It would be fashionable to blame the general obliviousness to this crisis on the Trump administration and its supporters, or on other isolationist or internationally disruptive actors. But in reality, in the era of democratic globalization—which is also the outstanding era of genocide—a whole lot of us are Pharaoh. Slaves are catching the shrimp we eat, and we either don’t know or don’t care. Our hearts are hardened.
The systematic exclusion and oppression of the Rohingyas began in the first half of the twentieth century, as a reflex of national self-determination. Burma emerged from colonialism with a dependent, underdeveloped economy and a majority religion, Theravada Buddhism, generally snubbed by British administrators, who preferred to work with Muslims. Some of the Muslims wanted self-determination too, and engaged in border insurgency in defiance of the new home-rule government.
The end of military rule after the multi-party elections of 2010 and 2015 energized the drive for power and payback against the Rohingyas. And the easing of Western sanctions brought in new, mighty dealmakers—multinational corporations that, in exchange for access to the country’s natural resources, would allow and excuse whatever political arrangements the new regime wanted. That regime had to find a new electoral issue to unify and win over the majority, whose rage and suspicion they themselves had cultivated during the decades of oppression. The broad international community was also complicit, despite its high-minded avowals about human rights, commemorations of past genocides, and solemn pledges of “never again.”
The way I myself didn’t arrive at any concern for the Rohingyas until now, though the leading expert on their plight had been right in front of me for months, forms a sordid and ironic fable in itself. After I finished writing my review of The Rohingyas, I wanted to know more about the author. Through a short web search, I learned about several of Azeem Ibrahim’s achievements, including that he had been a World Fellow at Yale University, where I was once a visiting scholar and instructor. “Wait a second,” I told myself. “Was he there in 2009?” That was the year I was at Yale, and I spent some of it bothering a woman named Muna AbuSulayman. She was the headline World Fellow that year, because Yale was seeking (and eventually got) a lot of money from her boss, the Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. The prince was the royal family’s chief propagandist abroad, scattering Salafist-friendly exhibitions and study centers among the most prestigious institutions. When AbuSulayman appeared among the economic-development, diplomatic, scientific, journalistic, and human-rights superstars in that World Fellows class, to explain the justice and humanity of the Saudi regime and to discuss her personal struggle for “life balance,” something in me snapped. I attended nearly every event at which she spoke. Participating in each question-and-answer period, I conveyed that I thought nearly everything she said was factually incorrect, ideologically shocking, or of no imaginable interest.
But the entire time, Azeem Ibrahim was sitting politely by among the other World Fellows, his presentations, like theirs, losing out to the sinister glamour of AbuSulayman and my hot-dogging challenges. I don’t know whether he was working on The Rohingyas already; it was not a topic I remember ever coming up—but if it did, would I have paid any attention? In the years since then, when I heard the few news reports of Rohingya massacres, it made little impression. Democracy was disappointing in one more country; there was plenty of corruption and violence; nobody seemed to be held accountable. South Africa, where I had lived during most of the first post-apartheid decade, was the same. What was there to do except hope that people would muddle through? They had to work things out for themselves, and the best we could do was to fight for our own values at home in the meantime.
But a genocide in progress—on a massive scale, organized, deliberate, in this case almost flaunted—cuts to the heart of those values. Are all of the world’s people not beloved children of God, as we are? Are their lives not equal in God’s eyes? How much more than nothing can we do to protect them? How much do we value, say, a cheap luxury like Thai shrimp? What if a local travel agency is running what amount to sex tours in a Pacific Rim country, putting teenage refugees’ bodies on the market? Will we take any action? What action?
Globalization comes with spiritual and moral duties. The early Christians could not have known whether a million people perished in China. And even if they had somehow known, they could not have done anything about it. But we now have elaborately organized commercial connections to almost the entire planet. Shared rules say exactly where the container ship full of socks or gardening tools can dock, how much interest is paid on foreign debt, where each executive sits at a conference. But we don’t have any effective international law against mass murder.
Would we shop or order lunch in a building with a gunfight going on in the basement, as long as we were confident of our own safety? And where would that confidence come from, if not stupidity? More importantly, what kind of moral or spiritual or intellectual life do we expect to have, if we don’t have the most basic law for the whole community we belong to? Millions of people really are in a state we can hardly imagine from our place in Pharaoh’s palace. We certainly can’t picture that in any alternative universe their sufferings would ever be imposed on us. They are beaten, raped, starved, worked to death, killed. We could help them if we cared to.