Opinion

Israel’s Shameful Role in Myanmar’s Genocidal Campaign Against the Rohingya

Peace icon turned pariah Aung San Suu Kyi is in The Hague defending Myanmar from genocide charges. Israel gave Myanmar’s military regime the tools and diplomatic space to carry out those atrocities

Charles Dunst
Charles Dunst
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Some of the 740,000 Rohingya refugees forced to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, fleeing a ferocious crackdown by the Myanmar military, October 10, 2017
Some of the 740,000 Rohingya refugees forced to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, fleeing a ferocious crackdown by the Myanmar military, October 10, 2017Credit: AFP
Charles Dunst
Charles Dunst

The Israeli embassy in Myanmar’s former capital of Yangon sits just outside the city center off Inya Lake, protected by automatic weapon-bearing local guards and thick unscalable walls. 

I visited in December 2018 to interview Israel’s envoy Ronen Gilor about Myanmar’s dwindling Jewish community. But when I brought up the Myanmar military’s widely-reported persecution of the Rohingya Muslims - an issue relevant to anyone’s relationship with Myanmar - and of Israeli arms sales to that same force, Ambassador Gilor pushed back and refused to answer my questions. 

When we spoke, Gilor extended an "open invitation to visit Israel" to Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a peace icon turned pariah for her inaction during and apathy towards the military’s continued crimes.

Last week, Gilor on Twitter wished Suu Kyi "encouragement for a good decision and good luck" as she traveled to The Hague to personally defend Myanmar from International Criminal Court (ICJ) charges of Rohingya genocide. Gilor deleted the tweet; Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had been written "in error."

A now-deleted tweet by Israel's ambassador to Myanmar, Ronen Gilor
A now-deleted tweet by Israel's ambassador to Myanmar, Ronen GilorCredit:

Israeli arms and military technology sales to Myanmar have earned Jerusalem scorn. But after Gilor’s tweet, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs surprisingly condemned "the atrocities that took place in the Rakhine region against the Rohingya." Israel previously refused to use the term "Rohingya" seemingly in deference to the Myanmar government that rejects the term and does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, instead considering them "Bengalis." 

But this new Israeli statement is still too passive. Most glaringly, it fails to note who committed these "atrocities."

Now, as Myanmar faces charges for the world’s worst crime - and India, another Israeli ally, passes legislation paving the way towards similar exclusion and violence – it is more necessary than ever that Israeli leaders ensure that the Jewish state and people never facilitate, or even tacitly tolerate, genocide. 

In 2016, the Myanmar military intensified its decades-long persecution of the Rohingya, setting fire to their villages, throwing their babies into fires, raping their women, and decapitating their boys. Over a million Rohingya fled; thousands were killed. As the head of the U.N.’s fact-finding mission for Myanmar told U.S. officials in late October: "It is an ongoing genocide that is taking place at the moment.” 

But Israel’s government remained quiet up until this past week, seemingly thanks to its relationship with Myanmar which dates back to the Southeast Asian nation’s Burmese days.

Both countries secured independence in 1948. Burma’s first prime minister U Nu had a "soft spot for Israel," was close with David Ben-Gurion, and was the first premier to visit Israel. The Israel-Burma relationship was important, as Gilor told me last year, because the former provided the latter proximity to China and India - countries with whom Israel had limited relations. 

Most Burmese are not aware of Judaism, but as Sammy Samuels, the de facto head of Myanmar’s Jewish community, told me in Yangon’s sole sweltering synagogue: "They fully respect Israel."

Smoke rises from a burned house in Gawdu Zara, an abandoned Rohingya village in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, September 7, 2017
Smoke rises from a burned house in Gawdu Zara, an abandoned Rohingya village in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, September 7, 2017Credit: ,AP

Israel reciprocated this courtesy, giving a green light to Israeli weapons manufacturers to arm Myanmar’s military through the fall of 2017, even after accusations of anti-Rohingya violence surfaced, and both the European Union and the United States placed Myanmar under an arms embargo and sanctions.

After a late 2017 High Court challenge, Israel claimed to have stopped selling advanced weaponry to Myanmar’s military. But public relations dust-ups - Myanmar’s Israeli envoy later said Israel was still selling his country weapons; Burmese officials were in June 2019 spotted at a Tel Aviv weapons expo - have undermined Israel’s position and credibility.

Gilor’s endorsements of Suu Kyi to Myanmar’s media aren’t helping. 

"Suu Kyi now is a leader of a country. She is not any more a human rights activist. She is a leader and, as a leader, she has to take care of many things," Gilor said of the Rohingya crisis last December. "For example, the relationship with the Myanmar military, which is very important." 

The word "Rohingya" never appears in the article; Gilor instead calls them "the Rakhine people." That refers to the Bangladesh-bordering Myanmar state whose north the Rohingya once called home, and from which the Myanmar military terror drove them. Gilor is again here toeing the Myanmar state line on preferred terminology. 

Israel’s apparent acquiescence to these atrocities seems to stem from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s traditionally pragmatic-opportunistic pursuit of relations with any country amenable to diplomatic relations, no matter if they are helmed by unsavory leaders like Chadian despot Idriss Déby, Azerbaijani autocrat Ilham Aliyev, or Rwandan tyrant Paul Kagame, among others.

There is some realist merit to Israel, indeed isolated in its own backyard, extending its diplomatic arms as far as possible. But tolerating and enabling Myanmar’s genocide is an obvious step too far. 

The Israeli government’s recent criticism of Myanmar, while a step in the right direction, still lets the country’s criminal actors off the hook. Gilor’s support of Suu Kyi remains more reflective of Israel’s general Myanmar policy: a largely unconditional backing, even when Myanmar, mirroring the Nazi playbook for otherizing and then murdering Jews, disowned and otherized the Rohingya to normalize the subsequent commission of genocidal horrors against them. 

Indeed, as Abubacarr Tambadou of Gambia, which brought the Rohingya genocide case to the ICJ, cited philosopher Edmund Burke’s forceful words while standing in the trial chamber just feet from Suu Kyi: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Demonstrators rally outside the International Court of Justice where Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi attended the first day of three days of hearings in The Hague, December 10, 2019
Demonstrators rally outside the International Court of Justice where Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi attended the first day of three days of hearings in The Hague, December 10, 2019Credit: Peter Dejong,AP

"Every day of inaction means that more people are being killed, more women are being ravaged and more children are being burnt alive," Tambadou added. "For what crime? Only because they were born different."

The international community’s laconic approach and deprioritization of protecting a victimized minority let Europe’s Jews die during the Holocaust; Israel’s similar equanimity gave Myanmar the tools and space to carry out atrocities against the Rohingya. It is a sad subversion of the post-World War II "Never again!" rallying cry.

Israel, founded in the embers of the Jewish people’s genocide, failed to live up to that ideal. 

With human rights groups now warning of potential genocide in India, another Israeli ally, Jerusalem must conduct some soul-searching and adjust its calculations to never again replicate Israel’s grave Myanmar errors. Never again should the Jewish State enable any country, particularly one of its allies, to carry out a genocide.

We, of all peoples, should know better. 

Charles Dunst is an M.Sc. candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics, and a journalist whose reporting from Southeast Asia has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He was previously based in Cambodia. Twitter: @CharlesDunst