UN and the Four-Word Mantra for Myanmar Genocide Survivors


Maung Zarni – Prothom Alo [Bangladesh]

Rohingya Refugees – File photo

19 Jun 2018 – “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” George Orwell observed, in the middle of the 20th century, about the interlinked world of propaganda and realpolitik (for instance, BBC and the British politics) in which the colonial-police-officer-cum-renowned-writer was so thoroughly immersed.

I have no doubt in my mind that Orwell would simply repeat his incisive observation about the global humanitarian policy discourses surrounding today’s Myanmar – where Orwell served as a member of the British Imperial Police Force in the pre-WWII years.  Specifically, the now mainstreamed policy mantra of “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable” repatriation fits the bill of such deceptive political language.

On 6 June, the two UN agencies, UNHCR and UNDP, inked a secretive deal to repatriate Rohingya survivors of two major waves of violent deportation in 2016 and 20 17, across Myanmar’s national borders onto Bangladesh’s sovereign soil.

The 2017 wave of deportation has since become the subject of international legal debate as the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) frames it as an ICC-worthy legal crime against humanity while Myanmar state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi portrays it as simply yet another outcome of “centuries old historical conflicts” between Buddhists and Muslims in Western Myanmar.

It is understandable – if not conscionable- for Suu Kyi, as Myanmar’s most popular politician, to spin in order to placate her political base of 50 million anti-Rohingya racists.  However, it is nothing short of Orwellian – deceitful, deceptive and disingenuous – for Knut Ostby, the Norwegian head of the UN in Myanmar, to play along with Suu Kyi’s acts of obfuscation and, more importantly, Myanmar’s ‘s deceptive scheme of return and reception of Rohingyas.

Against the backdrop of ICC’s 11 June deadline for Bangladesh’s ‘yes or no’ answer regarding cooperation and support for ICC investigation into the neighbour’s crime of mass deportation of 700,000+ Rohingyas, Suu Kyi’s National Security Advisor Thaung Tun, former translator for the retired despot General Than Shwe, was telling the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that Myanmar was prepared to take all those who fled to Bangladesh, (as the direct result of the Burmese military’s “ethnic cleansing” in August 2017).

Empty rhetoric notwithstanding, the Suu Kyi-led government with whom UN signed the Memorandum of Understanding regarding the return of people – whose name cannot be mentioned in any official communications – has only shown its resolve to erase even the group’s identity and remove their rights as human beings and irrefutable entitlement to full and equal citizenship as an ethnic minority integral to the post-independence Union of Burma.

As the New York Times (7 May 2016) and the Washington Post (17 June 2018) reported, Suu Kyi herself is party to the process of erasing Rohingyas’ pre-colonial and pre-Burma existence in their own ancestral land of Northern Arakan or Rakhine.

In light of these developments, the four adjectives – voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable – sounds like a cruel joke to Rohingya refugees, who witnessed and survived atrocious crimes that Myanmar has committed – and under Suu Kyi’s watch since October 2016.   Indeed, the UN agencies are now a party to Myanmar’s scheme of deception by which one million humans of whom one third are children – add another 80,000 infants from pregnancies that resulted from the mass ‘rape by command’ by Myanmar troops during the so-called “security clearance operations” – are given yet another false hope of normalcy, peace, and safety in their homelands of Western Myanmar.

Let’s take a look at the four adjectives that have come to be the pillars of UN policy mantra.

The word “voluntary” leads the scheme that can only be described as deceitful.  To start with, readers, or more accurately, “hearers” of the phantom MOU, which include even UN officials in Yangon NOT directly involved in signing, could only speculate what might be in the document that will inevitably have inter-generational consequences for 1 million humans. How is their return going to be “voluntary” while their opinions, concerns, fears or wishes were never solicited by either Knut Ostby and his UN team or Myanmar officials or by the leaders?

The second adjective “safe” is even more troubling.  The two UN agencies that signed the deal with Myanmar’s Suu Kyi-led government on 6 June have long proven absolutely unequipped to make either the process of repatriation or that of rehabilitation and reconstruction of lives and communities, safe once Rohingyas are in their homelands – killing fields, only nine months ago.

UNHCR, which has been involved in Rohingya refugee affairs since 1978 when the first wave of Rohingya exodus resulted from the military’s violent expulsion of a quarter million Rohingyas, has a well-documented record of failure – they looked the other way when Rohingya refugees were pressurised in previous return schemes to accept repatriation back into the then Burma where conditions were anything but safe.

