Making a genocide

A genocide can turn anyone into a killer. How can we stop the wave of hatred?

Why would someone want to destroy an entire people? Imperialist countries massacred indigenous populations primarily out of financial motivations, to steal their land. Hitler hated Jewish people and managed to make their extermination the top priority for Nazi Germany, alongside expanding the Reich.

People in power have destroyed minorities in their countries to bolster their political power and popularity among the majority. This is probably one of the reasons for the persecution and killing of the Rohingya minority which is now occurring in Myanmar.

Genocide can be the horrific outcome of sustained economic and social inequality. In Rwanda, the colonial British power provided education and governmental positions to the Tutsi elite to maintain their supremacy over the majority Hutus, who were relegated to farming and poverty. The decades of resentment flared into an indescribable massacre in the 1990s.


Genocides follow a repeating pattern. First, a suitable political, religious, ethnic or social group, typically a minority, must be made the object of majority hatred.

Turkish Armenians, Stalin’s Kulaks, European Jews, Rwandan Tutsis, the Bosniaks of Srebrenica, the Rohingyas of Myanmar... the list of the victims of genocide is seemingly endless.

The next step is a rumour campaign. The humanity of the targeted group is questioned by repeated claims that they are dirty, diseased and dangerous. They are called immoral and a serious threat to the purity of the majority culture.

Long before the genocide, extremist Hutus in Rwanda were calling the Tutsis “cockroaches”. Hitler called the Jews a “virus”. The main idealogue fomenting the hatred in Myanmar, the monk Wirathu, has compared Muslims to catfish, an invasive species who he claims grow very fast, breed very fast, are violent, eat each other and destroy their environment.

It may take decades to sufficiently fan the flames of hatred and derision. Fraternising between members of the minority and majority is forbidden, and the minority is restricted to specific areas. Their political rights are suspended and their livelihoods interfered with. The persecution may take many different forms.

Next will come the hate-fuelled riots, where property held by the minority is destroyed and any perceived “enemies” are massacred on sight. The government will not intervene in attacks by unofficial “security” forces, and may even assist them.

Members of the majority populace who speak up in defence of the minority may also be persecuted and killed. Once the national hatred has reached a sufficient level, any minor crime committed by a member of the minority – whether real or imagined – can launch a terrible wave of revenge. Ultimately the governmental system will participate in exiling and murdering the minority group.


For the past several years, the Rohingya Muslims have been the target of ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The army of majority-Buddhist Myanmar intensified its attacks against the group in autumn 2017: areas where the Rohingya live and farm have been torched, they have been systematically raped, and thousands have been killed. More than 400,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The UN fears that the situation may turn into genocide at any moment. In ethnic cleansing, a group is violently removed from their ancestral lands to make the area ethnically uniform. In a genocide, the goal is to systematically eradicate the persecuted group. It is possible that

Myanmar’s political establishment is intentionally letting the Rohingya die in the inhospitable refugee camps in a slow form of genocide.


Lately, the Rohingya have been denied political rights as well as access to education and healthcare.

“The Rohingya remaining in Rakhine have been isolated in areas which they cannot leave without permission from the military,” says Tiina Airaksinen, docent of Asian studies.

Why has the persecution intensified now? Airaksinen suspects that the army wants to strengthen the country’s internal unity at the expense of the Rohingya. The British colonial powers forced a large group of different ethnic groups to live together in what they called Burma, or present-day Myanmar.

“In 1982, citizenship was granted to 135 ethnic groups under a new law. The Rohingya were denied citizenship due to their Muslim faith,” says Airaksinen.

Currently, approximately 20 armed ethnic groups operate within Myanmar, all of them seeking independence. This means that the army will have to work hard to maintain power.


Myanmar’s official leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been silent on the situation of the Rohingya. This has caused disapproval internationally, but not particularly in Myanmar.

“The majority’s disgust towards the Rohingya has over decades been fomented to such a degree that standing up for them could very well mean the end of Kyi’s power,” says Airaksinen.

Why would such a formerly esteemed leader remain silent and ruin her international reputation? We can only guess at the answer.

“It could be that she approves of the ethnic cleansing, or that she doesn’t want to risk her party’s position or the slow democratisation of the former military state.”


The most vocal hate-mongers against the Rohingya are the orange-clad Buddhist monks. Their front man is Wirathu, a charismatic speaker. How did representatives of a religion focusing on peace, love and non-violence take such a path?

“There is a belief, firmly rooted in Myanmar, that Islam is a threat to the existence of Buddhism. The Rohingya have been tied to the global Muslim threat, so ‘self-defence’ in the form of deporting or exterminating the Rohingya is considered necessary,” believes Airaksinen.

“It’s astounding how popular the fear of Islam has become in a country where 88% of the population is Buddhist and only around 5% are Muslim.”

Some monks have harshly condemned the persecution. However, their message has thus far been lost under the voice of their hate-mongering counterparts.


Why is the international community doing nothing in Rakhine? Why are UN peacekeepers not intervening?

“The cynical interpretation is that it is not sufficiently in the interests of any major organisation to defend the Rohingya,” says Airaksinen.

