Democracy Lab

Preventing the Next Genocide

Burma's Rohingya minority could fall victim to full-scale genocide if the international community doesn't intervene.

In conflicts that have potential to produce the worst of human atrocities, states and international actors must take action to identify the precursors of mass killing and stop it from ever happening. That's precisely what is needed now in western Burma, where the Rohingya minority faces attacks so violent that state crime experts fear a full-on genocide is in the making. The Muslim minority, numbering around 1 million, shares the state with Rakhine Buddhists, who consider them to be illegal Bengali immigrants. The Burmese government, which shares this view, denies them citizenship as well as limiting their access to education and healthcare. Organized mob violence in late March, which wrecked the entire aid infrastructure serving 140,000 displaced Rohingya, was only the latest in a series of incidents in recent months that qualify as one of five commonly accepted indicators of a genocide.

The Burmese government's apparent reluctance to intervene in the situation -- it took the state three weeks and persistent warnings to allow some aid groups to return -- should be of pressing international concern. It signals a disregard for the lives of hundreds of thousands of people that can only be influenced by strong global condemnation.

The violence of late March was clearly planned, as were the resultant effects: The mobs effectively cut off access to life-saving medicine, destroyed warehouses storing food donations, and dismantled boats and vehicles used to transport those donations to Rohingya camps. The attackers clearly intended to sever the assistance on which displaced Rohingya rely. In the aftermath, aid workers have reported dozens of preventable deaths just three weeks after the attack, showing that victims of persecution can be made to suffer as effectively by indirect assaults on the support systems as by direct physical attack. (The photo above shows an injured Rohingya woman whose doctor is unable to help her due to a lack of medicine and medical equipment.)

For the Rohingya, deprivation of food and aid, rendered more powerful by isolation, has received little domestic sympathy. But this attack marks the start of a dangerous process: Those Rakhine complicit in the violence have signaled that Rohingya aren't worthy of the essential support mechanisms that a highly vulnerable population requires for its survival. The significance of this dehumanization process isn't just known to academics and political leaders -- it is felt by all involved, on both sides. And it is one stop on the path, short or long, to genocide.

In April, the government, with funding from the United Nations, carried out Burma's first census in more than 20 years. But the project was marred by reports that the census enumerators required Rohingya to identify as Bengali, or otherwise would not count them at all. Both options entailed denial of the ethnic group's existence.

The campaign of vilification is nothing new. Two major pogroms were carried out in 1978 and 1992, each time pushing more than 200,000 Burmese Muslims into Bangladesh. Dhaka has refused to register the vast majority as refugees and therefore provide them with assistance, fearful that doing so would act as a pull factor for those in Rakhine State now denied basic human rights. Thus, those Rohingya who have fled Burma since the first major wave of violence in June 2012 have largely done so by boat, with hundreds drowning. Local media, politicians, and Buddhist monks have been active in circulating vitriolic rhetoric to dehumanize the group. Burma's former consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, referred to the minority in 2009 as "ugly as ogres," while a headline in the popular domestic Weekly Eleven in June 2012 described Rohingya as "prowling around" outside the Rakhine capital of Sittwe. The inference is clear: When an Associated Press journalist last year requested that her government minder arrange an interview with Rohingya, the minder asked why she wanted to meet with "dogs."

The dehumanization process changes the mind of the perpetrators of genocide. The Rakhine may not know that they are at deploying a common tactic that often precedes, and helps normalize, mass killing: the depiction of minority groups as animals. We saw this in Rwanda, when the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines station repeatedly called on Hutus to "exterminate the cockroaches," and we are seeing signs of it now in Burma. Dehumanization allows humans to overcome their normal revulsion towards murder. As Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, who escaped the noose at Nuremberg, commented on historic incidences of mass killing: "In such periods there are always only a very few who do not succumb [to complicity in genocidal crimes]. But when it is all over, everyone, horrified, asks 'For heaven's sake, how could I?'" The Burmese state has had decades to "rationalize" violence against Rohingya. An editorial in the November 2012 issue of the influential Rakhine Nationalities Development Party's magazine, the Progress, commented on the violence between Rohingya and Rakhine communities: "In order for a country's survival ... crimes against humanity or inhuman acts may justifiably be committed as with Hitler and the Holocaust.... We will go down in history as cowards if we pass on these issues [Rohingya] to the next generation without getting it over and done with."

