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Burma could be the site of the world’s next genocide | Graeme Wood

24 January 2014

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A Countryside of Concentration Camps: Burma could be the site of the world’s next genocide

by Graeme Wood

On November 19, 2012, Barack Obama visited Burma to keep a promise he made in 2009 to tyrants everywhere.

The promise: Stop being so tyrannical, and we’ll make it worth your while. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his inaugural address, speaking to the Burmese military junta all but directly, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Burma’s generals held up their side of things starting in 2010, by preparing for elections, freeing political prisoners, and relaxing controls on speech. Until then, Burma might have merited a spot on a junior varsity Axis of Evil, alongside such fellow totalitarian states as Cuba and Belarus. But in his address at Rangoon University, when the jackboot prints still hadn’t faded from the faces of the political prisoners, Obama said Burma’s “remarkable journey” toward freedom was on the right track, and he pledged U.S. support and money if reform continued.

In Obama’s heaps of praise for Burma, he buried a brief note of concern, expressed in the mildest language. In the months before his visit, riots in Arakan (also known as Rakhine), a poor coastal state on the border with Bangladesh, had killed 167 people and displaced nearly 100,000. Most of them were Rohingya Muslims, driven from their homes by Buddhist mobs. “There is no excuse for violence against innocent people,” Obama said. “And the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do.” He praised diversity as a cardinal virtue of the United States and urged Burma to embrace its minorities. But he mentioned the Rohingya by name only once before returning, sunnily, to the subject of reform and Burma’s “potential to inspire” other formerly oppressed countries. Nice place, he said in effect, except for the attempted genocide.
Photograph by Greg Constantine
A few displaced Rohingya set up a bike-repair stand for their fellow camp dwellers.

A year later on the streets of Rangoon, Burma’s Great Unclenching is a beautiful thing. The Burma I first visited in 1998 was a snakepit of secret police and muzzled dissent. But last fall, I heard people openly express love for the leader of Burma’s democratic opposition, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. On every street corner, kiosks sold dozens of vibrant tabloids free from routine censorship. Burma’s economic isolation once forced foreign visitors to pack in bundles of crisp hundred-dollar bills. Now brand-new ATMs disgorge money just like in Paris or Buenos Aires.

But Arakan state looked a lot better when things were still clenched. Muslims and Buddhists who recently lived with each other peacefully now squat on opposite sides of barbed-wire fences and plot each other’s elimination. Old women and children too infirm to run from raiding parties have been speared or beaten to death in their homes. The fortunate ones are fleeing to other countries on overladen, leaky boats. In Sittway, the state capital, Buddhists have surrounded the old Muslim quarter, starving its residents into submission. “It’s a concentration camp,” a diplomat in Rangoon told me.
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