Sanctions placed by Myanmar’s main trade partner, China, could have an effect. However, it is unlikely that China would want to ruin a thriving commercial relationship to help the Rohingya. Myanmar only overthrew its military junta and opened itself to democracy and the outside world seven years ago. Perhaps that’s why no international pressure is being placed on the fledgling democracy.

“The Rohingya may be paying the price for aspirations to include the country in the international community. This is a chilling, but plausible explanation.”


Even when a minority becomes the target of hate and derision, it may still remain difficult to recruit their executioners.

It is terrifying, however, to know that under the right circumstances, nearly any one of us could become a killer. This is the conclusion of historian Christopher Browning in his work Ordinary Men, in which he examines the psychology of Nazi German soldiers.

Who were the people who transported Jews to the camps and killed them? After the annexation of Poland, Germany needed the SS on the Eastern front, so reserve police officers, ordinary family men, were drafted to arrest and exterminate the Jews. Many of them had joined the police force to avoid military service. This is to say that they were not enthusiastic Nazis, or particularly anti-Semitic.

The first murders of civilians were hard on the draftees. Shooting a child in the back of the head is not an easy thing to do. Nevertheless, few refused their duties, even though some superiors offered the opportunity to do so. Only a few of these men refused to kill civilians outright.


According to Browning’s research, it may be more difficult to be the “traitor” in the group and leave the dirty work to the others than it is to butcher innocent civilians.

Around 20% of the German men tried to avoid killing by hiding from their superiors or intentionally shooting past their target. Of the police officers Browning studied, one in three developed over time into cold-blooded and even eager killers.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, in which test subjects were ordered to play the roles of prisoners or guards, yielded similar results.

About a third of the “guards” became intentionally cruel, while approximately 20% maintained a fair attitude towards the prisoners. Conducted in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment continues to be famous – and controversial.


Finding a path to peace, forgiveness and acceptance of the events is difficult after genocide. International courts interpret and judge the most extensive massacres, but it can take decades for them to come to a verdict.

How can society heal after unspeakable bloodshed?

“If there is a desire for reconciliation, it is typically apparent in concrete actions, such as new legislation. It is a way to build bridges and remove the motivation for bitterness,” says University Lecturer Jan Löfström, who has studied historical reparations.

One hundred years ago, Finland underwent a short but intense civil war, and its impact is still being studied. What helped the fledgling state overcome the difficult situation?

“The social welfare legislation of the 1920s improved the living conditions of citizens. It fostered the sense of a future attainable together as a nation despite everything.”


Public apologies from the perpetrators of genocide, or forgiveness from the relatives of victims, often take a long time to materialise – if they do so at all.

Germany only admitted in 2016 that it had perpetrated genocide against the Herero tribe between 1904 and 1907. The Herero lived in an area which is currently part of Namibia, a German colony at the time.

Turkey is yet to recognise the genocide of its Armenian minority, in which 1.5 million people were killed in 1915. Japan and South Korea continue to argue about the appropriate language the former occupying power should use to apologise for forcing Korean women into sex slavery.

“Even if the public apology comes generations after the fact, it will still be significant for the relations between peoples, particularly the offspring of the victims,” says Löfström.

On the other hand, remembrance of past wrongs can also be used as a political tool. Rwanda’s current Tutsi government has been accused of constantly referring to the genocide to justify its position of power. All of the country’s governmental positions are currently held by Tutsis.


The best time to stop a genocide is before it begins. This requires reacting decisively to speech that disparages minorities, and possibly banning organisations that advocate discrimination.

“Hate speech must be addressed as early and as extensively as possible. It’s particularly important that people of high public esteem make strong statements in support of human rights.”

The best way to prevent persecution and genocide is to offer education, healthcare and employment equally to all members of society.

 “When people are treated fairly and they have a positive outlook on their future, why would they hate,” asks Löfström.

The article has been published in Finnish in Yliopisto magazine 02/18.

Bringing murderers to justice

In 1993, the UN Security Council established a temporary court to process the war crimes in the Balkans. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was the first attempt to exercise international criminal jurisdiction since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials in 1945-48.

Based in the Hague, the mandate of the Tribunal only ended a few months ago in 2017. Between 1993 and 2017, the Tribunal made 83 convictions, including a life sentence for Serbian Commander Ratko Mladić for genocide and crimes against humanity.

“It was no easy task. When the ICTY started, the hostilities between the parties had not completely ended. Bringing the suspects to the Hague was challenging,” says Immi Tallgren, researcher of international law.

According to Tallgren, the Tribunal did a reasonably good job.

“The prosecutor was not quite as insistent on prosecuting all parties in the convoluted war. In addition, the Tribunal bloated into a bureaucratic behemoth, which slowed it down.”

Soon after the Tribunal in the Hague, in 1994 an international court was established to process the events of 1994 in Rwanda. Based in Arusha, Tanzania, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was hobbled by political conflict with the Rwandan government.

“From the perspective of the accused, Rwanda’s own courts treated them very unequally, in terms of both legal protection and sentencing.” International criminal accountability became a luxury.

It was hoped that the tribunals would bring reconciliation to crisis areas and prevent future crimes. They did not entirely fulfil these expectations.

“However, the tribunals have a symbolic significance. They are used to maintain our shared values, the most important of which is to ensure the preservation of human life and the peoples of the world,” states Tallgren.