(CNN) The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is now widely described as ethnic cleansing. But the situation has been evolving. And now, it seems, we can no longer avoid the conclusion we have all been dreading. This is a genocide. And we, in the international community, must recognize it as such.
Article II of United Nation’s 1948 Genocide Convention describes genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Though the Rohingya situation has met most of the above criteria for being described as a genocide under international law for a number of years now, the label has been resisted until now because we think of genocide as one huge act of frenzied violence, like the machete insanity in Rwanda or the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.
But the final peak of violence is in all historical cases merely the visible tip of the iceberg. And the final outburst only occurs once it has already been rendered unavoidable by the political context.
In Rwanda, Hutu tribal propaganda ran for years on the radio and in magazines referring to the Tutsis as cockroaches and a mortal threat to the Hutus that needed to be eliminated lest the Hutus themselves would die. Kill or be killed. The frenzied killing was not something that just occurred to the Hutus one day in April 1994. It was the logical conclusion of a campaign of dehumanization and paranoia which lasted for years.
The same is true of the Holocaust. The Nazi genocide began slowly and had few distinctive outbursts of violence to delineate where one degree of crime against humanity ended and where another began.
All in all, that genocide developed and unfolded over a period of more than 10 years. Most of that period was not taken up with the killing of Jews, Gypsies and all the other “sub-humans.” Rather, it was taken up with manufacturing of the category of “sub-humans” by state propaganda. Only once the problem was manufactured and sold to the wider population did the “final solution” become viable.
Pattern of genocide
In Myanmar, extremist Buddhist monks have been preaching that the Rohingya are reincarnated from snakes and insects. Killing them would not be a crime against humanity, they say — it would be more like pest control.
And necessary “pest control” too. Just like the Tutsi conspiracy to kill all the Hutus, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Rohingya are supposed to be agents of a global Islamist conspiracy to take over the world and forcibly instate a global caliphate. The duty of any good Buddhist who wants to maintain the national and religious character of Myanmar is to prevent the Islamist takeover, and thus to help remove the threat posed by the “vermin.”
Every modern genocide has followed this pattern. Years of concerted dehumanization campaigns are the absolutely necessary pre-condition for the mass murder at the end. Usually these campaigns are led by a repressive government, but other political forces also come into play. Such was the case in Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda. And so it is with Myanmar.
The campaign of dehumanization against the Rohingya has been going on for decades, and events certainly took an unmistakeable turn towards genocide since at least the outbursts of communal violence in 2012. Those clashes, and the ones in the subsequent years, drove 200,000 to 300,000 Rohingya out of Myanmar.
But somehow, at that rate of attrition, and against the backdrop of Myanmar’s supposed move towards democracy with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to power in late 2015, world leaders have allowed themselves to hope that the situation could still be turned around.
Who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing?
Now, the reality of an exodus of a further 600,000 people in the space of just six weeks; the incontrovertible evidence of large scale burning of villages by the Myanmar military — which the military is calling clearance operations of terrorists — and the reports of widespread extra-judicial killings against fleeing civilians by the country’s federal security forces have made it much more difficult to avoid the conclusion: this is genocide. We no longer have just the slow-burning genocidal environment which whittles down a people until their ultimate extinction.
Now we are also confronting the loud bang at the end. More than half of an entire population has been removed from their ancestral lands in just eight weeks!
The tragedy is that the international community will abet the situation. The UN Security Council will decline to respond to the situation with the seriousness it deserves. If a situation is defined by the Council as a “genocide,” then the UN becomes legally bound to intervene, with peace-keeping missions and so on. That is why Western countries will be reluctant initiate such a move, and China, who is building one branch of its New Silk Road infrastructure right through Rakhine State to access the port of Sittwe, will likely veto any such proposal.
Just like we did in Rwanda, just like we did in the Balkans, we are once again seeing a genocide happen before our very eyes. And we will do nothing about it. We will bury our heads in the sand, and when our children will ask us why we let this happen we will plead ignorance. Once the final act of killing starts, it is usually too late. For the Rohingya, the final act is in full swing. And still we are in denial about what is happening.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst & Oxford University Press). The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. Originally published for CNN.