In March, London-based Burmese Buddhist and human rights activist Maung Zarni stood on the train tracks outside of Auschwitz and asked his companion to press record on his video camera.
“Hello, my name is Zarni,” he began, “and I am a human rights campaigner from Burma. I am making this personal appeal to European citizens. You have made the pledge ‘never again’ since 1945, when the Holocaust ended. My country, which calls itself ‘Buddhist,’ is now committing a slow genocide. The UNHCR has called it ‘very likely crimes against humanity.’ We are committing a genocide, a slow genocide against over one million Rohingya Muslim people in my country.”
Zarni then asked people to tell their elected representatives to take action to pressure Myanmar to stop the genocidal violence he claimed was unfolding, and “to make ‘never again’ a real pledge, not just an empty slogan.”
The urgency of Zarni’s call has only become clearer in the light of recent events. On Aug. 25, a stream of Rohingya refugees began arriving in Bangladesh. Since then, almost 300,000 Rohingya, the majority women and children, have fled. They are running from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, escaping a surge of violence against their communities that began after attacks were launched on dozens of state security stations by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug. 25, which killed 12 people. Government sources claim to have killed hundreds of insurgents in reprisal. Other sources claim that villagers have been massacred and there are reports of widespread arson, rape and violence perpetrated by government soldiers.
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“We have received multiple reports and satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages and consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians,” wrote UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in a Sept. 11 report. “I am further appalled by reports that the Myanmar authorities have now begun to lay landmines along the border with Bangladesh, and to learn of official statements that refugees who have fled the violence will only be allowed back if they can provide ‘proof of nationality.’ Given that successive Myanmar governments have since 1962 progressively stripped the Rohingya population of their political and civil rights, including citizenship rights – as acknowledged by Aung San Suu Kyi’s own appointed Rakhine Advisory Commission – this measure resembles a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return … the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Rakhine is home to an estimated 1.1-million Rohingya, a stateless community that has suffered from more than 40 years of persecution since they surrendered to the forces of the Union of Burma, in return for a promise of “freedom from religious and ethnic discrimination,” which never materialized due to the brutal Burmese military junta that seized control of the country months later, according to the Middle East Institute. In 2012, deadly riots between them and the Buddhist majority forced more than 100,000 Rohingya from their homes and into squalid displacement camps, where they have remained since.
Despite their documented presence in Myanmar since the 18th century, modern Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship, Zarni told The CJN. “And they are regarded by most Burmese as descended from itinerant Bengali labourers who never went home.”
According to the human rights group Fortify Rights, Rohingya are subject to discriminatory restrictions on marriage, family size and movement. Their religious buildings have been destroyed and Myanmar has repeatedly restricted humanitarian assistance and media access to the area.
Rights groups in the region have become increasingly critical of Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party swept to power in 2015, offering hope that the country would embrace democracy and human rights after decades of brutal military rule. Suu Kyi has characterized the government’s response to the August attacks, which the UNHCR characterized as “clearly disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law,” as legitimate security operations against terrorists. Suu Kyi also accused aid workers of colluding with the “terrorists,” leading to a mass exodus of humanitarian organizations that were providing food and medicine to the already impoverished and under-served Rohingya.
According to Zarni, there have been troubling signs about Suu Kyi’s position on the Rohingya for some time. “Suu Kyi has attempted to officially erase the Rohingya from Burma,” he said. “After she was elected, she asked UN officials not use the term ‘Rohingya,’ which she said was ‘not factual, but emotive.’ This denial of Rohingya history and identity in Burma is reminiscent of the Nuremberg laws. The Jews were told, ‘You are no longer German citizens.’ We have a similar scenario here. Genocide is not simply bombing and gassing and starving people. For the perpetrators, the victims never existed as who they say they are.”
The Canadian government has also criticized Suu Kyi.
“The violence is still ongoing, so obviously there’s a failure on part of the military, on part of the government,” Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Omar Alghabra told the Globe and Mail on Sept. 6. “I don’t think we heard the end of this yet about what our role is going to be. As I said, we are still assessing the situation and we’re looking for ways for Canada to be constructive. We are in discussion as well with our embassy over there, with our officials on the ground.”
Zarni says his interest in the Holocaust goes back to his university days, when one of his professors, German-American historian Robert H. Kaehl, introduced him to the horrors of the Nazi regime. At that time, Zarni’s interest was focused on Burma’s suffering under military rule and he eventually became the head of the Free Burma Coalition, which was dedicated to overthrowing the junta and promoting democratic rule in Myanmar.
In recent years, Zarni has turned his attention to preventing his own people – Burmese Buddhists – from committing genocide against the Rohingya. It is that quest that brought him to the haunted railroad tracks outside of Auschwitz, which he calls “the dark temple of genocide.”
“In Myanmar, we have taken up a Nazi frame of mind,” said Zarni, “where an entire ethnicity is viewed as ‘pests,’ or ‘leeches,’ who must be expelled.”
‘In Myanmar, we have taken up a Nazi frame of mind.’
Although Zarni and others have been calling this a “genocide” for years, many others have been reluctant to do so. According to international legal scholar and activist Katherine Southwick, “Tepid policies toward Myanmar and the Rohingya betray a deep-seated reluctance to label these crimes as genocide, for fear of subverting the narrative so many in the world have waited for – an enlightened democratic transition. The notion of genocide in Myanmar risks turning the country back into an international pariah, rather than an international darling.”
Zarni has also made video appeals to his own people in Burma, as well as writing and speaking internationally on the issue. He says he is happy to now be talking to the Jewish community about what is happening in Myanmar.
“If anyone would understand what is happening to the Rohingya, it would be you, the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the survivors and their families,” Zarni told The CJN.