The coincidence of two news items about Burma/Myanmar today demand brief commentary: 1) International Crisis Group is honoring President U Thein Sein at its annual dinner, and 2) Human Rights Watch released a damning report about assaults against Burma’s Rohingya minority.
The most common way that atrocities against civilians end is when the perpetrators themselves decide, for a range of reasons, to pursue their goals via other methods. This is not an ethically pleasing ending, nor does it promise justice for victims—but it often offers life-saving respite from violence. The hard work of changing social practices and achieving some measure of justice for victims, however understood, often demands an entirely different set of tools.
Shifts in political contexts, more than “humanitarian” military interventions, have ended atrocities more frequently and provide greater insight for understanding how to terminate assaults against civilians in the future. Recognition of this fact requires a more humble approach to international engagement in places at risk and a more honest assessment of what measures can accomplish which aims and along what timeline.
Such a more forthright approach is entirely at odds with the tendency to reduce regimes to either international pariah or newfound darling. It is a lesson that the International Crisis Group (ICG) might consider as it hosts a special dinner tonight designed, in its own words, to recognize:
…individuals for their outstanding contributions to the advancement of peace and security. This year, we will honor two presidents for their visionary leadership to effect profound social, economic and political changes in their countries, and their efforts to bring us closer to a world free of conflict.
Enter Burmese President U Thein Sein. Tonight, ICG will honor his government’s democratic improvements and “significant strides in ending the country’s decades-long internal conflicts, securing ceasefires with all but one of the ethnic armed groups….”
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW), published a report today documenting systematic discrimination, displacement, and multiple instances of violence against one of Burma’s most vulnerable minorities, the Rohingya. HRW documents clear patterns of organization and incitement of violence against the Rohingya, and they detail the incidents of violence in June and October 2012. In one incident alone, HRW reports, estimated 70 Rohingya were killed. Since June, 125,000 people have been displaced, and over 4,500 structures destroyed, much of the destruction accomplished with either the consent or participation of official authorities. The Rohingya communities are now facing a humanitarian crisis, as access to the displaced camps is regularly obstructed by local actors with apparent impunity. Unknown numbers, HRW estimates at hundreds, have died fleeing the country.
So-called “communal violence” is enabled to burn at low levels when authorities do not oppose it; it spreads when they support violence either overtly or by looking away. This is the story in Burma, as Maung Zarni writes:
Burma’s security troops were reportedly ordered to “do nothing,” as evidenced in a local investigative report published in the New York Times. The same observation was made by UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana in an AFP report that was released on the same day.
Further, the state-organized and controlled fire department also put out fires only in Buddhist homes, while it let Muslim houses, shops and mosques burn to ashes, as local eyewitnesses told the EU-funded NGO, the Euro-Burma Office, while the pogrom in Meikhtila was still unfolding from March 20-22.
Such violence is not incidental to democratic transitions—it betrays core conditions that will not simply fade away with time. Thein Sein’s government has allowed some humanitarian access to displacement camps and created a commission to investigate the violence, but it has also woefully downplayed the numbers killed, role of officials in allowing or participating in the violence, and proposed massive resettlement of Rohingya as a solution—a call that potentially aggravates the more extreme positions by local groups calling for ethnic cleansing of entire Rohingya communities. And violence against Muslim communities in Burma is increasing.
The old activists’ adage, to speak truth to power, is distorted by work that wants to so badly to speak the language of power that it aims for a military might against those it demonizes and $1,000-a-plate dinner (as the bargain ticket) with those it can paint as angels. Neither approach is honest about the sustained, painful work of bringing about change where peoples’ lives are at risk.
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