The Genocide of the Rohingya people: Being accustomed to injustice and the urgent need for moral leadership

By Published On: 7th November 2017

Rohingya People in Rakhine State. Photo credit: English: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of what the United Nations has termed “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, thousands of civilians have come out in support of Myanmar’s military in the city of Yangon. This is a large show of pro military support despite the criticism of Myanmar’s military by the international community.” There has only recently been a growing condemnation from majority Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey, of the violence being enacted upon the Rohingya people. Myanmar and its majority Buddhist population, is complicit in the brutal killing, raping, torturing and forced removal of the Rohingya people. Thousands of Rohingya people are being forced to flee for their lives, with no seemingly peaceful end in sight.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is home to approximately 135 ethnic minorities. Officially, Myanmar’s government does not recognise the Rohingya as lawful citizens. This has effectively rendered the Rohingya people stateless. Being denied citizenship is based on a claim by the Myanmar government that the Rohingya were brought to Rakhine from Bangladesh during Myanmar’s British colonial period. This claim, which is highly contested for Rohingya people themselves say they have been present in the region from as early as the eighth century, has led to the perception that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants in Myanmar. This is a perception held by authorities or other national minorities in the country. Without the official recognition of existing as a legitimate national entity, the people have been left vulnerable to large-scale violence and persecution.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s prime minister and leader of the National League for Democracy, holds a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet she has not only failed to stand up for the human rights of the Rohingya people, she has delivered a controversial speech stating that the Myanmar government does not “fear international scrutiny” over its handling of violence in Rakhine state while at the same time “condemning all human rights violations and violence.” Her actions as head of Myanmar’s government bring up interesting questions as to the legitimacy of Nobel Peace Prize winners as champions of peace after having received the award. Alfred Nobel’s will dictated that “his entire remaining estate should be used to endow prizes to those who [confer] the greatest benefit to mankind.” The assumption is that one will continue to confer great benefit to mankind.

Being awarded a prize which in all honesty puts you on the same level as Nelson Mandela, requires one to stand true to the fight for attaining democratic ideals which safeguard human rights and prioritizes ethnic reconciliation in a situation of injustice.  Aung San Suu Kyi has not stood up for the human rights of the Rohingya instead she has seen fit to remind the world that her government has only been in power for 18 months. We have failed to see her take a stance against the violence and oppression and it is precisely this silence that begs us to question why there has been a lack of moral leadership in such a crisis. Moral leadership in times of crisis is exactly what Nobel Peace Prize winners are expected, by virtue of having won such an award, to do.

That there can be mass support from the citizens of Myanmar for Myanmar’s government and use of violence against the Rohingya people illustrates that the ‘us and them’ mindset is a global phenomenon. There are parallel narratives all over the world that speak to the denial of rights and citizenship in one’s own land. At the rally organised by nationalist and military veterans of Myanmar, there was support for the military by citizens of the state. They saw the criticism of Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis by the international community as unwarranted and as such came out in their thousands.

Just think about that for a moment, there is an ongoing active genocide happening against the ‘non-recognised’ citizens of a country and the ‘recognized’ citizens of the same country come out in support of the government and military that presides over this genocide. All this in the age of human rights, apparently. Even at a time where there is the mass spread of propaganda and misinformation, the brutal killing of a group of people based on their ethnicity, should not be supported. It is amazing just how accustomed to injustice we as a global human family have become. But to be more specific, we are accustomed to injustice happening to the darker shaded members of this human family. The actions of the international community post world war two, most especially in reference to the Balfour Declaration, as a response to the injustice Jews experienced was decisive. There is a lack of decisive action on behalf of the international community in this case, which could be regarded as an extension of the sweeping Islamophobia and rise of right-wing nationalism as the current ‘trend’ across the globe.

That the UN has referred to the crisis and forced migration of the Rohingya people as “the most urgent refugee emergency in the world” but remains the untransformed global structure, failing to take bold action yet again against another atrocity being committed, is troubling. The need for servant leaders, with strong moral compasses who possess the courage to do what is right even when what is right is wrong, has become more urgent than ever.


Nargis Motala is an intern for the Communication, Advocacy and Strategy Programme at IJR. Ashanti Kunene is an intern for the Sustained Dialogues Programme the IJR

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