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s a critical criminologist, I feel impelled to begin talks on the Rohingya with images of the perpetrators of genocide - Aung San Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing. These are the state criminals, these are the genocidaire-in-chiefs. We should never forget that genocide takes place because of decisions made by governments and their military backers.
As my team and I wrote in our 2015 report, “Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar,” genocide is a particular form of state crime that aims to: destroy cooperative social relationships through the elimination of a significant target group within the population; and use the terror of annihilation to create new social relationships and identities among those who survive.
I ground my thoughts and discussion in the fieldwork that my team (Thomas MacManus and Alicia de la Cour Venning) from the International State Crime Initiative and I conducted on Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya. We conducted this fieldwork in Myanmar (primarily in Rakhine state) between 2013-15 and in the Bangladesh refugee camps of Kutupalong, Balukhali, Nayapara and Thankhali in Cox’s Bazar in late October 2017. Temporally these fieldwork sites represent different key stages in the genocide process: in Myanmar we witnessed the concurrent stages of institutionalized and state sponsored stigmatization, isolation and systematic weakening, and in Bangladesh we were confronted with the penultimate stage of the genocide, the human consequences of mass annihilation, and a deeper understanding of the Myanmar government’s continuing campaign of erasure, denial and reorganization in Rakhine state.
My understanding of genocide derives primarily from three theoretical sources: a state crime theoretical framework, the work of Raphael Lemkin, and the conceptualisation of Daniel Feierstein.
My colleague, Tony Ward, and I developed a definition of state crime in order to move beyond what we saw as inadequate legally based definitions. Our definition, “human rights violations perpetrated by state agents in pursuit of a state organisational goal,” assists us in understanding genocide in a number of ways that international law cannot. Our definition moves away from law’s enduring focus on the deviant individual and instead forces attention on the criminality embedded in state structures and organised state practices. It is important to note that state crime is not about individual gratification (though that may be a consequence of state criminality). State crimes and deviant acts are planned and orchestrated because they advance a particular state or government goal which is more difficult or impossible to actualize legitimately. The definition also allows us to understand state crime as a process, not simply as a discrete act of violence or corruption. As such it provides a more nuanced and expansive understanding of state crime which includes those legally prohibited acts of genocide, torture, war crimes, police violence and so on, but also allows us to re-examine less clearly categorized state crimes such as “natural” disasters, attacks on health care systems and the prosecution of war.
For these reasons, and because we recognize both the political nature of genocide and of law (in both constitution and exercise), we do not rely on international or domestic legal definitions. International law is also notoriously and empirically ineffectual in the prevention and punishment of state crime, a fact governments are both well aware of and rely upon. Following our initial research in Myanmar we published a report, Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar in 2015. In 2016 we submitted it to then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and the reply we eventually received from his office was that until a court of law determines it as such, it is not a genocide. When we do see attempts to take genocidal states to court, it is always long after the process has reached its dénouement. In 2019, for example, The Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on grounds of genocide. The ICJ declared that Myanmar must abide by the Genocide Convention and put in place provisional measures to prevent acts of genocide taking place against the Rohingya. These provisional measures are precisely those embodied in the Genocide Convention which Myanmar was already bound to uphold and which it had so flagrantly violated.
We must therefore think very carefully before reifying the law, and recognize its serious limitations in combatting political problems. The commitment to legal solutions is both distracting and disarming when the solutions are so clearly political and economic. Certainly, for the Rohingya, the decision by The Gambia to take Myanmar to the International Court of Justice was a welcome one. It was a recognition that they, the Rohingya, existed and that great harms had been done, but the consequences for Myanmar were nothing more than a reprimand.
Additionally, I draw on the work of Raphael Lemkin, who of course originally defined the term “genocide” and was central to the framing of the Genocide Convention, though he was deeply disappointed in its final form. For him it was the group, rather than individual, nature of victimhood that was critical. Claudia Card, a social theorist of genocide, develops the significance of the group nature of genocidal harm further when she writes about the assault on social vitality and the production of social death that genocide inevitably entails:
Specific to genocide is the harm inflicted on its victims’ social vitality. It is not just that one's group membership is the occasion for harms that are definable independently of one's identity as a member of the group. When a group with its own cultural identity is destroyed, its survivors lose their cultural heritage and may even lose their intergenerational connections.
Finally I want to highlight the seminal work of Daniel Feierstein, an Argentinean scholar of genocide who describes genocide as a staged social practice. The most important point here is that genocide (like all state crimes) needs to be understood as a process. It is not simply an event of spectacular violence or an instance of mass killing. Genocide develops, very often over many years, and sometimes over decades. The genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar was, for example, in process for over 35 years prior to the mass killings witnessed in August 2017 and it seems clear that the Uyghurs have similarly been the target of the Chinese state’s genocidal actions for a very long time.