Racist talk is part of racist action. In January, the U.N. reported that a massacre of 40 Rohingya men, women, and children in the northern Rakhine state town of Maungdaw was carried out by Buddhist mobs, assisted by Burmese security forces. The government repeatedly denied the massacre and has sought to take punitive action against witnesses. When the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) went public about its treatment of 22 survivors, the government took immediate action and expelled the NGO from the state. This has had long-term repercussions: MSF, the largest provider of healthcare to displaced Rohingya, was not among the NGOs allowed to return to Rakhine state at the end of April. The group was the lead provider of medical care in Rakhine State, with a patient count of around 700,000. It estimated that in the three weeks after its expulsion, 25,000 consultations were not carried out. The effects of this loss of healthcare were acutely compounded by the destruction of food stocks in late March. Signs of starvation are clear.

Rohingya in and around Sittwe are confined to camps and barricaded ghettos, surrounded by a population that, spurred on by influential politicians and monks, has been vocal about its wish to maintain these segregationist measures -- if not to force the Rohingya out of the country altogether. Even President Thein Sein in July 2012 has unsuccessfully asked for U.N. help in resettling the entire Rohingya population abroad.

The situation has been allowed to fester -- and actively encouraged -- for too long. What were once horrible but sporadic bursts of violence have become sustained and deeply sinister. The government has done little to help and much to harm the conditions in Rakhine state. It has rendered the Rohingya stateless, impeded aid, failed to punish perpetrators of violence and hate-speech, and thereby created an environment that allows violence to flourish. But all the while, it maintains the pretense that the mobs are operating on their own whim, and that the violence is purely communal. The tactic is familiar to state crime scholars: Policies are devised by leaders at the top, and delivered by those on the ground, with the puppeteer's strings rarely visible. Now tensions are at a point where even small disputes are erupting into mass violence, with attacks on Rohingya occurring because of who they are, and not what they have done. All leaders in Burma must know that this is the mental state that enables genocide. And they also must know that once the genocidal mindset is free to act, it is rarely possible to stop, save by another greater force.

Sadly, however, Burma's leaders, across the spectrum, have remained silent. In a BBC interview last year, Aung San Suu Kyi commented that "Muslim power is very great" around the world, and referred to the "many moderate Muslims in Burma who have been well integrated into our society." This suggests that she, too, considers Muslims a foreign presence. Despite her substantial leverage, the Nobel Laureate has not given voiced opposition to the violence. She is playing the long game, and risks losing support from voters if they believe she is attempting to heal the rifts between Muslims and Buddhists. The international community, meanwhile, is all talk. Though the United Nations was the first to cite the involvement of national security forces in the Maungdaw massacre in January, it has yet to sanction Burma in any way. It maintains its invitation to Burma to send troops around the world as U.N. peacekeepers, a questionable move to begin with, given the ongoing conflict in the northern and eastern borderlands.

Next year marks the 20-year anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. That genocide was forecast from within the United Nations by the non-aligned group leader Diego Arria, who forced his way into Srebrenica. There he discovered that the international community had misrepresented the seriousness of the situation there, laying bare its unwillingness or inability to act. In 1993, he spoke of a slow-motion genocide. Two years later, the state's army killed over 8,000 men and boys in the course of two days. The international community avoids telling the truth of what happened for fear of having to bow its head in shame at its failure to prevent what had been foreseen. Will this be the lot of today's United Nations? Are thousands of unknowing Rohingya doomed to join the 8,000 souls of Srebrenica as forgettable victims of international indifference?

All Burma's politicians must put electioneering aside to finally address the criminal killing of a significant section of Burma's population. To do nothing -- to fail to join hands on this issue and remedy those minds that are already turning to violence -- would be to risk complicity in the world's worst crime.

Andre Malerba/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Putin's Assault on Civil Society Continues

Russian civil society organizations are actually doing a remarkable job of fighting back against discriminatory legislation. But a new bill presented to parliament sends an ominous signal.

Last week, as international attention toward Russia was focused on its belligerence in Ukraine, a member of the Russian parliament introduced a draft amendment to the current law on nongovernment organizations that largely escaped the notice of Western media. The potential impact on Russian NGOs is substantial. After the Kremlin passed a notorious 2012 law that compelled a wide range of organizations to register under the sinister-sounding label of "foreign agent," the country's civil society has resisted with admirable solidarity, and not a single organization has complied. The new amendment, if passed, would allow the government to simply place groups on a "foreign agents" list by fiat.

This latest initiative by the Russian government serves as a reminder that, even as the international community is scrambling to respond to Moscow's aggressive behavior in Ukraine, the Kremlin has been equally aggressive in cracking down on domestic political freedoms. This week marks two years since Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency, and the intervening period has coincided with a wave of unprecedented official hostility toward civil society. (In the photo above, protesters hold fake prison bars to mark the two-year anniversary of the Bolotnaya Square arrests.) Since the annexation of Crimea, Putin has intensified the domestic crackdown. Draconian new legislation in numerous areas, ranging from Russia's cultural policies to expanded control over the Internet, poses grave new challenges to Russian civil society.

