What is Happening in Myanmar is Genocide
At the end of September, the State Department released its report documenting the “well-planned and coordinated” campaign of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The report involved interviews earlier this year with more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled since the latest crackdown began in August 2017.
Even before the report’s official release, now outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that the State Department’s findings were “consistent” with those in a report last month by the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar — which ultimately called for generals in Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, to be tried for genocide and war crimes against the Rohingya.
Even so, the United States has noticeably stopped short of calling the violence genocide; in the past, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have used the term “ethnic cleansing,” but there have been fierce internal debates as to going a rhetorical step forward towards “genocide.” Given the extensive reporting underway in Myanmar — often at great personal risk to journalists — and with these reports by the United States and the United Nations in hand confirming the widespread violence against the Rohingya minority, using the term genocide is warranted. The United States should make such a statement and, crucially, pair it with action such as: calling on our allies to firmly denounce the violence, providing additional humanitarian aid to Bangladesh, imposing further carefully targeted sanctions upon those responsible for the atrocities, and continue urging countries to suspend arms sales to Myanmar’s military.
HISTORY OF OPPRESSION AGAINST THE ROHINGYA
This crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State must be viewed as the latest crisis in decades — or perhaps even centuries — of oppression against this population, including a 1982 law that stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. The Rohingya have since suffered legalized discrimination, segregation, infringements on births and marriages, as well as severe violence. In June 2012, this violence quickly escalated in reaction to the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman allegedly by Muslim men, sending more than 140,000 to camps for those internally displaced and giving rise to repeated deadly clashes for the years to come.
In September 2016, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, set up the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to chart a way forward for the country. The commission released their recommendations urging the government to take “concerted action” on August 24, 2017 — but the following day, Rohingya militants, acting as part of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked border police in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, resulting in the death of 12 security officers.
Since then, the military has launched an atrocious, deadly persecution of the Rohingya, causing more than 700,000 to flee, in addition to the more than 300,000 who escaped over the past few years. According to human rights investigators, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 1,000 — potentially as high as 5,000 — civilians in the Rakhine state; a more concrete picture, however, is difficult to determine given that Myanmar refuses to allow these investigators into the affected areas.
REPORTING CRIMES COMMITTED IN THE RAKHINE STATE
Denied access to the Rakhine state, the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar relied on interviews earlier this year with more than 870 victims and eyewitnesses, ultimately concluding in August 2018 that the six generals in Myanmar’s military named in their final report should face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide and war crimes against the Rohingya; the commission also called for targeted sanctions on those responsible and an international arms embargo. Previously, the Tatmadaw had claimed the crackdown was a military necessity in the name of security, but such a necessity, the report stated, “would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages.” The military’s actions were clearly “calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the Rohingya group, as an underlying genocidal act.” In addition, the commission faulted Suu Kyi for failing to exercise her “moral authority” and made an admittedly conservative estimate that at least 10,000 people had died in this most recent outburst of violence.
Unsurprisingly, Myanmar rejected the UN commission’s work — just as they later rejected the ICC’s ruling that they had jurisdiction over the alleged crimes against the Rohingya people and decision to launch a preliminary examination of the violence. After all, as a spokesperson for the government said, Myanmar has “zero tolerance for human rights violations.” However, the report released in September 2018 by the U.S. State Department further showed that claim for the lie it was. The report, intentionally made public quietly, involved interviews with more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh and documented the “well-planned and coordinated” campaign of violence against the Rohingya. Though stopping short of labeling the atrocities as genocide or crimes against humanity, the report made clear that the military led mass killings, gang rapes, and arson in the Rakhine State: The violence “was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents.”
Even before the report’s release, the United States had taken some measured action, including imposing sanctions in December on Maung Maung Soe, the general responsible for the military operation following the August 25th attack, as well as in August 2018 on four members of Myanmar’s security forces and two army units. The United States has also provided more than $380 million in humanitarian aid this past year for those fleeing violence in the Rakhine State in order to assist with food, water, shelter, and health services.
Nevertheless, we must do more. The genocide underway in Myanmar is indisputable — and knowledge of the gravity of the on-the-ground situation has come from the diligent, risky work of investigators as well as the sacrifices of journalists, such as the two Reuters reporters sentenced to 7 years in prison for their work that shed light on 10 Rohingya men brutally killed by Myanmar’s military and Buddhist villagers in September 2017. The Reuters report was especially impactful in that it was the first to directly implicate Myanmar’s military in carrying out crimes against the Rohingya by the military personnel’s very own confession.
THE PATH FORWARD
Moving forward, the United States must denounce this violence against the Rohingya as genocide. Thus far, the Trump Administration has failed to do so because once such a definitive term is used, stronger punitive measures are expected — but that is exactly what this conflict warrants. Plus, the UN commission once again emphasized on October 25th that the genocide is “ongoing” and that the government has little demonstrated interest in “establishing a fully functioning democracy where all its people equally enjoy all their rights and freedoms.”
After firmly declaring the violence in Myanmar as a genocide, the United States should then supply additional humanitarian aid and assistance to Bangladesh so that they can continue to provide refuge for fleeing Rohingya until the United Nations deems it safe for them to return. The United States can also encourage the implementation of the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission, which calls for economic development and equal rights and citizenship for the Rohingya; continue urging countries to suspend arms sales to Myanmar’s military; as well as impose further carefully targeted sanctions upon those responsible for ordering and carrying out the violence against the Rohingya Muslims. On the note of sanctions, it is important to design them so as not to overly isolate the Tatmadaw and therefore Suu Kyi, who many view as essential to democratic progress in the country; however, Suu Kyi’s defense of the military and failure thus far to uphold the human rights of the Rohingya must not go unanswered either, else any potential democratic resolution she partakes in would not be entirely just.
The United States — and the broader international community — must make definitive moves to end the genocide currently underway in Myanmar against the Rohingya. If we fail to do so, we leave the fates of hundreds of thousands to indefinite violence and bloodshed.
Shannon Bugos is the Communications and Writing Manager at Truman National Security Project and the editor-in-chief of the Doctrine Blog. Views expressed here are her own.