Less than a year ago, the UN was forced to recall its senior most official in Myanmar, Renata Renata Lok-Dessallien, amidst international outcry against her privileging cordial ties with Myanmar rulers for economic development while shelving unpalatable pro-human rights recommendations.

The newly signed MOU ought to stress the need for demilitarisation of North Rakhine’s “killing fields,” mustering a coalition of regional and international security units, and the emphasis on state responsibility with respect to the “responsibility to protect Rohingyas,” as well as other concrete measures to establish physical safety of the survivor community, upon return to their former homes in the now charred and bulldozed plains of North Rakhine.  And there is absolutely no indication that UN was pressing Myanmar on the international protection of Rohingyas as an ethnic group, beyond creating ‘safe conditions’ and job creation through private investment.

“Dignified”?   What is so dignified about the return scheme which was drawn up and agreed upon by UN career bureaucrats and Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya leaders as if Rohingyas were 19th century African families, torn apart, traumatised and helpless humans, auctioned, bought or sold in a Boston slave market?  It would be one worth for Rohingyas to tolerate having been treated in the most dehumanising way in the production of the MOU.

UN bureaucrats may have done the misdeed with their (presumed) good humanitarian intentions, if the end product is the restoration of their full and equal citizenship as members of the persecuted ethnic group. But the buzzing spin of “pathway to citizenship” along which the perpetrating State of Myanmar will ultimately decide on which individual returnees will be gifted with the privilege of the lowest of the existing three-tiered Myanmar citizenship is not an act of dignified return, but a continuation of UN-assisted insults to the injury that Rohingyas have long suffered both as human individuals and as an ethnic group.

And then there is the fourth and final adjective of “sustainable” return.   And the UN wants the world to believe that the return scheme is going to be sustainable.  The scheme, which is obviously not designed to induce “voluntariness” by its complete exclusion of Rohingyas in the process, cannot guarantee ‘safety’ or offer the ‘dignity’ of having basic human rights and full and equal citizenship in the country.  After all, Rohingya are the subjects of UN’s deal with the country where they have overwhelmingly been rejected by all segments of state and society (armed forces, political parties and the representative parliament, the racist Buddhist public and the Buddhist clergy).

To hazard a guess, the MOU of invisibility only concerns those one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, not their compatriots – estimated at about five million – who are being gradually starved out, as UN Assistant Secretary General for human rights Andrew Gilmour observed pointedly after his visit to Rakhine several months ago.

No policy mantra, however brilliantly crafted and globally promulgated, will address the root cause behind the decades-old tragedy of Rohingyas.  In his “opening statement and global update of human rights concerns at 38th session of the Human Rights Council” on 18 June, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein unequivocally described what has driven 1 million Rohingyas out of their homelands in Western Myanmar.  In Zeid’s words: “there are clear indications of well-organised, widespread and systematic attacks continuing to target the Rohingyas in Rakhine State as an ethnic group, amounting possibly to acts of genocide if so established by a court of law.”

Given the genocidal nature of persecution, Rohingyas need a protected return to a protected homeland until such a time as Myanmar is prepared to re-embrace them as a national minority and restore their full and equal citizenship, which they verifiably enjoyed. Until then, not simply Myanmar’s perpetrators in power but UN officials and international policy makers will also be seen as Orwellian.


A Buddhist humanist from Burma, Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, former Visiting Lecturer with Harvard Medical School, specializing in racism and violence in Burma and Sri Lanka, and Non-resident Scholar in Genocide Studies with Documentation Center – Cambodia.  His analyses have appeared in leading newspapers including the New York Times, The Guardian and the Times. Among his academic publications on Rohingya genocide are The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal), An Evolution of Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar: From Strategic Embrace to Genocide, (Middle East Institute, American University), and Myanmar’s State-directed Persecution of Rohingyas and Other Muslims (Brown World Affairs Journal, forthcoming). He holds a PhD (U Wisconsin at Madison) and a MA (U California), and has held various teaching, research and visiting fellowships at the universities in Asia, Europe and USA including Oxford, LSE, UCL Institute of Education) , National-Louis, Malaya, and Brunei. He is the recipient of the “Cultivation of Harmony” award from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (2015).

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