August 26th, 2020
The Rohingyas and Their Plight of Denial: An Armenian Glance
On August 24th, I received an email from one of the representatives of Free Rohingya Coalition, an organization which, according to its own webpage, describes itself as a “network of Rohingya activists and friends of Rohingyas who share common concerns about Myanmar’s on-going genocide and the need for Rohingya survivors to play an active role in seeking a viable future for their group,” inviting me to join an event called “FRC Global Virtual Rally to Commemorate Myanmar Genocide of 2017,” which would take place on Facebook Live the following day.
Not only as a descendant of genocide survivors, but, also, more importantly, as a student of human rights at the University of Bologna, I certainly felt sympathy for the plight of the Rohingyas. It’s incidentally the University of Bologna which conferred Aung San Suu Kyi (the Nobel Prize laureate who’s now the State Counsellor of Myanmar) with an honorary doctorate in philosophy—a regretful decision given the fact she’s been largely silent about these issues. Our cohort signed a petition asking the university to strip her of the aforementioned degree, but that’s really another matter.
Although the blood of our own cause is now fully dry on the pages of history, having occurred over a hundred years ago, genocide remains genocide—nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that the more recent the tragedy is, the more immediate and pressing its concerns are. At the same time, the old argument of what happens when we constantly relegate history to the dustbin in favor of the future also remains—horrors of the past are both repeated and simultaneously also seen as something new, mostly because people forget that these “current” events are just repetitions of the past situated in new circumstances. Yesterday they killed people with swords; today they kill them with guns.
Let’s, however, return to the argument, which isn’t about the relevance or irrelevance of tragedies; what it’s really about is the Rohingyas who’ve been systematically persecuted by the Burmese government and continue to suffer. The genocide could be said to have begun in October 2016 with the military crackdown of the Muslim population in the northwestern region of Myanmar. The UN, various newspapers, and independent journalists have documented the crimes and reached the conclusion that the military’s actions constitute genocide.
Sexual violence, burnings, and forced displacements are just some of the tactics employed by the government to institute its policy of ethnic cleansing. The government, naturally, rejects any notion that it’s committing genocide and, in this respect, denial is precisely the final stage of genocide.
The argument about denial being just another form of ethnic cleansing holds for this reason: First you literally destroy the people, then you metaphorically murder the memories of the event by denying that the crime ever took place. The noted UCLA Professor Emeritus Richard G. Hovannisian said the following regarding denial: “Following the physical destruction of a people and their material culture, memory is all that is left and is targeted as a last victim. Complete annihilation of a people requires the banishment of recollection and suffocation of remembrance.” It will certainly take some time before the actual killings of Rohingya people stop and the genocide moves into a space entirely governed by philosophical annihilation—cleansing through rationality, if you will; after more than a hundred years, this aforementioned “logical” frontier is the one on which the Armenian Genocide is now currently occurring, with the government of Turkey doing everything in its power to silence all research which has already produced conclusive proof about the matter and continues to do so. But again, current events are always more pressing and so here’s another image from Myanmar.
In the past, the Institute of Turkish Studies, a United States research foundation established in 1982—with the help of a three million dollar grant from the Turkish government—occupied a considerable space in various history and Middle East departments, issuing scholarships to undergraduates, providing grant money to researchers, and giving language study awards, among other things, in order to “influence” both students and professors in how they approached the sensitive issue of the Armenian Genocide. Thus, it’s no longer a secret that in the late 80s, the government of Turkey began founding chairs and sometimes even entire institutions focused on Turkish language and history—the most prominent example being the Atatürk chair in Turkish studies at Princeton University—along with a research center in the Capitol called Institute of Turkish Studies. Many prominent academics—and by no coincidence whatsoever also the most fanatic deniers of the Armenian Genocide—ended up being products of those departments; Justin McCarthy, Heath W. Lowry, and Stanford Shaw making up some of the more well-known examples. In 1985, Lowry was the key figure in convincing roughly seventy academics to sign a statement arguing against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide—something which was printed in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
It was a great victory for the Turkish government, but sweet success didn’t last too long. Just over ten years later, the New York Times ran an article called “Princeton Is Accused of Fronting For the Turkish Government,” in which it was discovered that “the university accepted $750,000 from the Government of Turkey to endow a new Atatürk Chair of Turkish Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and hired a professor, Heath W. Lowry, who had worked for the Turkish government, as executive director of the Washington-based Institute of Turkish Studies.” A year later, in 1997, UCLA returned a one million dollar grant given to them by the Turkish government to create a department in Ottoman studies after an investigation revealed that scholars who attempted to use the archives in Istanbul wouldn’t be allowed to access any material that could be sensitive to the tragic events of 1915.
Even more poignantly, in the year 2000, three years after UCLA had returned the one million dollar “donation,” when the US House of Representatives was scheduled to discuss the Armenian Genocide resolution, a Turkish politician by the name of Şükrü Elekdağ openly admitted that Lowry’s 1985 statement had not only become irrelevant but furthermore useless because not one of the original 69 signatories besides Justin McCarthy had agreed to sign a similar declaration.
In a surprising move, Turkey ceased funding the institute in 2015, yet its policy of denial has continued in more subtle, nuanced ways.
The country’s main strategy has always been to sow doubt in the minds of both ordinary citizens and scholars regarding the events of 1915, which is the real reason why it calls for repeated historical investigations—not in the interest of truth but to fish out academics willing to “interpret” the facts in ways which would justify Turkey’s stance of denial on the issue.
