The Slow Genocide of (Myanmar’s) Rohingyas: Interview with Dr Zarni

ASIA--PACIFIC, 29 Dec 2014

Basfin Siregar - GATRA National News

19 Dec 2014 – He spoke loudly, full of energy. That’s Maung Zarni, 51-year old. He held a doctorate degree in political science from University of Wisconsin, U.S, and is one of the very few Buddhist intellectuals from Myanmar who dares to speak bluntly about the condition of Rohingya.

Zarni, who founded Free Burma Coalition (1994), did not hesitate to point fingers to generals in Myanmar’s regime, accusing them of crime against humanity toward the Rohingya. Such accusation is not without consequences. He already fled from Burma due to safety concerns. For the past seven years he lived in London, becoming a visiting fellow at London School of Economics. 

Last November, together with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Zarni spoke in an international conference on Rohingya in Harvard University, discussing the fate of 1, 3 million Rohingya now still reside in Myanmar.

This December he came to Indonesia on the invitation of University of Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta (UMY). He gave a public lecture at UMY, visited the Borobudur temple, had a meeting with members of Indonesia Buddhist Association (Walubi), members of Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), and also with members of Committee I of Indonesian House of Representatives – the committee which handles defense and foreign policy.

Last Thursday [18 Dec 2014], the man who married a British woman visited Gatra and had a discussion with members of the editorial board for more than three hours. Here are the excerpts:

How do you view the problem of Rohingya refugees?

The Rohingyas are experiencing a slow genocide. I need to explain to you about this term, because it’s easily misunderstood. Genocide is not about the numbers of people being killed. Genocide happens when a group of people is killed because of their race, religion, ethnicity or other identity.

For example I want to kill all of you Indonesians. I don’t know whether you are a good or bad person. But although you’re a good person, it’s not relevant. I want to kill you because you’re Indonesian. Now, can you become non-Indonesian? Of course you can’t. The identity of Indonesia is already attached to you. So you are killed because a identity which you cannot change.

Is that your definition of genocide?

I’s the definition of 1948 UN convention about Genocide. In that convention there are several characteristics of genocide. First, you kill a group of people because of their identity. Secondly, you hurt or torture that group of people, so it’s not always about killing. And thirdly, which is relevant with the Rohingya, you deliberately create a condition with the purpose of systematically destroy that group of people.

Isn’t there a real conflict between Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist population in Myanmar?

That’s the mistake of many journalists. They framed the Rohingya conflict as religious conflict, or conflict between communities. They failed to see the important factor, which is the organization of the conflict. The violence toward Rohingyas is organized, launched by the regime.

Can you give an example?

I lived for 25 years in Myanmar, graduated from University of Mandalay. I came from an educated family. My mother was a teacher, and my father was a college graduate. But for my 25 years living in Myanmar, I have never heard the word ‘Rohingya’. That word doesn’t exist in history books, on radio or TV programmes. There’s not even a single poetry contains the word Rohingya. The word we have is Bengali, Bangladeshi immigrants living near Myanmar’s border. About 10 years ago I even still don’t know the word ‘Rohingya’. When I met a Rohingya activist in overseas conference I usually said to myself, ‘Oh, he is a Bengali.’

So how did you come to know the word Rohingya?

I only know it after leaving Myanmar, after I was no longer exposed to regime’s propaganda. After I left, I realized that the regime deliberately omitted the word ‘Rohingya’ from any text available. Such a systematic destruction is an appalling characteristic that genocide has happened.

Can you explain what the systematic destruction is like?

Let’s go back to history. Before Myanmar became a military junta, Myanmar was led by U Nu, the first prime minister in 1948. At that time the word Rohingya was already used to describe the people living on Myanmar’s border. Indonesia might still remember U Nu, because he and President Soekarno –Indonesia’s first president– was active in Asia-Africa Conference in 1955.

But in 1956 the junta took power. They considered Rohingya a threat to security and national identity. The destruction began in 1974. The junta issued Immigration Act which deliberately excluded Rohingya. A census was conducted, but the Rohingya were excluded. The Rohingya were instantly, on the spot, considered illegal immigrants. Then the Citizenship Act 1982. The bill does not recognize Rohingya as one of 134 ethnics in Myanmar. I know several people who formulated the citizenship act 1982, whom most of them were already dead. They told me that they deliberately exclude Rohingya from the list of recognized ethnics.

What about know? Does systematic destruction still occur?

Until now if there were Rohingyas able to enter university, they are not allow to take medical and engineering department. It resulted in a very imbalance doctors-patient ratio in Rohingya. In Myanmar, the average ratio is 1 doctor for 700-1000 patients. For Rohingya, the ratio is 1 doctor for 13.000 patients. The child mortality in Rohingya is very high, higher than the national average. This is an attempt to control the population. Rohingya are also only allowed to have two children. But such restriction does not apply to other ethnics. They also cannot move from their location, must get permission from officials to get married. These regulations are very much alike the regulations issued by Nazi toward Jews in 1930ies. This is genocide.

Why do you think the regime chose a slow-genocide, instead of quick-genocide?

This tactic has proved effective. If it’s working, why you want to change it? The propaganda has caused the general public opinion to shift against Rohingya. By labeling them as illegal immigrants, the regime said to ASEAN that this is Myanmar’s domestic affairs. They said, ‘You yourself have a problem with illegal immigrants, don’t you?’  But genocide is not a domestic affair. What truly happens, the regime has learned that they can subcontract genocide to a certain group in society. The regime doesn’t need to take care it themselves.

How do you view the role of ASEAN, especially Indonesia, in this matter?

Indonesia has quite an influence in ASEAN. But I can tell you one thing. I spoke to a former Indonesian foreign minister and he told me that Indonesia in fact lobbied OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) so that OIC does not pressure Myanmar too hard on Rohingya issues.

Do you think the regime managed to play the economic cards, especially on Myanmar’s natural resources?

This is a smart regime. How many years Soeharto managed to stay in power? Only 32 years. These generals were in power since 1962 and they are now still in power. The slow-genocide tactic proved effective. The regime even seemed to already switch to ‘auto pilot’ with this tactic. Now Myanmar opens up to foreign investment and even United States ended sanctions against Myanmar without any conditions, which I think was a mistake.

How do we position Aung San in this issue?

Aung San is already inside the pockets of the generals. The regime spreads rumor that Aung San’s driver is a Muslim, that the identity of a Buddhist can only be secured if the generals are in power. As a moral icon, Aung San has already fallen.

Do you know any recent updates about the situation of Rohingya?

About four weeks ago several NGOs which track the movement of Rohingyas on the ground reported that about 10.000 Rohingyas already left by boats. What’s frightening is there is no news after that. What happened to them? Where did they land? For the past four weeks, not a single country reporting any sight of Rohingya boat refugees? So where are they now? I can only imagine that in such a vast sea, with poor boats, 10.000 people are merely a dot. They might have drowned and we don’t even know.


Maung Zarni, Associate Fellow, the University of Malaya. Dr. Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press. He was educated in the US where he lived and worked for 17 years. Visit his website


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Dec 2014.

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