state in the northwestern part of Burma. Trying to pretend as if this was something new and that they’re coming in from outside and that they’re strangers to the land. So this is absolutely the kind of linguistic violence that accompanies the other forms of violence that we’re seeing. Attempt to dehumanize and just erase them as a people from the face of their country.

Aaron Maté: Right. And now it’s fair to say that there are now more Rohingya who have been displaced to Bangladesh than are left in Burma, right?

Elizabeth Hurd: I think that’s correct. The numbers that I’ve seen are astonishing. I have heard and I have not been able to verify this. It’s very hard to get good information on this right now. But I have heard that there have been more Rohingya displaced in this exodus than there have been in the Syrian refugee crisis in terms of peoples moving across the Mediterranean, who are of course not only Syrians, but come from all over the Middle East and North Africa. So the scale of this crisis is enormous. This is not to diminish the crisis in Europe, the Mediterranean by any stretch of the imagination. But there are now more people outside than in. There are also many people who are unaccounted for. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the horrendous accounts of the attempts to get out, boats being turned away.

It is a horrific humanitarian disaster. And I know that it’s a moment for countries in the region, powerful countries like Australia, for example, to step up to the plate and begin to help these people and try to set the ship right. And deal straight on with the government, who we need to admit as much as the NLD was romanticized, it is not doing the right thing here. They have stood firmly behind the narrative of the former junta, which is to say, “The Rohingya are not authentically Burmese. They are Bengali refugees. And we don’t have anything to do with them. It’s not our problem.” We need to move past that. We need some grown-ups in the neighborhood to take charge.

Aaron Maté: We’ll leave it there. Dr. Elizabeth Hurd, thank you.

Elizabeth Hurd: Thank you.

Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.