Last month, a group of NGO leaders, donors, and journalists discussed the worsening environment at a recent conference convened by the Salzburg Global Seminar. Two fundamental and interrelated challenges dominated the discussion. First, it is still very difficult for Russian NGOs to reach broad segments of the population, who remain mired in a submissive and paternalistic relationship with the state. Second, the NGOs are struggling to cope with deepening levels of repression against Russians seeking the active exercise of their rights as citizens.

The Russian people commonly think of government officials as corrupt and self-seeking and don't believe in the prospect of positive change. Over centuries of Russian and Soviet history, Russians have tended to adapt to the ruthless demands and unfair practices of the government. According to Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a large segment of Russian society -- as much as 80 percent in some public opinion surveys -- routinely indicate, year after year, that "ordinary people cannot influence decision-making in the country." The Russian people expect to be cheated or treated unfairly by their government: In surveys conducted from 2004 to 2012, more than 70 percent said they do not feel protected from abuse by the police and other law enforcement agencies. Yet most also continue to believe in the greatness of the Russian state, says Lipman. Pride in the greatness of the state helps them to overcome their grievances for the sake of the greater good.

The annexation of Crimea and the accompanying rise in patriotic fervor illustrate this phenomenon and reinforce the traditional relationship between the government and the masses. For civil society groups and activists, reaching this part of the population is particularly difficult due to the dwindling space for independent media and free expression. In recent weeks, even previously unaffected Internet-based publications have come under threat.

Insatiable in its desire for control, the Russian state wants to be the only source of funding for media and NGOs. The message from the government to civil society is simple, says Russian journalist and publisher Sergei Parkhomenko: "Mine will be the only hand that feeds you. Otherwise you will starve." His presentation, which drew parallels between the Russian state's methods for taking over independent media outlets and those it employs against civil society, was one of the high points of the conference.

The current attack on Dozhd television -- the last remaining independent TV news provider -- bears striking similarities to the state's takeover of independent media outlets such as NTV or Itogi magazine in 2000 and 2001. To gain control, the state pressured the owners of the media outlets and their advertisers, bringing them to the brink of bankruptcy. This paved the way for factions close to the Kremlin to seize control. Now, the Russian state is employing similar methods against NGOs in an effort to deprive them of any independent sources of funding.

Over the last two years, the Russian state has sought to delegitimize assistance from foreign donors with onerous new laws and intrusive audits, while simultaneously increasing Russian government funding for NGOs. Many NGOs that had relied largely on international donors -- and particularly those involved in providing social services -- have started to receive a more substantial level of support from the Russian government. The concern that NGOs may lose their independence led some to ask worrying questions: Will NGOs be reduced to solely providing social services? Will they essentially become another extension of the state?

Such a categorically dire prognosis may be a bit of an exaggeration. To date, no Russian NGOs have registered as foreign agents -- and, what's more, some NGOs that have challenged the law in the courts have met success. Numerous appeals in important cases, such as one from the human rights center Memorial, are still pending resolution. Take the vote monitoring the organization Golos, for example: Despite facing a fierce legal and rhetorical onslaught, the NGO remains extremely active. In April 2014, it monitored several local races (including a mayoral race won by an opposition candidate) and publicized its work.

In the face of unrelenting legal and societal pressure, new groups continue to experiment with different formats and strategies. For example, Russian online activists have organized various informal networks to support local initiatives and expose corruption and injustice through social media. One such group, the "Dissernet," uses crowdsourcing techniques to research and analyze signs of plagiarism in the dissertations of prominent persons, including Duma deputies, ministers, governors, and university professors. Such initiatives promote accountability and transparency and attract considerable interest, while rejecting the formal structure of NGOs. Another new initiative is the platform that provides training and crowdsourcing resources for grassroots initiatives in Russia's regions. Such informal groups are very different from the established NGOs; one conference participant dubbed them the "rebellious and ungrateful teenage children" of the established NGOs.

Despite these differences in attitudes and methods between the older, more established NGOs that tend to focus on social services and the newer, often ad hoc groups that work on politically sensitive issues, the biggest challenges facing all Russian NGOs are the same. Until they can overcome their government's sustained campaign against the development of an independent civil society and an actively civic-minded populace, all Russian NGOs will struggle to gain public trust and the power to make true progress toward their goals.