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 other crime 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 the cities of Houla and Idlib, of Homs and Latakia, as they raped wives and murdered husbands and pressed cold guns against the soft cheeks 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 occur, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the slaughter of both pro and anti-government Syrians constituted genocide.
Unfortunately, there are two truths about humanity: (1) Humanity often exhibits inhumanity. (2) We have short memories. Thus, in today’s Myanmar, the Syrian tragedy recurs: Genocide proliferates. A brutal regime persecutes a population for nothing more than their Muslim faith. The world’s response is a non-response. Silence.
Empowered by the international community's apathy, Myanmar has adopted Bashar al-Assad's playbook of dehumanization by, through propaganda and denial, reassuring Buddhist partisans that killing Rohingyia is not only fine, but a fine thing to do. A moral imperative. You see, the Burmese radical says, Rohingya are not only faux Burmese; they’re faux humans. Vermin. We don’t extend human rights protections and norms to vermin! We exterminate them.
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, we’ve learned—particularly in light of the protracted and ill-defined involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began before the Syrian crisis—that intervention is never justified. As Guardian writer Simon Tisdall writes, this logic freezes action in even the most extreme cases. The ravenous, post-9/11 appetite for humanitarian intervention has dwindled; the thought of further military adventures induces queasiness, the desire to vomit.
Alas, what surprises me about Syria and Myanmar is not that humans are acting inhuman. Again, the irony of the term “humanity” is that its fruits are so often contrary to its connotations of emphatic kindness. Myanmar’s Buddhists and Muslims, like Syria’s Alawaites, Sunnis, Yazidis, and Christians, are only human. Of course tensions simmer. What surprises me is the international response—well, the lack of a response. The utter lack of any concern.
When powerful governments kill political minorities, those minorities depend on external aid. Their own governments have abandoned them. They’ve shredded the social contract that binds a people to its government, becoming not protectors but persecutors. In Myanmar, where nearly 870,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and at least 10,000 have perished, "their government [hasn’t just] failed to protect them. It ... appears directly culpable."
Unfortunately, while Syria's factions have help from international actors playing realpolitik (namely, Russia and the United States), no nations seem to have a vested interest in Myanmar or in the powerless Rohingya sufficient to spur concrete action. We can’t even look to the United Nations, as 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 conflict.
The Rohingya are adrift. Utterly alone. Shame on us.