On 26 May, a high-profile international conference was held at the Norwegian Nobel Institute and Voksenaasen, designed to bring the Norwegian and EU publics closer to the reality of the Rohingyas.
The conference pushed for an end to Myanmar’s “slow genocide” in the Western commercial, diplomatic and military engagement with the SE Asian country.
“This Muslim minority in Myanmar (Burma) has been so systematically persecuted that they would rather risk lives – including those of their infants and children – than die a slow, collective death,” said a press release.
“Over the last 10 days, the world has watched with horror and disbelief the news reports about mostly Rohingyas from Myanmar drifting in over-crowded vessels in the Andaman Sea, half-starved, disease-stricken and dying.”
George Soros, the iconic billionaire and philanthropist, was among the international figures offering his solidarity and compassion for the Rohingyas. He joined the call for an immediate end to Myanmar’s official policy of discrimination, persecution and destruction of over one million Rohingyas an ethnic group in Western Myanmar.
In his pre-recorded address prepared for the conference, Soros states that he too was a Rohingya.
“In January, when I visited Burma for the 4th time, I made a short visit to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in order to see for myself the situation on the ground… a section of Sittwe called Aung Mingalar, a part of the city that can only be called a ghetto. (There) I heard the echoes of my childhood. You see, in 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I too was a Rohingya. Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home to thousands of families who once had access to health care, education, and employment. Now, they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming,” Soros said
At the conference, a team of researchers from the International State Crime Initiative, Queen Mary University of London presented their latest findings. The press release quotes and article in The Independent (20 May), where the lead researcher Penny Green writes: “The Rohingya have now faced what genocide scholar Daniel Feirestein describes as ‘systematic weakening’, the genocidal stage prior to annihilation. Those who do not flee suffer destitution, malnutrition and starvation, severe physical and mental illness, restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, livelihood and the ever present threat of violence and corruption.”
Such acts compelled former UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar (2008-14), the Argentine legal expert Tomas Ojea Quintana, to observe at the London School of Economics a year ago that in the case of the Rohingyas, “genocidal acts” have been committed by Myanmar. Quintana shared his perspectives in Oslo.
Nobel Peace Laureate, the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond M. Tutu of South Africa, also addressed the Oslo conference. He places the responsibility for the Rohingyas’ plight squarely on the Myanmar government. While the government has characterized this as sectarian or communal violence and sought to absolve itself of responsibility, Tutu says there is evidence that the government itself has carefully cultivated anti-Rohingya sentiment.
“I would be more inclined to heed the warnings of eminent scholars and researchers including Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, who say this is a deliberately false narrative to camouflage the slow genocide being committed against the Rohingya people,” Tutu said.
Bishop Tutu made an impassioned call in Oslo: “As lovers of peace … we have a responsibility to persuade our international and regional aid and grant-making institutions, including the European Union, to adopt a common position making funding the development of Myanmar conditional on the restoration of citizenship, nationality, and basic human rights to the Rohingya.”
The 3-day conference was sponsored by the Oxford University Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), the Harvard University Global Equality Initiative, Parliament of the World’s Religions, Burma Task Force USA, Justice for All, Refugees International, and the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London.
Among the Norwegian participants were former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik and Morten Høglund, The State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.
The Oslo conference was the culmination of a series of conferences – the two previous ones were held at the London School of Economics and Harvard University in 2014 – designed to call attention to the plight of Rohingyas and their decades-long persecution by successive governments in Myanmar.
“As a Buddhist and an ethnic Burmese, I am devastated and ashamed that my own country of birth has been committing mass atrocities that can only be described as a genocide, as spelled out by the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” said Dr Maung Zarni, exiled scholar and activist. “The UN and Western democratic governments failed Cambodians, Rwandans, Bosnian Serbs and Tamils previously. They are now failing the Rohingyas. Once again, these entities are ignoring an unfolding genocide. It is outrageous that they are mis-framing the Rohingya issue as a “migration” problem, a “communal conflict” or a “humanitarian crisis”. This is because calling Myanmar’s genocide a genocide will disrupt their “business as usual” approach with the Burmese military and ex-military leaders,” he observed.
“As hate, anger and fear is rising around the world, it is important that people of compassion feel the pain of peaceful Rohingyas who have become stateless and homeless in their own ancestral land”, said Imam Malik Mujahid, Co-Chair of the Conference and chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.