In identifying the essense of the crime of genocide we need first to return to Lemkin’s original writing:
[G]enocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.
Annihilation can take place in ways other than mass killing, though mass killing is, very frequently, a result of genocidal practices and policies. Mass forced evictions, internments, detention camps, sterilization or state imposed birth control measures and concerted efforts to eliminate a targeted culture may all amount to, or be central components of, genocide. One of the things that Lemkin makes clear, in this quote, is that genocide needs to be planned. It is not something spontaneous. It is not the product of communal violence as it is so frequently (and conveniently) framed by genocidal states as part of their discourse of denial. Genocide, despite the seeming chaos of the violence which may ensue, is both planned and organised by states.
In his September 2017 Nay Pyi Taw address – at the height of the genocidal “clearance operations” that he was commanding – Senior General Min Aung Hlaing suggested that the government was determined to eliminate the Rohingya not only from northern Rakhine state but from the whole of Myanmar:
The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.
A brief comment on the term “cultural genocide.” The term “cultural” genocide suggests that is somehow distinct from “actual” genocide. I disagree. The annihilation of a group culture is in fact integral to the annihilation of the group. It is integral to the genocide process and so the term, from my perspective, is effectively redundant. Rohingya identity was the target of a systematic campaign of elimination in the years leading up to 2017. Mosques were destroyed, Muslim cultural practices denigrated and recast as dangerous to the majority Buddhist population.
The denial of identity found explicit manifestation in Aung San Suu Kyi’s declaration that the word “Rohingya” was not to be used by diplomats inside Myanmar. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi publicly instructed the America ambassador, in 2015, that the word, “Rohingya” was not to be used in any communications. Instead, she declared that Rohingya were to be described as “people who believed in Islam and who live in the Rakhine State.”
The Myanmar state’s 2015 “Protection of Race and Religion Laws” represented another very clear warning of what was to come. These laws harnessed Buddhist fears about Muslim population growth, culture, religion and potential “contagion” by introducing restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversion, outlawing the already outlawed practice of polygamy and providing mechanisms to control reproduction of certain minority groups. Combined, and they were combined for a reason, they represented a formal endorsement on the part of government to stigmatize, monitor and control Muslim cultural and reproductive practice.
In terms of understanding genocide as a process, I draw on Daniel Feierstein’s conceptualised stages not least because I think the first four are critical in raising an alarm and are directly applicable to the Chinese state’s crimes against the Uyghur. They are not, however, simply early warning signals, they are also genocidal in their intent and they are:
4) Systemic Weakening
6) Symbolic Enactment
These stages are given in the order in which they tend to occur, but they often run concurrently. Institutionalized stigmatization, or “othering” a targeted group works to encourage a widespread sensibility that the group is somehow less than human. Dehumanized, it becomes easier to exercise violence against the group. Whether state initiated or state sponsored, once the physical violence begins without repercussions for the perpetrators, a clear permissive message ensures further violence. Increasing violence leads or forces the targeted group into ghettos, isolated communities and camps. In Myanmar’s Rakhine state, mass violence in 2012 against the Rohingya led to them fleeing the capital, Sittwe, and ending up confined in an area which is now a squalid detention camp complex. We have all witnessed news coverage of the overcrowded camps in Bangladesh to which Rohingya fled in 2016-17, but the hidden camps inside Myanmar’s Rakhine State where some 140,000 Rohingya have been languishing since 2012 are places of social death in which people are denied access to doctors, medicines, education and employment.
Once isolated in camps, ghettos (there is one ghetto in Sittwe) and “prison villages,” it is much easier to systematically weaken the group through the denial of their access to fundamental human rights. Following isolation and systematic weakening it becomes much easier to annihilate the group. The desperation of Rohingya in these conditions of confinement and the “bare life” they have been forced to endure has led tens of thousands to flee on dangerous, trafficker-organized sea journeys in the hope of finding asylum in safe countries.
