On August 27, a United Nations Fact-Finding Mission declared the crisis in Myanmar to be a systematically planned and executed genocide against the Rohingya—a Muslim minority deemed illegal immigrants by their government and fellow citizens. While a long road to justice still lies ahead, the scathing report was a huge step forward and welcomed by human rights advocates who have been sounding the alarm for many years.
While this report cannot bring back the countless men, women, and children who were brutally murdered, nor undo the trauma and continued suffering of the survivors, we would be remiss if we did not take an opportunity to learn from this—the first genocide of the modern era, uniquely shaped by new international forces and institutions, including social media, the rise of ultra-nationalism, the effects of the so-called war on terror, shifting geopolitical alliances, and a glut of online information, known as confirmation-bias media, which reinforces people’s misperceptions and worst instincts. The irony is that our best hope for organizing an effective response, to bring justice and accountability to the Rohingya, and deter future perpetrators from committing such horrific crimes, rests with many of these same forces.
Let’s start with the rise of ultra-nationalism and the strange global bedfellows it has created. Myanmar’s firebrand monk, Ashin Wirathu, is perhaps the anti-Rohingya movement’s most famous leader. “We are just protecting our people and country,” Wirathu said following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “The world singled us out as narrow-minded. But as people from the country that is the grandfather of democracy and human rights elected Donald Trump, who is similar to me in prioritizing nationalism, there will be less finger-pointing from the international community.”
Clearly emboldened, the Myanmar military stepped up its assault on the Rohingya dramatically in the months following our election, brutally murdering thousands, raping an untold number of women and girls, and forcing 700,000 to flee the country into refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Citizens also joined in the violence (as they had in the past) and successfully blocked humanitarian aid from reaching Rohingya in dire need of food, water, and medical care.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but basically it boils down to this: 1) global leaders are gaining power and loyal followings by creating and tapping into fear of “the other”—immigrants, Muslims, any class of people the dominant class can deem to be outsiders—and couching it in a positive message of self- and community-protection; 2) because information spreads around the world instantly, our elections and actions in the U.S. have more immediate and devastating ripple effects around the world than they did in the past; and 3) the global war on terror and all of the hateful rhetoric surrounding it have turned Muslims into bogeyman in countries with ruthless leaders.
If the trend towards ultra-nationalism, which has spread around the globe with terrifying speed, is not reversed, starting with a strong showing by voters in upcoming U.S. elections, we are sure to see another uptick in violence against groups of people—religious, sexual, and ethnic minorities—deemed to threaten the safety of a nation.
Social media is another modern force that exacerbated the Rohingya genocide. With an estimated 18 million users, Facebook is ubiquitous in Myanmar. The platform is synonymous with the internet and is one of the primary ways all of the military, civic, and religious leaders of the 87 percent Buddhist country communicate with the masses. It is well-documented that the platform has been deployed in every stage of violence against the Rohingya over the past several years by users spreading hate speech, propaganda, dangerous rumors, doctored images and videos, and violent incitement.
The generous take on Facebook’s role is that the sheer volume of content on the platform makes it impossible for the company to effectively enforce its own community standards, while freedom of speech issues have forced the company to confront difficult tradeoffs: When is it appropriate to take down posts, and when does that cross a line into heavy-handed censorship? The less generous take is that Facebook has created a monster it cannot control that feeds on our worst human instincts: tribalism, confirmation-bias, salacious gossip, and bigotry. Further, when people we know and trust share hate speech, it becomes normalized, and the sinister social norms that are created online can be acted upon violently offline. That the company also benefits financially from turning a blind eye to user and advertiser content creates a powerful incentive for the company to ignore the inhumane consequences of its platform.
Alas, that platform is likely here to stay, and must therefore be an active part of the solution. Thankfully Facebook does seem to be taking steps in the right direction. Immediately following the release of the FFM report, it took down the accounts of 20 individuals and organizations named in the report or connected to the military’s commission of atrocities, including Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. It has also formed an internal working group, which paid a high-profile visit to Myanmar over the summer, to explore solutions to these problems around the world. However, unless the company prioritizes this effort, and puts significant resources behind it, hate speech on Facebook is likely to continue to play a role in inciting real-world violence on a massive scale—this is not a problem that can be solved with an algorithm.
Finally, the international community has all but ignored the blaring warning signs of genocide in Myanmar, despite extensive documentation and media coverage. This is despite the fact that in 2005, every U.N. member state signed on to the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) doctrine, which in essence declares that sovereignty does not give governments the right to commit atrocities against their own people, or allow them to be attacked, and that if they fail to protect their citizens, the international community is allowed, if not obligated, to step in. While there is no enforcement mechanism for RtoP, this is clearly a case where it can and should have been invoked by U.N. members. It’s not as if they can claim ignorance: In the many years leading up to the recent increase in violence, serious crimes against humanity have been unfolding in plain sight.
So why haven’t they acted? Governments almost never have an incentive to take action to end and prevent atrocities in other countries. The U.N. Security Council is ostensibly the body that would force action in an instance like this, but China and Russia are perpetual spoilers, who see infringements on sovereignty as a slippery slope to accountability for their own human rights violations, and so they block almost all attempts to intervene—politically, militarily, or otherwise—to deter human rights abuses in other countries. While this is nothing new, there may be another explanation for the international community’s lack of a response: a sea change in geopolitics. Myanmar, which neighbors five countries including China, was closed to the world until 2012. The opening of Myanmar represents strategic and economic opportunities for countries including the U.S. and China, which have jockeyed for position to establish themselves as Myanmar’s key ally. Just as Facebook has a profit motive for shrugging off its responsibility for violence, global leaders have considerable economic and political incentives to ignore human rights violations in order to gain favor with Myanmar’s government, and Myanmar’s current de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has reciprocally allowed world leaders to feign unrealistic optimism about the Rohingya crisis.
Yet despite her failures, Suu Kyi may end up being just as central to the quest for justice and accountability for the generals accused of genocide and crimes against humanity as social media and other bad actors. Because the U.N’s report is so damning, she may find it necessary to comply with international bodies such as the International Criminal Court in order to salvage what remains of her legacy internationally (she is still very much beloved in her own country).
The dynamics laid out above are specific to Myanmar, but they are likely to be replicated in future humanitarian crises. If we do not grapple with the ways modern forces contributed to the genocide in Myanmar, we will not only let the Rohingya down, we will miss warning signs as hate and violence spread through so many other countries—including our own.
Sally Smith is founder and executive director of The Nexus Fund and co-host of The Riveters Podcast.