And who better to do the interpreting than historians? In a healthy academic environment, interpretation is precisely what’s necessary to arrive at an objective conclusion, but in the hands of those seeking to distort history, this very same “interpretation” also works very well if you have people who are willing to play ball only for your side—the latter type of interpretation and historical “research” is precisely what the Turkish state is after, mainly because it has already lost the main battle long ago; in this respect, various governments such as France, Germany, and more recently the US congress, have implemented legislation recognizing the Armenian tragedy as a genocide.
Furthermore, the International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote the following in a 2006 open letter: “Scholars who deny the facts of genocide in the face of the overwhelming scholarly evidence are not engaging in historical debate, but have another agenda. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, the agenda is to absolve Turkey of responsibility for the planned extermination of the Armenians—an agenda consistent with every Turkish ruling party since the time of the Genocide in 1915.” Pretty strong statement, I would say.
Victories like the ones I’ve mentioned have, thus, forced Turkey to look for other ways to sow doubt in the minds of both people and academics, which brings me back to the case of the Rohingya; in this sense, I must ask why a spokesperson for Anadolu Agency was so enthusiastic to speak on behalf of the aforementioned oppressed and to defend them against the horrors of ethnic cleansing when they themselves have devoted numerous pages to doing everything possible to manipulate and discredit the validity of the genocide their own government has committed? Taking advantage of the fact that it’s utterly impossible for the Free Rohingya Coalition to do complete background checks and investigate all of the panelists which they either invite or those who submit unsolicited proposals to speak, Anadolu Agency must have slipped through the cracks, but I really can’t say for sure. In all honesty, with regard to our Turkish friends, I don’t know which scenario we’re dealing with here, but I don’t believe the organization responsible for protecting the Rohingya is to blame in this matter. After all, Anadolu Agency did agree to broadcast the event “through its 13 world languages programme,” probably bringing considerable attention to the plight of Rohingyas, but we must nevertheless question Turkey’s motives for doing so.
As far as motives are concerned, let’s begin here: When reading any Anadolu article regarding the Armenian Genocide, one initially does get the sense that they’re simply reporting on the incidents surrounding the event, but a simple search reveals that the news agency hasn’t published a single piece regarding the positive gains Armenian activists have made in securing justice for themselves—no, all the reports are either about an obscure “expert” challenging the events, Turkish officials slamming other countries that go on to recognize the events as genocide, and, likewise gleefully reporting on those nations which have refused to recognize the plight of the Armenians. Not a single article in the style of their Rohingya campaign can be found on the Anadolu Agency website regarding the need for justice in the case of 1915; nor is there anything about the necessity to help Armenians in their cause—not one piece. I’m tempted to ask: Why is their solidarity nowhere to be found in this particular case?
In that sense, I wasn’t surprised to read the following in a scholarly article by the Turkish intellectual Dağhan Irak: “the state-run media Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) and Anadolu Agency (AA) companies have been subsidized and restructured in line with the government agenda. These public news producers, especially during the most recent term of the AKP government, have been controlled by officials from a small network close to the party leadership.” Since the official government line has always been to deny classifying the Armenian tragedy as genocide, it’s no surprise why Anadolu Agency takes such a passive-aggressive view towards the issue.
More pertinent to the point, however, is their strategy to deflect their campaign of historical distortion by precisely supporting the causes of other populations who’ve endured genocide—people like the Rohingya—in order to give the impression that their editorial policy really isn’t based around genocide denial. In other words, by supporting the campaign for justice with respect to other countries, Anadolu Agency tries to portray itself as a benevolent force which is only out to seek truth and that no matter how negatively it portrays the struggle for recognition on the part of Armenians, this is more about the doubtful validity of the Armenian Genocide itself and really has less to do with its own dishonest stance on genocides in general.
Again, nothing but negative coverage of 1915, and, in fact, Armenian issues in general is published. Accusations of Armenians keeping their genocide archives closed (which as we already saw is an issue that Turkey is really guilty of), Spain’s rejection of Armenia’s genocide motion, and the tired old Turkish national line of propaganda, which is copied and pasted verbatim into at least four other articles I’ve read—excellent state-sponsored journalism:
Just to drive the point home, here’s another article about Anadolu Agency’s gleeful reporting about Serbia’s rejection of the genocide bill—with the same copied and pasted journalism as the Spanish article. They really need to pay their writers better.
And for a good laugh, here’s the Dutch version of good old copy and paste journalism so graciously provided to you by the Turkish state.
And since we’re already having so much fun exposing the assembly line tactics of state-sponsored journalism factories, why not show this one about the Swiss as well?
As already stated, these “joint commissions” are dishonest ways to try, for the last time, to rewrite the honest scholarship which has already been done numerous times in this area. “Good” historical research which has gone so far as to make a definitive statement on an issue really doesn’t need to be repeated for the millionth time. In other words, why is it considered a downright insult to form those so-called “joint commissions” to verify the veracity of the Holocaust while the attempt to do the same for the Armenian Genocide is seen as a normal occurrence?
It’s no surprise, then, that Turkey is now finding different ways to make itself look like the good guy—standing up and speaking on behalf of other groups currently experiencing genocide while doing everything in its power to silence the people against whom the state has committed violence itself. It’s hard to imagine who they’re trying to fool, but, like the academic “bribery” campaigns of the 80s and 90s, this too shall pass.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.