Nevertheless, the international community remains hesitant to unanimously call out the actions of the Myanmar government for what they truly are. There is a precedent for this lack of moral clarity. In Syria, the Assad regime and its allies in Russia and Iran have largely succeeded in shaping global perceptions into the belief that the conflict is at best a counter-terrorism matter, or at worst a fight between several sides of equal culpability.
Many Western readers of the press today would tell you that they view the death and destruction in Syria as being part of the fight against Daesh. Very few would remember that the Assad regime bore sole culpability for launching a systematic campaign to wipe out large swaths of the country for having the temerity to call for human rights and dignity.
This precedent has now enabled the Myanmar government to use familiar rhetorical obfuscation. That regime uses helicopters and mass torchings of Rohingya villages, just as the Assad regime began dropping barrel bombs, thermobaric weapons, and missiles on towns, villages, and hospitals. And just as Assad and his international backers succeeded in shifting the narrative, the Myanmar government is attempting to draw a picture in which the Buddhists are simply protecting themselves against “terrorists,” while completely ignoring the catastrophic humanitarian crisis of hundreds of thousands being forced from their homes as a result.
Are there militants in Myanmar? Absolutely. But without a doubt, as many international analysts have observed, the government’s disproportionate response is only going to lead to more radicalization and eventually will lead to a self fulfilling prophecy in which the most extreme of the militants survive and eventually expand. Assad successfully employed such a strategy in Syria by allowing Daesh and Al-Qaeda to metastasize while imprisoning or killing off the leaders of unarmed civilian grassroots groups.
The government-backed death squads in Myanmar are acting with impunity as the world stands aside and watches. Indeed, the military leaders of Myanmar have gone so far as to justify vigilante justice as simply being a case of self-preservation of Buddhist communities. In their rationale, the Myanmar military and Aung San Suu Kyi are outlining the very definition of genocide; wiping out an ethno-religious community en masse out of ideological desire to maintain ethnic purity in one’s state.
Just as in Syria, in the name of ‘security’ the worst of humanity is unleashed on the most vulnerable while the world stands by and watches.
Just as in Syria, genocide in Myanmar began at a low boil and rose in a gradual crescendo to the unprecedented level of violence and slaughter we are currently witnessing. Just with all genocides, from Rwanda to Srebrenica, the warning signs were there for all to see beforehand.
One can easily imagine how the humanitarian catastrophe that has befallen the Rohingya will one day lead to much larger security woes in the region, with broader destabilization consequences. Sadly, years from now the pundits will look upon this pivotal moment and ask why nothing was done while there was time. The echoes of Syria, and its tragedy, are repeating themselves all over again — only this time in south east Asia.
If only we had learned from the lessons that recent history offered us. It does not take a Nobel prize to understand how the worst that humanity has to offer can be unleashed against the most vulnerable while cloaking the horror in a thin veneer of “legitimacy.” The formula for genocide does not vary much.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a Fellow in New America’s International Security Program. He is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic consultant specializing in technology, energy and Arabian Gulf security. Twitter: @OS26