It is only in recent weeks that the word ‘Rohingya’ has begun to crop up in international headlines and to seep into the world’s collective consciousness and conscience. Yet as a human rights lawyer who has long followed the Rohingya situation – and was present in Northern Rakhine the morning the violence erupted – I can say there is no question that the crisis unfolding now has been in the making for years, if not decades. Perhaps more importantly, by international legal and historical standards, the crisis bears all the characteristics of a genocide in bloom.
In fact, for those who have followed the situation closely, the use of the word ‘genocide’ should come as no surprise. For generations, the Rohingya have faced an ever-growing list of discriminatory policies and state-sanctioned rights violations designed to cull the unwanted minority’s numbers and force them from their ancestral lands: key markers of genocide.
The oldest among them have seen their citizenship revoked and their children born stateless; they suffer tight restrictions on movement and access to education and healthcare; and the number of children a couple may bear has been legally limited to two.
The Rohingya also regularly endure extortions for minor ‘offenses;’ they have been barred from gathering in groups of more than five and require permission to hold routine events and have even faced limitations on the materials used to build or repair homes and other buildings. Direct reports from at least one prison also indicate that some prisoners from other parts of the country had been released early on condition that they resettle in Northern Rakhine in order to maximise the Buddhist population and limit Rohingya landholdings.
The Rohingya have also endured periodic crackdowns designed to drive them from their land, dating at least as far back as Operation King Dragon in 1978, with more recent pogroms in 1991 and 2012. Since 2012, smaller spates of violence have erupted, each time accompanied by reports of government and mob-led village raids and burnings, rapes and murders (sometimes two-sided), and ever-increasing restrictions on Rohingya movement and activity.
Yet the present crisis undoubtedly represents the most extreme and disproportionate onslaught of violence, with widely corroborated horror tales from Rohingya refugees of savagely violent gang rapes, merciless tortures and beheadings, and even babies tossed into fires.
If not adequately frightening on their own, these facts must be placed in a disconcertingly modern context: for there has never been a more powerful tool for the rapid dissemination of hate speech and racist-nationalist vitriol than Facebook and other social media. From a Western perspective, the dangers are easy to spot; one need only look to social media’s role in recent elections and political debates to witness the rate at which false information can spread, and the surprising number of individuals who can fall prey to hateful and dangerous rhetoric.
Yet perhaps most disturbingly, historically, one can hardly fail to see the parallels between the current use of social media in Myanmar and that of radio in Rwanda to incite mob violence. The key exception is that social media is by all accounts an even faster, more graphic, immersive, ‘democratic,’ and ultimately, dangerous tool for the dissemination of hate speech.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘What’s happening in Myanmar is genocide.’