At the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon spoke firmly about the responsibility each state has to protect its populations from genocide and other violations of international law. While policymakers know the key factors that animate genocides – including instances of severe ethnic tension, political upheaval, a homogenous ruling elite, and discrimination against minority groups – political actors seldom intervene, often citing practical or political reasons for doing so.  Furthermore, leaders in who contemplate intervention in such situations often oversimplify the complex interplay between religious identities and political notions of citizenship.
An illustrative example at the intersection of religion, politics, and violence is the case of Myanmar. Both the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) rely on ethnic Burmans and extremist Buddhist organizations for electoral support. Accordingly, both parties refuse to comment directly on the persecution of the Rohingyas, a Muslim group living in Rakhine state. Despite immense human rights violations in Myanmar, world leaders have largely deemed Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD as an ally working for a pluralistic democracy.
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Yesterday, the United Nations called upon Suu Kyi “to reflect on the situation and, as she has done on so many occasions, to listen to her ‘inner voice’ and speak directly to the people of Myanmar, asking them to rise above their ethnic, religious and other differences and to advance human dignity, harmony and mutual cooperation between all communities.” World leaders must follow the United Nations’ lead and speak where the NLD has been silent. Policymakers throughout the world have a moral obligation to remedy the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, reframe the international community’s orientation toward religious conflict, and assert the Responsibility to Protect.
Historically, policymakers have often misread the causes, nuances, and implications of religious and political animosity. This misreading occurs partially because of the conflation of politics and religion. For instance, as Gary Sick explained in All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran, Carter administration officials misunderstood the revolution’s deployment of Islam during the Iranian revolution. National security analysts believed that Iranian religious institutions were only a means to mobilize popular support for the uprising, rather than a means to govern sustainably. This misreading guided the administration’s misguided approach to the Iranian revolution, and led it to disregard powerful religious leaders at the local level who helped to carry out the regime’s aims.
Indeed, Myanmar’s leaders’ appeals to religion are far less overt than those of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. But world leaders risk another similar miscalculation if they do not investigate the communal tensions in Myanmar carefully. For example, many ignore the extent to which major parties rely on religious identity to generate political support. As Susan Hayward and Matthew J. Walton argue, one must explore the nuances and “the diversity within Buddhism itself in Myanmar and within each of the country’s religious communities” in order to understand the implications of religious identity for political support.  Most importantly, leaders should examine how threat narratives based on religion can construct politics that condone human rights abuses.
Local Threat Narratives
Researchers from the Myanmar Media and Society project found a pervasive local narrative that presents Islam as an existential threat. Their report noted that these perceptions are reflected by public figures and Buddhist leaders of the 969 movement and MaBaTha who “have mobilized to project an existential threat, in which Buddhism is vulnerable and in need of protection lest it be supplanted by Islam as the majority religion in Myanmar.” The actions and propaganda of nationalist groups normalize the exclusion of Rohingyas from Myanmar’s imagined community.
Muslim minorities are deemed Bengali outsiders and other labels that serve as nationalistic proxies for religious discrimination.
The practice of using national identity as a proxy for religious discrimination is not specific to Myanmar: it is a global phenomenon with varying severity in different historical moments. Such discrimination is significant because violent, exclusionary discourse normalizes acts of discrimination which become progressively worse over time. As the Myanmar Media and Society project reported, the government’s inaction against violent discourse and hate crimes in 2012 and 2013 has led to further abuse.
The Rohingyas’ exclusion from 2015 elections demonstrate how they were systematically silenced in civil society. This explains why intermittent violence, such as the Oct. 12 and the Nov. 14 clashes between armed men and troops violence in western Rakhine state, are increasingly likely. If abuses are not curtailed, a larger crisis becomes inevitable; 140,000 have already been displaced, and hundreds of thousands more innocent lives are at stake.
The international community must invoke the Responsibility to Protect. This is not only a matter of protecting human rights, it is a matter of preserving regional security. When states fail to protect their populations, leaders have the responsibility to take action under the authority of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. This norm is informed by history and the findings and jurisprudence of institutions such as the Nuremberg Trials, the ICTY, and the ICTR. The Responsibility to Protect focuses on the importance of international capacity building in a “timely and decisive manner,” while reframing sovereignty as contingent upon a state’s protection of its citizens.
Disaster is inevitable unless world leaders accept the practical commitments that the Responsibility to Protect requires in Myanmar.
Remedies to the Crisis
Given the NLD’s complicity, the USDP’s history of repression, and Myanmar’s tentative democracy, world leaders must take several steps. First, they should publicly acknowledge that both parties mobilize religious exclusion and demand that Myanmar grant Rohingyas citizenship based upon the U.N. Charter on citizenship and nationality. Recognizing government wrongs would signal that the international community’s alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi will not enable the military to evade pressure, as many Rohingyas now fear.
Moreover, focusing solely on Rakhine extremists and not the political parties would be misguided, precisely because it risks downplaying the political system’s complicity. As the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights noted, regional powers should “raise the issue of state-sponsored persecution of Rohingya at ASEAN Summits and other regional forums, recognizing that the regional implications of the situation in Rakhine State render it more than an internal affair of Myanmar.”
Second, because investing in Myanmar at the moment means that “the West will play a direct role in a slow-motion ethnic apartheid marked by continuing atrocities and discrimination,” states should follow declarations of human rights by conditioning foreign direct investment and aid upon reform. Relatedly, regional leaders, ASEAN, and NGOs should facilitate dialogue among communities in Rakhine province and incentivize participation with microfinancing and developmental aid. This can build relationships and economic interdependence critical for communal stability.
Third, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should work with ASEAN to develop a commission with Myanmar for refugees in Rakhine province. Although Suu Kyi invited Kofi Annan to head a commission like this in August, it was weak; Buddhist nationalists protested and the Rakhine parliament rejected it. This is why an international commission with full U.N. backing should ensure that a process for citizenship registration works, acts of hate violence do not occur, security for the Rohingyas exists, and that other human rights provisions are followed.
Finally, world leaders should demand that the Security Council refer the 2012 and 2013 cases of violence in Rakhine province to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In addition to the practical advantages of invoking ICC jurisdiction – among them, removing violent extremists – an investigation would allow for truth to surface and reconciliation to occur. Additionally, a trial would create important jurisprudence and build upon Kathryn Sikkink’s concept of the “justice cascade” – the result of norm entrepreneurs’ efforts to diffuse justice globally.
Despite widespread adherence to international law, the “justice cascade” slows when politicization prevents protection.
If world leaders ignore the conditions in Myanmar which have led to genocides in the past, they risk transforming the “justice cascade” into a “cascade of contradictions.” World leaders cannot espouse the importance of human rights without invoking the Responsibility to Protect against persecution in Myanmar. The international community cannot be impotent and disinterested in the face of genocide. Given the lessons of the Holocaust, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and many other devastating events, world leaders cannot afford to shirk their responsibility. The stakes are too high.
Benjamin Collinger is a sophomore at Trinity University majoring in International Studies and History, and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Contemporary. Benjamin was a research fellow with the San Antonio Diversity and Inclusion Office, member of the Trinity University Debate team and Vice President of Trinity Diversity Connection. He is interested in international affairs, anti-discrimination law and long-form journalism. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and listening to podcasts. Feel free to follow him @bcstlsa or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.