Despite taking years to plan, history’s worst crimes against humanity appeared to the world as clumsy, hasty, and reactive. The Ottoman Empire organized the Armenian Genocide amid fears of Russian spies during World War I. Nazi Germany raced to implement the Final Solution, the bloodiest phase of the Holocaust, as the Soviet Union and the Western Allies punched through its defenses during World War II.
Newcomers to genocide studies might see historic recurrence in Myanmar, whose military, the Tatmadaw, claims that it only started battling the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, after insurgents fighting under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) conducted operations against security forces in October 2016 and August 2017. However, the Tatmadaw has spent decades engineering the genocide of the Rohingya, a conspiracy that is now coming to fruition and that, in the face of the Western world’s growing complacence and Islamophobia, will likely succeed.
When the British Empire granted independence to Burma, Myanmar’s predecessor, in 1948, some Rohingya pushed for their own Islamic state separate from the Buddhist-dominated sovereign state in which they found themselves. They referred to the territory that would become Rakhine State — named after the Rakhine, the Buddhist people who live there alongside the Rohingya — as “Arakan.” The Tatmadaw had other plans though, expelling thousands of those secessionists to Bangladesh.
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Most often, Rohingya refugees would return from Bangladesh after the Tatmadaw decided that it had wrought enough destruction, adding to a growing Rohingya population. The Rakhine feared that the Rohingya might soon outnumber them, so Burma’s then-military government legislated a solution: the 1982 Citizenship Law, which required Burmese to prove their ancestry prior to 1823, when Britain colonized Burma and permitted Muslims from the British Raj to immigrate there. The Tatmadaw thus rendered the Rohingya stateless, classifying them as illegal “Bengali” immigrants.
Unlike the Ottomans or the Nazis, who tried to crush minority religions in just a few years, the Tatmadaw exercised not only brutality but also patience and restraint. In the early 1990s, soon after the military government had renamed the country “Myanmar” to promote its nationalist agenda, 250,000 Rohingya fled rape, religious persecution, and slavery to Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw nevertheless allowed many to return, likely appreciating how cruel the instantaneous erasure of a minority could look to the international community. The Tatmadaw understood what the Hutus and Serbs failed to.
The War on Terror presented Myanmar the opportunity to build its anti-Rohingya narrative: the Tatmadaw was fighting Islamist terrorism, not pursuing an Islamophobic genocide. When sectarian riots erupted in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, in summer 2012, the Tatmadaw imprisoned tens of thousands of Rohingya in concentration camps for what it described as their own safety. According to the Myanmar government, the camps protected the Rohingya from Rakhine rioters while the Tatmadaw pursued the alleged terrorists of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a defunct resistance movement.
Choosing to confine the Rohingya, instead of killing them, allowed the Tatmadaw to define the story. Even if Human Rights Watch and the United Nations protested, what happened in 2012 proved ambiguous enough that most observers refrained from labeling the detentions genocide. The Tatmadaw was pressuring the Rohingya to leave through oppression rather than making them leave through violence.
In 2016 and 2017, the Tatmadaw has found the opportunity to finish what it started in 1948. The existence of ARSA, the Rohingya’s reaction to decades of passive genocide, gave the Tatmadaw the excuse to switch to active genocide. It combated the insurgents, whom it described as “terrorists” even though they killed no civilians, by arresting, burning, displacing, executing, raping, and torturing Rohingya civilians. These war crimes fell under the labels of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism so popular with Western militaries. The Tatmadaw reproduced what it saw at work in the Western world.
Nothing from 1948 to now suggests that the Tatmadaw is reviving the War on Terror with sincerity. Instead, the military that governs Myanmar to this day while hiding behind Aung San Suu Kyi, as a figurehead, has likewise used the War on Terror as cover for the War against Islam. The last two historical attempts at genocide against Muslims, in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, had to contend with American humanitarian intervention. Today, however, Americans sound reluctant to intervene (more) even in Afghanistan and Iraq, the countries that they proved so eager to invade in the early 2000s.
The Tatmadaw has gone further than its counterparts in the Philippines and Thailand, the other two countries in Southeast Asia confronting Islamist insurgencies. The Filipinos and the Thais, on the one hand, have at least spoken of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The Tatmadaw, on the other, refuses to negotiate with ARSA, a revolutionary movement far worse armed and organized than the Malays in Patani and the Moros in Mindanao. The Tatmadaw wants to destroy an ethnicity, not end an insurgency. ARSA and the RSO, resistance movements capable of little real resistance, seem the perfect excuse.
“The only resolution to the Rohingya crisis is to send UN troops to Arakan and create a safe space for our people,” Sham Shu Anwar, one of the few Rohingya to stay in Myanmar after half a million have escaped, told The Diplomat. “All other efforts to rescue our people will be in vain.” He recounted the Tatmadaw’s attempts at ethnic cleansing as “adamant and inhuman.”
The Rohingya once hoped that Myanmar’s democratization would return to them the rights that the Tatmadaw had stolen. They praised the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi’s political party, for its potential to bring peace to Myanmar. Now, neither the NLD nor the international community have met the Rohingya’s already-wavering expectations of protection and salvation. “The international community just provides us food,” Anwar observed. “We need protection, not food.”
One of the world’s most persecuted minorities has convinced itself of the need for warfare, whether in the form of humanitarian intervention or rebellion. “There are two ways to save the Rohingya: one is intervention by the UN Security Council and the other is arming Rohingya fighters,” Anwar argued, noting that his compatriots saw few options against the Tatmadaw. “Every moment, we are scared of the Burmese. Everyone here is scared of them. Yesterday, they set fire to a village near us.”
ARSA might have miscalculated in attacking the Tatmadaw, which can now claim to be acting in self-defense. The longer ARSA resists, the longer soldiers can slaughter the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar. Anwar told The Diplomat that he nevertheless refuses to leave Myanmar, his homeland, for Bangladesh: “We worry about living in refugee camps. If the Burmese kill us, we will die here.”