SIB-Amsterdam, the Dutch United Student Association, presented a lecture on the Rohingya persecution by the Burmese army on November 5 at CREA. The speaker, Sazaat Ahammed, chairman of the Rohingya Development Foundation (RDF), and Dutch journalist Minka Nijhuis, gave their assessment of the current situation in a two-hour lecture to over 100 attendees.
Every month, the association presents a topic of actuality. “Rohingya: Fleeing Genocide in Myanmar” was the third monthly lecture of the academic year.
The Rohingya are a Muslim and Hindu minority residing in the Rakhine State in Myanmar. In August 25, 2017, the armed forces of Myanmar, or Tatmadaw, cracked down on the Rohingya after years of conflict. They have become the most persecuted community in the world. UN officials have considered these actions to be an ethnic cleansing. Nearly 700,000 are believed to have fled to their neighboring country Bangladesh.
While the United Nations labels these events as “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis,” International Criminal Court officials, human rights groups, journalists and governments, have condemned the violent actions of Tatmadaw. The fundamental question that lies at the very nature of this conflict is voiced later-on by a spectator in the audience: Why the Rohingya?
Sazaat Ahammed presented a documentary by Al Jazeera that denounces the genocide. When the lights turned back on, he approached the speaker’s desk. With shaky voice, he apologized for his momentarily consternation. He explained how he struggled to give a rational speech after being exposed to such powerful imagery.
The 49-year-old speaker was born and raised in Buthidaung Township of Arakan, in the Rakhine State. His family is closely linked to the Burmese politics, which can be traced back to 1948, when his grandfather, Abul Bashar, served as the Burmese Parliamentary Secretary until 1962.
60-year-old Minka Nijhuis, a Dutch journalist and specialist in the field, first emphasized the complexity of this long-lasting conflict. As a warning, Nijhuis told the audience to be aware of the tendency to oversimplify history and conflict dynamics. For the speaker, Myanmar is a “traumatized country” that has been divided into 135 ethnic groups, yet shaped by years of a military dictatorship and praising the Burmese Buddhist population as the superior class.
Since the country’s independence from the British rule in the late 1940s, Myanmar’s leadership has mostly been Buddhist. Today, it is the most Buddhist country, a religion practiced by over 90% of the population. In 1982 a new Citizenship Law deprived the Rohingya of citizenship.
Nijhuis explained that, in general, the spreading of hate speech against minorities and state propaganda serves for state containment countering federalist dispositions.
A series of reforms from 2011 to 2015 served to replace the military rule with a new military-backed civilian government. This aimed to make the country more democratic. Among the important changes, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest along with hundreds of political prisoners, President Thein Sein allowed peaceful demonstrations and privately owned newspapers, Barack Obama visited the country for the first time, and ended operations against ethnic Kachin rebels.
Meanwhile, the praise by the West was, according to Niejhuis, too quick and too uncritical in their support. She claims that these reforms were of pragmatic nature and carefully orchestrated by the military leadership countering China’s cultural and economic domination in Myanmar and opening up the market for foreign investment.
While State Counsellor Nobel Peace Price laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, was seen as a symbol of democratization by many around the world, her silence regarding the Rohingya persecution was a disappointment not only for the many ethnic groups in Myanmar, but also foreign supporters of democratization, said the speaker. In 2012, violence erupted in Rakhine state between the Burmese military and the Rohingya. A series of conflicts led 90,000 to be displaced by the violence.
During the presentation, Sazaat Ahammed listed all the necessary steps that need to be taken to assure reconciliation and a future for the Rohingya. Besides of obtaining the right to citizenship, education, movement, healthcare and the right to return, Ahammed appealed to the international community to empower Rohingya community leaders to increase humanitarian and structural help.
These claims were quickly overshadowed by Nijhuis. For her, the UN are only an instrument that is shaped by the interest of its members. More specifically, China’s veto power in the security council is not deterred from hindering a humanitarian intervention in Myanmar out of geopolitical interests, but also the Western agenda is condemning Myanmar’s re-isolation from the West.