Silence in the time of genocide

              Why are notable Rohingya figures silent about Israel and Gaza?

by: Shafiur Rahman

In the realm of human existence, silence can sometimes be more profound than words. It can echo through the corridors of history, leaving us to ponder the weight of its meaning. Recently, an X/Twitter post from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum stirred a lot of thoughts within me. It spoke about the attack on Israel, but its silence on the Palestinian situation left a glaring void. Specifically, I was left to wonder why there was no mention of Israel's orders for Gaza—an action that Martin Griffiths, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, described as defying "the rules of war and basic humanity." The absence of commentary on Israel’s plans, which some argue not only violate international humanitarian law but also border on genocidal intent, makes the Museum's silence all the more perplexing.

Institutions, like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, have a unique role in shaping our collective consciousness. Their missions often extend beyond mere preservation; they stand as guardians of memory, justice, and the ethical imperatives that humanity must uphold. The Museum, with its tireless advocacy for policies to prevent genocide, has been a beacon for those who believe that history should be our greatest teacher.


One of its notable exhibitions looks into the Rohingya genocide, a contemporary atrocity that Greg Constantine’s photography vividly portrays, capturing the harrowing stories and spirit of those affected. The Holocaust Museum is where, on March 21, 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited and formally recognised that the Burmese military committed genocide against the Rohingya people in Burma, emphasising the international commitment to addressing such contemporary horrors. The Museum has welcomed many Rohingya spokespersons, underscoring the interconnectedness of human suffering.

As I contemplated the Museum's silence about what is about to go down in Gaza, I came across these words of Judith Butler. Her profound insights look into the ethics of “grievability” - the concept that some lives are deemed more worthy of grieving than others. She writes, “The question of whose lives are worth grieving is an integral part of the question of whose lives are worth valuing.” This imbalance, she argues, is a breeding ground for racism, where the dominant frame shapes our perceptions of who deserves empathy and who is cast aside.

The Silence of Rohingya Leaders

Here's where the enigma deepens. While Rohingya leaders and spokespersons have been intimately linked to the Holocaust Museum, their voices have been conspicuously silent during the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict, which has tragically claimed thousands of lives. This silence echoed like a philosophical question left unanswered.

In my quest for answers, I sought the wisdom of Dr. Maung Zarni, an outspoken genocide scholar who serves as a member of the board of advisors of Genocide Watch and holds a non-resident fellowship at the Genocide Documentation Center in the Sleuk Rith Institute, Cambodia. Dr. Zarni raised poignant questions about the Museum's apparent moral blind spot concerning the slow genocide of the Palestinian people. He trenchantly articulated how this silence erodes the very essence of the 'Never again!' principle, highlighting the profound inhumanity of disregarding Palestinian lives. He wrote:

"The moral blind spot exhibited by the museum concerning the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people, stemming from Israel's policies, deals a heavy blow to the enduring principle of 'Never again!' As a scholar deeply immersed in the study of genocide, with a background in Burmese history and mentorship from a pioneering expert on the SS and Himmler, I find the museum's complete disregard for the lives of Palestinians, their enduring Nakba, and the ongoing genocidal consequences of death, destruction, displacement, and deportation to be not only morally revolting but also profoundly inhumane."

Another Type of Silence and a Call for Clarity

At this juncture, the thoughts of Jeff Crisp, a former UNHCR official, add an important dimension to the discourse. He tweeted,

“I fully agree with those asserting that Israel's measures to safeguard its people's security should adhere to principles of proportionality and respect international humanitarian law. However, can someone more knowledgeable than myself please elucidate how these principles translate into practical actions?”

Crisp's call for clarity resonates deeply, posing a significant ethical question that broadens the scope of our inquiry. It serves as an unspoken criticism of the pervasive silence that allows vagueness and moral ambiguity to endure. This silence, especially from institutions like the Holocaust Museum and Rohingya leaders, becomes doubly significant: it represents both an ethical lapse and a missed opportunity to guide global discourse. Coupled with the absence of universally accepted criteria for “protecting security,” this silence perpetuates a cycle that allows powerful nations and actors to operate as they see fit. Thus, Crisp's call underscores the imperative for transparency and ethical accountability on a global scale. 

 The Complexity of Silence

Within this intricate web of complexity lies the enigma of silence among Rohingya spokespersons. Their close affiliation with institutions such as the Holocaust Museum prompts inquiries into the motivations underlying their reticence in the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict. It is vital to acknowledge that self-interest probably wields considerable influence, particularly when these spokespersons must navigate a precarious path, balancing personal objectives and the necessity to maintain relationships with influential institutions (not limited to the Holocaust Museum). They may also grapple with the prevailing political culture that surrounds them and the potential for political sanctions in the countries they live in, which can exert significant pressure.

 An Open Letter to Rohingya Friends: An attempt at Dialogue to Break the Silence

In response to this silence, I embarked on a dialogue, as yet unpublished, in the form of an open letter to my Rohingya friends. I pondered the essence of their silence in the face of human suffering and injustice. I reminded them that silence, born of powerlessness, can paradoxically emerge from a place of privilege, a privilege to remain silent in the face of oppression—a privilege they understand all too well.

As I write, Israel and Gaza are caught in a deadly conflict, with airstrikes and imminent "significant ground operations," according to Israeli forces. The horror of evacuation orders, mass displacement, and aerial attacks on civilians: do these developments not echo what is happening in Myanmar right now? Do they not bring back haunting memories of the clearance operations of 2017 in Rakhine State? And other catastrophic campaigns led by the Myanmar military?

I argue the infinite responsibility we bear to the 'Other,' to those whose suffering confronts us and demands moral action. I contend that silence, whether due to fear or self-preservation, can obscure our ethical duty as global citizens. It is in recognising the suffering of the 'Other' that we fully grasp the scope of our ethical obligations.

In a world that is intricately connected yet divided by walls both physical and metaphorical, the struggle for justice anywhere reverberates everywhere. I emphasised that partial justice is no justice at all. Indifference to the suffering of others corrodes the very principles that define our shared humanity. I reminded them of their significant decision to throw their weight behind their former oppressors when the Myanmar coup happened, a powerful act of solidarity and reconciliation.

They of all people, understand the pain of being ignored, abandoned, and relegated to a status where even genocide against them doesn't resonate strongly enough in the conscience of the world. And yet…

In my pursuit of answers, I directly reached out to several Rohingya spokespersons about their silence on the Israel-Gaza conflict. Alas, my inquiries were met with…well, you guessed it…silence. It's within these unanswered questions that the essence of my initial puzzled enquiry lies, probing the contours of our moral and ethical convictions.

Conclusion: Silence, Responsibility, and Ethical Complexities

Vocal champions for their own cause, these advocates have now fallen conspicuously silent on the catastrophic conflict raging in Israel and Gaza. This selective advocacy raises questions about the breadth of their solidarity and ethical commitments. Their silence on such a devastating human rights crisis stands in stark contrast to the universal message of Pastor Niemoller's poem, urging us not to turn a blind eye to injustice. It forces us to question: are we only vocal when injustice strikes close to home? In a world where politics and personal agendas often drown out the calls for global justice, this silence serves as a difficult but necessary wake-up call.

Wait. What about my own unpublished open letter to the Rohingya leaders/spokespersons? Written words left unpublished, can hold their own significance and meaning in the realm of communication and expression - is all that I will say for now. In closing, I invite my Rohingya friends to engage in a discourse about silence, responsibility, and the ethical complexities that define our humanity.