Finally I want to consider genocide’s final stage of symbolic enactment, its ultimate goal. Although commonly understood as such, mass annihilation is not the final stage of genocide. The final stage, what Feierstein describes as symbolic enactment, is ultimately about denial. It is about the destruction of the old society (the society which included/embraced the eliminated group) and the rebuilding of the new, now in the absence of the eliminated group; it is about state destruction of criminal evidence; it is about the eradication of the group from state history; it is about the creation of a new society through demographic change (the repopulation of formerly Muslim areas with Buddhist communities, the building of security facilities on the remains of Muslim villages; the building of Buddhist temples and so on). The following image of Inn Din Village in Maungdaw Northern Rakhine State is illustrative:
Inn Din was a mixed Rohingya and Rakhine village. The structures on the left of the image are Rakhine Buddhist homes. The Rohingya lived in houses on the right of the picture, all of which were destroyed in 2017. What you now see are Rakhine homes where they have always stood surrounded by trees, and where once Rohingya lived, newly built red roofed state security facilities. The Rohingya community has been erased, and evidence of their past lives replaced symbolically and materially with the power of the Myanmar state.
These genocidal processes are not just about the actions of the state; they also involve civil society. Civil society was the focus of the first research project I conducted inside Myanmar, in 2012. During that fieldwork my team and I first learned about the state persecution of Rohingya in Rakhine State. There is a tendency to think of civil society as being a noble human rights based enterprise, ultimately a force for good, and of course that is sometimes true. But in our research, we discovered that often civil society could be a dangerous force for reaction. In Myanmar, that was certainly the case. The Rohingya were completely isolated and denied the protection and advocacy of human rights activists inside the country. Had Aung San Suu Kyi been true to her proclaimed commitment to democracy and human rights (and not the racist military-loving politician she proved to be) the situation facing the Rohingya might have been very different. Civil society was effectively captured by the military regime and by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The Rohingya were thought of and perceived in terms of the stigmatization I discussed earlier. All of the racial stereotypes that are used against Muslims inside the country were applied to them: they were labeled as a potential terrorist force, sexual predators, illegal Bengali immigrants and business monopolizers. Civil society and ultranationalist monks spearheaded these hate campaigns.
So what might we learn from this brief analysis of the Rohingya genocide in thinking about how to address the situation of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang?
States have demonstrated very clearly that they will not take responsibility for dealing with genocide. One of the reasons lies in the consequences of naming “genocide.” States will not use the term “genocide” until there is no possibility for them not to use it, and that has, in almost every case, been years or decades after the end of the genocide process. Once states use the term and accept that genocide is taking place, they are under an obligation, according to the Genocide Convention, to intervene to prevent and to punish. The second element (to punish) is much easier for states to accommodate because it is always long after the process of genocide has reached its peak. States have historically shown themselves to have no interest at all in intervening to prevent genocide. This also speaks to some problematic decisions that some of the major international NGOs have taken. Amnesty International, for example, continues to describe Myanmar as an apartheid state. Human Rights Watch describe Myanmar’s genocide as crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing because they, themselves, have strong relationships with states and corporations with certain geo-political interests.
Both this question of terminology and the other points I made above remind us again that civil society is not an unproblematic force. Here we should recall how Antonio Gramsci articulated the relationship between civil society and hegemonic power and the ambiguity of the civil society space. Nonetheless civil society remains the most powerful site of political intervention when challenging the genocidal process. And part of the reason for appreciating the stages of genocide is that they provide us key moments of intervention. It is one of the reasons why, when we see the exclusionary treatment that our own government affords asylum seekers, alarm bells should ring. Institutionalized stigmatization, itself a state crime, is generally a precursor of even greater harms. Despite the problematic nature of civil society, we only know about what is going on in places like Xinjiang and Rakhine State because of the forces of civil society, because of the monitoring, advocacy, exposure and censuring engaged in by international and domestic NGOs, independent journalism and academic research. The recognition of genocide must also come with a strategy for its elimination.
One of the most effective mechanisms that civil society has within its power is to demand targeted sanctions, boycotts and divestment strategies against those who engage in and profit from a genocide. In relation to corporations and governments, we would do well to examine the impact of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and the violent response that Israel has initiated against peaceful BDS activists, and against the BDS movement in general, to see just how effective those campaigns can be.
These are just some of the lessons that emerge from our detailed study of Myanmar’s annihilation of the Rohingya. Every genocide has its own specificities, but to prevent the Uyghur confronting the final horrifying elimination stage of genocide. a unified struggle which brings Rohingya and Uyghur activists together is an important beginning.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Facebook post, 2 September 2017.
Penny Green is Professor of Law and Globalization, Head of the School of Law and Founder/Director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University of London. Her books include State Crime: Governments, Violence and Corruption and State Crime and Civil Activism. In 2015 she and her ISCI colleagues Thomas MacManus and Alicia de la Cour Venning published the seminal Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar and in 2018 published, Genocide Achieved, Genocide Continues.