Genocide by any other name
The Rohingya community, an ethnic minority made up of around 1.3 million people in Burma, face systematic oppression at the hands of Burma’s government. They are denied citizenship and basic human rights by the authorities, and the treatment they face threatens the entire existence of their people. They have no choice but to live under conditions of apartheid in Burma, and their oppression can be understood within a broader context surrounding the conflict between the Rakhine community, a Buddhist ethnic majority, and the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority.
There is evidence of government complicity in war crimes carried out against the Rohingya Muslims by the Rakhine Buddhists. June 2012 saw an outbreak of organized violence against the Rohingya, of which a second wave followed during October. During this period, the Rakhine community, supported by the state in its attacks on the Rohingya, were responsible for leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing, resulting in both the deaths and displacement of the Rohingya people. Evidence has been brought to light of the involvement of Burma’s government in human rights abuses, such as the blocking of humanitarian aid. Against the backdrop of President Thein Sein’s denial of the existence of the Rohingya, who warns against the mere utterance of their name, this revelation should come as no shock.
The Rohingya story is one of many that point collectively towards the prevalence of global genocide. Ethical theorists have argued that ‘compassion fatigue’ affects our receptivity to the news; the idea that we cannot have the level of compassion necessary for all the disastrous events occurring in the world. But there is an additional active element, which consists in the normalization of genocide. Compassion fatigue alone does not desensitize us to these deaths, but a media that either fails to report on genocide, or when it does so, refuses to call it what it is, plays a more dominant role in our failure to understand and relate to the severity of the plight of others.
Genocide by definition refers to ‘the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group’. There is no description more apt to illustrate the situation of the Rohingya; so why is it that we are reluctant to attribute this term to the systematic oppression of a people? When we consider the 2014 Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, which led to 1,777 Palestinians deaths, there was a clear failure on behalf of mainstream media to label this as a war crime. The notion that it is both controversial and ‘radical’ to refer to the mass murder of a group of people as genocide is an illogical one. The media’s refusal to view these deaths as genocide is indicative of an unexamined acceptance of, resignation to, and ultimate apathetic attitude towards the deaths of ‘others’, which occur systematically on a large-scale in various forms.
This refusal is also part of a larger inability to fit the suffering of the Rohingya people into a national narrative that advocates the dichotomization of extremist Muslims versus nonviolent and peaceful Buddhists. Legitimizing the suffering of the Rohingya would mean an acceptance of the fact that religious communities other than Muslims play a role in violence and the persecution of people; a notion that there is little room for in mainstream Western media.
While it is supposedly implicit that the many migrants fleeing their hometowns are escaping questionable living conditions, it is our responsibility to first learn what a clearly flawed media leaves out, and then stress exactly what their maltreatment consists of, its injustice far exceeding ‘poor’ living conditions alone. Many members of society are still under the illusion that refugees, by nature, flock to the land of plenty in attempts to steal jobs and grow rich; a ludicrous fear. While hopes for a better future are a natural desire of any human being, an attempt at crossing borders – which as we know from the increasing rate of migrant deaths at sea, poses a dangerous risk – is first and foremost an attempt at life itself. Migrants such as the Rohingya are risking their lives at sea precisely because death is imminent for them at home.
While it is undeniably positive that what is being referred to as the plight of the ‘boat people’ is receiving media airtime, it is deeply concerning that information pointing towards their genocide has not. Calls for pressure to be put on Southeast Asian governments – who are reducing the chances of the Rohingya’s survival by refusing them entry – to uphold international law, and ultimately, ensure rescue at sea, are vital. But holding these governments, alongside Western authorities that have long refused to intervene in oppression, accountable for their complicity in genocide, is even more so. As for the media, while they may not be directly implicated in this abuse, failure to report accurately delegitimizes the reality of genocide, which many misguidedly believe is a term reserved for past mistakes made in history. History is in the continual process of being made in the present, and unsurprisingly, it confirms to us the saying that it has a way of repeating itself.
Neda Tehrani is a graduate of Religion, Philosophy and Ethics from Kings College, London.
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