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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

On atrocities in Myanmar: hold the guilty to account

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The expulsion of 700,000 refugees; the deaths of perhaps 25,000 people; untold rapes, terror and dehumanisation: the last year has been very grim in the north and west of Myanmar. It can’t be called an unknown catastrophe, either. The world has had to make some effort to ignore what has happened in the last year. Much has been reported, despite the best efforts of the Burmese government, which include the shameful detention of two brave Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been held for eight months on charges of breaching the official secrets act after researching a detailed report on one small atrocity. Now a United Nations report, a year in the making, has condemned the army’s leadership by name for participation in war crimes against ethnic and religious minorities. The actions of six named generals meet the standard for investigation and prosecution for genocide, the report concludes.

Whether anything will happen to those the report names as guilty as a result is less certain. This is the kind of crime for which the International Criminal Court was established, but Myanmar is not a signatory to the relevant convention. The reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi is still further damaged. Her name will not be remembered as one of the more inspired choices for the Nobel peace prize. But any moves to bring to justice the soldiers whom the UN report names as responsible, including the commander-in-chief of the army, General Min Aung Hlaing, require the assent of the UN Security Council. This is unlikely. Both Russia and China have consistently supported the genocidal government at the UN. Only last week, the general was visiting Russia and buying arms there. Without the means and will to enforce them, the international conventions against genocide can seem merely aspirational.

Myanmar is not the only part of the world disfigured by systematic campaigns against a civilian population. In Yemen, in Syria, and in central Africa, other governments are behaving with comparable ruthlessness and apparent impunity. But Myanmar is distinguished from those cases by one interesting factor: the importance of Facebook, and the services it owns, in whipping up and sustaining hatred. A Reuters investigation earlier this month found thousands of Facebook posts calling for the extermination of the Rohingya and other Muslims, urging that they be shot, burned alive, fed to pigs, or fought “as Hitler did the Jews”.

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In some countries like Myanmar where most access is through mobile phones, Facebook and its subsidiary WhatsApp are all the internet most people know. Like it or not, this puts the company in a position of considerable political power. It is arguable that within Myanmar Mark Zuckerberg is more powerful than the UN secretary general, since he could, if he wished, cut off one of the main distribution channels for propaganda against the Rohingya and other minorities. The matter is complicated by linguistic chauvinism: Facebook admits it employs too few Burmese speakers to monitor the network (in 2015 there were two; there are now 60). Following the publication of the UN report, the company has banned 18 accounts (and one Instagram account) with a total of 12 million followers. This is too little and too late. Putting pressure on a private company to monitor and control the internet in a foreign country is obviously problematic. But what else can the international community do?

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