Four years ago, as I sat in a cozy coffee shop writing a Huffington Post entry on the Syrian Civil War that remains depressingly relevant today, people died in Syria. They died for no crime other than that of being more powerless than their executioners. They died, and the world did nothing. Our country did nothing. As masked men strode through Houla and Idlib and Homs and Latakia, as they raped wives and murdered husbands and pressed cold guns against the soft hair of children whom parents had coddled only a small while before, the world watched. That it’s in human nature to push a pistol against a child’s head and to squeeze the trigger is terrifying. Yet this is happening today—right now—as I sit typing this new entry in a new coffee shop, privileged, and as you sit reading my words.
Shortly before leaving office, and long after any real action could be taken, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the slaughter of both pro and anti-government Syrians constituted genocide.
In today’s Myanmar, the Syrian tragedy recurs: Genocide proliferates, and the world’s response is a non-response: silence.
In addition to being empowered by the international community’s apathy, Myanmar seems to have adopted al-Assad’s playbook of dehumanization. That is, Myanmar propagandists render it more palatable for partisans to kill the Rohingya by comparing Rohingya to vermin-like creatures exempt from human rights protections and norms. Their perverse logic is all-too-familiar: The Rohingya are vermin. The Other. And how does one treat vermin? Extermination—or at least exile.
The reasons for the muted international response in the face of the Myanmar genocide mirror those behind the silence on Syria. After a series of failed interventions, we’ve grown cynical. Instead of learning that intervention isn’t always justified, the lesson we’ve taken away—particularly in light of the protracted and ill-defined involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began before the Syrian crisis—is that intervention is never justified. As Guardian writer Simon Tisdall writes, there’s now “a limited appetite for forceful humanitarian intervention—even in the most extreme cases.”
What has surprised me so much about the Syria and Myanmar situations is not that humans have treated one another with such inhumanity; the Buddhists and Muslims of Myanmar, like the Shiites, Sunnis, Yazidis, and Christians of Syria, are only human. Of course tensions simmer. What’s surprised me is the international response—well, the lack of a response.
When powerful governments kill political minorities, those minorities depend on external help from other nations. Their own governments have abandoned them, becoming not protectors but persecutors. In Myanmar, where nearly 870,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and approximately 10,000 have perished, “their government has not only failed to protect them. It also appears directly culpable.”
Unfortunately, while Syria’s factions got help from interested states (Russia and the United States), no country seems to have a vested enough interest in Myanmar, or in the powerless Rohingya, to take concrete action. Indeed, it’s quite likely that China would block any positive step by the Security Council due to its own geopolitical interests in the region, just as Russia blocked concerted action against al-Assad in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War.
It seems the Rohingya are utterly alone. Shame on us.