Burma’s Rohingya Still Under Threat
In December, the Museum announced its finding that compelling evidence suggests the Burmese military committed genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority population of Burma.
We recognize the tragedy of alerting the world to a genocide that was foreseeable, where the Museum and many others warned of the risks. In 2015 alone, we issued two reports that outlined the potential for genocide in Burma. In the years since, we used our own reporting and that of other organizations, including the Public International Law and Policy Group, which undertook a documentation effort for the US Department of State, and the United Nations, to perform a legal analysis. We worked with a bipartisan group of legal experts to review the evidence of genocide and other crimes.
“ My husband was the last man the military selected. It was the last time I saw him. When they took him, I tried to control my daughters. They were calling out for their father to come back to them.” — MarJan, mother of twins Mokurama and Mokuddus (age 7)
As an institution, the Museum did not come to this conclusion lightly. We decided to make this announcement because we have a moral obligation to serve as a voice of conscience on behalf of communities that have experienced
genocide and other atrocity crimes. We felt that it was important to stand with the Rohingya, who have been persecuted for decades and for whom the Burmese authorities deny the very right to exist as a people.
Of course, the bar to determine genocide is quite high. A formal determination is usually only made by a court, but we felt that it was of critical importance for us as an institution — just as we did on ISIS a few years ago — to announce our findings.
We hope the Museum’s determination leads to a review — by the US government and the international community more broadly — of policies toward Burma. We hope that it prompts a consideration of the types of tools that have been enacted in other cases, yet have not been enacted in this one, including additional sanctions toward senior-level officials, the advancement of accountability, and the creation of a mechanism whereby individuals can be held responsible. We hope that it leads to consideration of how to address some of the root causes of violence against the Rohingya and also provide protection.
We are very concerned about the plight of the remaining Rohingya in northern Rakhine state, roughly a half million people, according to various estimates. They remain at high risk for genocide and mass atrocities. We’re getting reports that every week more than one hundred Rohingya are trying to leave the country. Access to these communities remains a problem. One of the key tools of perpetrators is to deny access for outside observers to those who have been victimized. That continues to be a prevailing challenge and something that the international
community needs to resist.
Governments, the United Nations, and others need to be exploring every possible leverage point, tool, and engagement that can help prevent future atrocities. What is most urgent today is protecting those Rohingya who continue to face threats, including physical threats, and ensuring that the Rohingya who have escaped to Bangladesh are not returned to a situation where they could face genocide.
“ If I imagine what life was like before the violence, I want to cry. When I think about what happened during the violence, my heart shakes. If you go back to the village you will find only bones.” — Rabiya (age 12)
We also feel that it’s important to set a historical record. As we know from the Holocaust, those who perpetrate atrocities all too often try to deny any evidence that crimes have occurred. We have seen the Burmese authorities try to raze to the ground communities where the Rohingya lived, to build new communities on top, to essentially deny that crimes took place. We want to help counter that very deliberate effort to deny the commission of genocide and help those Rohingya who continue to be at risk of
It’s important to note that our concern extends not just to the Rohingya, but to other ethnic and religious minorities in the country who face a risk of crimes against humanity and already have experienced those horrific atrocities. There’s been one constant in the history of Burma, and that has been the perpetrator: the Burmese military. We hope our announcement will galvanize efforts to gather evidence, preserve it, analyze it, and at a future date hold perpetrators accountable.
“ When things became quiet, I came back to the village to look for my son. He was shot in the road in front of our house. I tried to bury him but the military returned and we had to run away. I couldn’t give him a proper burial.” — Abdul (age 57)
I myself am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Every member of my grandfather’s family was killed. For the last decade, I have followed the plight of the Rohingya and the warning signs were so abundantly stark. And as an institution, we work to try to ensure that the commitment to prevent genocide is not merely just empty rhetoric. That “never again” actually means something.
We have an obligation as an institution to try to do for communities experiencing atrocities today what was not done during the Holocaust for the Jews. Our hope is that the international community seizes on this moment and future opportunities to take action to prevent atrocities, protect those Rohingya who remain vulnerable, protect other communities in Burma that are at risk of attack by the very same military units that have targeted the Rohingya, and that we press for accountability for those who have committed these horrific atrocities.
Naomi Kikoler is the deputy director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.