In the past week, the international press has reported that Myanmar has burned down another village, Let Kar, even as the country is due to report to the International Court of Justice on its progress in making Rakhine state safe for the Rohingya refugees it has expelled over the past three years. Let Kar seems to have been burned down in a manner identical to how Rohingya villages were attacked in the past. It appears that the powers that be in Myanmar simply do not respond to international censure, even as its leadership is likely to face sanctions for genocide in the world’s highest court of human rights law.
But, among the international reporting, one aspect of this newest incident was usually missed out or conflated. Despite what you might have expected, Let Kar was not a Rohingya village. Rather, it was originally inhabited by ethnic Rakhines, the other ethnic group indigenous to Rakhine state, prior to it being abandoned a few months ago following clashes between local secessionist militias and the federal government.
The Rakhines should have been on the side of the Myanmar federal authorities in their conflict against the Rohingya, by virtue of both Rakhines and the central government Burmese being ethnic Southeast Asians and Theravada Buddhists. Indeed, some Rakhine nationalists were among the first to incite and ratchet up the rhetoric against the Rohingya early in the past decade, when the genocide was beginning. So what is happening here?
Some of us who have been observing Myanmar for many years have warned of this before: The Rohingya “clearance” from northern Rakhine state was only the beginning of what the central government in Myanmar has planned for the country. Myanmar is centered on the Irrawaddy River Valley, inhabited almost entirely by the Bamar/Burmese ethnic group. The river valley is host to more than 70 percent of the population. It is the political, cultural and economic center of the country, and it is surrounded along Myanmar’s poorly defined borders by mountain peoples, most of whom have strong secessionist desires, and ethnic militias that have fought against the central government for the entire history of the country since its independence in 1948.
The Rohingya ‘clearance’ was only the beginning of what the central government has planned.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Central government aggression toward these groups has never, in the history of the country, been moderated by human rights considerations. But most of these groups, certainly those who shared the Theravada Buddhist religion of the central government, assumed that the particular animosity that the central government showed toward Muslim minorities like the Rohingya was largely down to religious differences; whereas, between fellow Buddhists, some kind of more humane accommodation could, in principle, be made.
Unfortunately, and as we predicted, the Bamar nationalist central government is not targeting merely religious differences in the name of building a nation state — it is targeting all differences. This is to say, the levels of violence and the culmination into a de facto genocide against the Rohingya is not a treatment that the federal Myanmar military is reserving exclusively for the Rohingya; even though it remains the case that the Rohingya are the most hated group. Rather than being a uniquely brutal approach, however, the treatment of the Rohingya at the hands of the federal military is but a template for what is to come for all other border tribes in time.
Now that the Rohingya people have been largely purged from the land of Myanmar, the federal military will shift focus to the next group in order of what they perceive to be the most imminent threat. At the moment, that is the Rakhines in the lands adjacent to those formerly inhabited by the Rohingya. And, for good reason: The Arakan Army, the militia taken to largely represent the interests of this ethnic group, is the biggest and most potent force operating within Myanmar against the federal army, and it has been seeing a great degree of success in its attacks. So the Rakhines are likely to be the next people who will be targeted indiscriminately on the basis of their birth identity, just as the Rohingya have been in the recent past.
By all available evidence, the Myanmar government is on the path of generalized genocide against any and all groups that it deems to be incompatible with the central ethnic identity of the Buddhist Bamar of the Irrawaddy valley — and what we have seen with the Rohingya is only the beginning of its atrocities. There is no alternative but for the international community to intervene and put a stop to this madness before we see millions more refugees destabilizing the entire region.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim