In a landmark judgment, the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Jan. 23 ordered Myanmar to take all necessary measures to protect Rohingya Muslims from genocide.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Myanmarese author and human rights activist Maung Zarni, 57, known for supporting Rohingya, explains the significance of the judgment and the road ahead.
Anadolu Agency: What is the significance of the ICJ order for the Rohingya community?
Muang Zarni (MZ): I was in the balcony inside the court with some of the Rohingyas when the presiding judge read the 28-page decision.
We all felt very happy although this is only the beginning in their journey to seek recognition as an ethnic community that has always been with Burma (Myanmar); to seek accountability for the crimes -- crimes against humanity and genocide -- that they have been subjected to over the last 40 years.
I put the last 10 years of my life writing about it, recording the history of persecution and campaigning for the basic rights of Rohingyas as our own Myanmar people.
Q: How far these measures will mitigate the pain and suffering of Rohingya?
MZ: I think these measures will have a material effect on the lives of the Rohingya inside Myanmar. The Myanmar government remains defiant and dismissive of the court's orders. There's a long way to go still. It can be four to six years before the court delivers its final ruling.
The court did not buy Myanmar’s distortions, omissions, and lies that were presented personally by Aung Suu Kyi as the de facto head of Myanmar and as its official representative.
And Suu Kyi said absolutely nothing about the rape that thousands of Rohingya women suffered. These are clear signs that Myanmar leaders will dig in their heels and obstinate. Myanmar has published a report that it says is the most comprehensive and the most accurate and factual. The commission was billed as “independent”.
But the report was compiled by four handpicked commissioners, two from Japan and the Philippines and two from Myanmar. All of them are ex-government servants or bureaucrats. Not a single commissioner can be deemed qualified as a human rights investigator.
This so-called Independent Commission of Enquiry released their report, three days before the International Court of Justice ruling, saying that war crimes may have been committed but no rape nor genocide.
Even, then they did not release the full report which they say is 461 pages long. Instead, they released a 15-page executive summary to create the news headline “war crimes, but no genocide” before the court’s interim ruling.
Myanmar spin had no impact
Q: What are the limitations of the ICJ?
MZ: The ICJ is not a criminal court. The ICJ is an international legal dispute mechanism that helps resolve and arbitrate disputes among UN member states.
In this case, Myanmar as a state party to the Genocide Convention is not tried as a criminal. The ICJ involvement is to resolve the conflict between Gambia and Myanmar over the allegation that Myanmar has violated the obligations and terms of the Genocide Convention.
But still, in this case, Myanmar spin has had absolutely no impact over the court decision, when it granted Gambia four out of six requests all designed to protect the 600,000 Rohingya that remain trapped inside the country and to preserve the evidence of Rohingya killing fields.
There is a vast tract of empty land that is as long as 68 kilometers (62 miles). This is the area where nearly 400 Rohingya villages once stood; all physical infrastructures including mosques, rice go-downs, homes, shops, schools, etc. were burnt down and blown up with rocket launchers by the security forces. Any charred remains were bulldozed.
I daresay hundreds of mass graves of Rohingya are located and some of the mass graves could have been destroyed by now. That is why Myanmar is adamant against granting the UN investigators to come in and look at the crime scene forensically.
Q: What is the condition inside Rakhine state at present as Myanmar government says, there is no more violence?
MZ: An estimated 600,000 Rohingyas are living inside Myanmar in apartheid-like conditions or worse. Their freedom of movement is almost non-existent. They in effect live in vast open prisons. They cannot go to rivers and creeks and rice fields to get food or paddy fields to grow rice or to fish without permission from Myanmar authorities and the military. And then they cannot marry freely. They cannot have children officially unless they are properly married.
If you want to go to a clinic, in the next village, you need to go through three checkpoints. It is the situation as bad or even worse than what you will find in Gaza.
If Rohingyas marry without government permission, the couple could be jailed for up to seven years. And that if you are married by Imam that's considered not official. That would be illegal. If your wife is pregnant, the child is considered illegitimate. The child will not be given a birth certificate.
Rohingyas inside Myanmar today live in conditions that are designed to make life impossible. That is why Rohingya try to flee Rakhine State, even though active slaughter has stopped.
Once they get caught by the Myanmar navy or other security or immigration officials, Rohingyas are put in jail. In short, Rohingyas are not allowed to have a proper human life in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi a borderline fascist
Q: Why do you think Aung San Suu Kyi is siding with the military, instead of standing up for the persecuted Rohingya?
MZ: Suu Kyi is now like a borderline fascist, racist, nationalist suffering from her self-inflicted victim of siege mentality.
I can speculate she, by her admission, has never considered herself a human rights defender.
So, the entire world has deceived itself of the type of politician Aung Suu Kyi is for the last 15 years.
And the Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee in Oslo was fooled by Aung Suu Kyi’s beautiful, liberal words.
Q: Was that political maneuver by Aung Suu Kyi?
MZ: No. Let’s look back to get a bigger picture of how we got here as far as disillusionment and disappointment with Suu Kyi.
I think when the world for years thought that she was championing the cause of human rights, equality, civil rights, and democracy, the entire world and governments, as well as the UN and EU all thought that she was like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, or an Asian Mandela, fighting for the rights of the oppressed in her own country. She was just fighting against a military dictatorship because she wanted to become the president.
I don't think she changed her mind. She's always been a racist, right-wing, authoritarian, autocratic politician. The turn of events has established that.
She has been named a criminal in the case filed in Argentina by the U.K.-based Rohingya activist Tun Khin with the support of Argentinian survivors of Argentinian dictatorships crimes of the past.
Myanmar leaders to face ICC
Q: What are the other judicial or investigative processes that are going on, beside ICJ and the Argentine case against Suu Kyi?
MZ: The UN General Assembly has established a mechanism called International Independent Mechanism (IIM) whose mission is to collect and preserve all types of criminal evidence that pertain to the Rohingya people as well as other oppressed minorities in Myanmar. The evidence collected by the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar is now in the care of this UN body.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has embarked on the full investigation of Myanmar’s crimes against Rohingya people. If there is enough evidence to support the allegations of international crimes, the ICC will initiate the trial of Myanmar leaders.
Q: What more can be done by the international community?
MZ: There governments should initiate more proactive policies that will isolate the government of Myanmar, diplomatically, politically, financially, commercially, and culturally. They should drop this fairy-tale of Suu Kyi-led fragile transition to democracy. Even in the case of South Africa when the black African majority was controlled, exploited, disenfranchised and dominated by a small white minority that was considered and declared by a crime against humanity.
Q: How do you assess the success or failures of Bangladesh and Myanmar bilateral agreements in terms of the voluntary return of Rohingyas?
MZ: Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh over a long period in different waves. There are 830,000 Rohingya who fled in 2016-2017.
Another 300,000 or so, have been in Bangladesh since 1995.
Out of this 1 million, in the last two years since these agreements have been signed, only 450 people have returned.
So, that’s the clearest sign of the categoric failure of these two bi-lateral repatriation agreements.
Also, the Myanmar government has made no attempts to receive the Rohingyas as our own [their] people, nor is it prepared to restore Rohingyas’ former citizenship or basic human rights.
Since the first wave of the violent genocidal purge of Rohingyas in February 1978, Myanmar has pursued a Nazi-like policy towards Rohingya. In 1938, the Nazi party declared all eastern European Jews to be non-Germans, enacting Nazi racial laws.
Role of Bangladesh and Kofi Annan
Q: What is the role of Bangladesh as a country that has 40-years of experience in dealing with Myanmar and its policies of persecution towards Rohingyas?
MZ: Bangladeshi government is also failing its obligations, international obligations. It is not granting Rohingya refugees’ proper legal status as refugees. It is not even calling the Rohingya in their official bilateral agreements.
Rohingya are labeled in these official bilateral agreements between Myanmar and Bangladesh as “forcibly displaced people from Myanmar.” Their refugee rights are not recognized. Their ethnic identity is not recognized. So, Bangladesh is not completely innocent.
However, its most recent policy decision to allow Rohingyas to have education up to 9th standard or grade is a welcome change.
Q: The EU has brought up the Kofi Annan Commission in its statement in response to ICJ ruling. What do you think of the late Kofi Annan and his work?
MZ: Kofi Annan did not have a good record of handling genocides. He was head of the UN peacekeeping force in 1994 when the Rwandan genocide exploded. Instead of showing any sense of pan-African empathy, Kofi Annan infamously concealed the cable that came to him in New York headquarters sent from Rwanda by his deputy, who was in charge of ground troops of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda.
Given this unconscionable track record, he could not have been expected to get involved positively in a new case of genocide. In the case of Rohingyas, he was engaged in genocide denial after a few months of signing the contract with Suu Kyi to serve as Chair of the Rakhine Commission.
But what needs to be said is that while Kofi Annan was coming in as the head of Commission, Myanmar government was blocking any entry of any UN official including the Special Rapporteur to look into the situation of human rights.
And also, Kofi Annan was repeating the narrative of the Myanmar government.
Annan went in saying that we are not here [in Myanmar] to put blame on government or [on] racist Rakhine community. We are here to try to find ways for reconciliation. Well, firstly, the situation that Annan Commission was asked to study is a state-sponsored genocide, ongoing and multiyear. So, Kofi Annan’s Rakhine Commission became a shield for Suu Kyi.
Violence in Buddhist societies
Q: How would you describe the situation in the ongoing conversation about whether to call it a genocide or ethnic cleansing or war crimes?
MZ: Within the genocide studies, we do not use the word “ethnic cleansing” because that has no legal weight within international law.
And, and worse, the word ethnic cleansing was first put into public circulation by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. That heinous criminal knew that there was no international law that could trigger a judicial process or criminal persecution over his conduct towards the Muslims.
Myanmar has been destroying the culture, social and communal foundations of Rohingya. Myanmar uses rape as a weapon of genocidal attack on the community at large.
Rape is not about sexual desire. Rape is about violence, domination. In Rohingya’s case, rape happens on a large societal scale.
Q: Buddhists are generally viewed as pacifists. Can you share your thoughts on why violence is perpetrated by Buddhist societies such as in Sri Lanka, Thailand, etc?
MZ: Buddhism as a religion can be used as a political ideology, the same way as Islam can be used for violent and political ends. Christianity was used to justify White Man’s colonial conquests and loot.
Peaceful Buddhist community becomes militant and ready to kill, because they are told that Muslims are going to kill them, take their women and take their jobs away from them, and take their land.
Buddhists are told Muslims are bad, invasive, thieves and rapists and killers, and land grabbers. This is the result of systematic propaganda done by the Myanmar government.
Q: Is there any possibility of reconciliation between Rohingya and other communities in Myanmar?
MZ: You cannot ask Muslims particularly Rohingyas to reconcile with the Buddhists when their villages have been burnt; children are put in concentration camps.
You cannot ask the Jews at Auschwitz, to reconcile with SS [Schutzstaffel commander of Nazi party] when SS continued to gas chambers, forced labor regimes.
There are small scale efforts of interfaith reconciliation that are taking place within communities.
I have done this myself over the last five years. I brought out Buddhist monks, nuns, Muslim Imams, Christian clergy to Cambodia, Thailand, like 20 every group and then we would stay together for five days, and then formulate strategies, measures to implement in the country to promote inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation.
When a country becomes genocidal, these small-scale efforts do not produce real impact. The problem is so huge, the solution has to be huge.
Supporting Rohingya came with a cost
Q: Tell us about yourself, how you got involved in activism and a supporter of Rohingya at the global level?
MZ: In 2012, when the first bout of violence broke out in Rakhine, I was teaching in Brunei, a small [but] wealthy Muslim country in Southeast Asia.
For a wealthy country like Brunei, profits were more important than the lives of fellow Muslim people. They wanted to invest in Myanmar. They did not like me to write on Rohingya issues.
As a Buddhist, I would say, this (killing Muslims) is wrong. But I had to pay the price.
I saw my father only once before he died because I could not go to Myanmar. He had come to see me in a small Thai border town of Mae Sai. Same with my mother.
And I had siblings whom I have not seen since I left the country in 1988 - for 32 years now.
I have lived with death threats over the last 25 years since I became publicly known to oppose the Myanmar military dictatorship as a student in the U.S.
When I go to countries like Malaysia, Malaysian security protects me and gives me some degree of protection because it is too close to Myanmar.
Q: How do you assess the role of Turkey in helping to resolve the Rohingya crises?
MZ: Turkey should seriously have a dialogue with Bangladesh over granting Rohingya refugee rights and those rights shall include access to proper education, not just like a showroom from UN agencies.
Turkey should support a substantial number of Rohingya students. Try to bring to Turkey 500 young Rohingya students, men and women, to study in Turkish Universities.
The scholarship scheme needs to be scaled up. Some 300,000 Rohingya students have no schools in the camps; their brains are wasting. When we say Rohingya need to rebuild their lives, their international supporters need to educate the younger generation so that they know how to rebuild organizations so that they will be equipped with skills and talents that are needed for the public health of their people.
Parallels between India’s citizenship law and Myanmar actions
Q: India has recently adopted a new citizenship law and it is also starting updating its National Register of Citizens (NRC). What is the difference or similarities between the actions of Myanmar and latest Indian actions?
MZ: India under Prime Minister Modi has become a semi-apartheid country because of the new anti-Muslim citizenship law. Citizenship is not about religion, but about political identity and political loyalty to the country.
But the only difference between the two situations is that Myanmar civil society is very, very weak and intellectually incapable whereas Indians protested across so many cities. Hindu and other non-Muslim Indians participated in these protests in support of their Muslim brothers. India is one of the world’s most intellectually vibrant countries and has many intellectuals who will serve as the conscience of the Indian society and fights the Indian state back. That is not the case in Myanmar. Many intellectuals in Myanmar behaved more or less opportunistic. They stand with the murderous, powerful state.