Genocide of the Rohingya Muslims
“It was 2 AM when they came to our village. They set all our houses on fire. There was no time to grab anything. Not even food. All we could do was run.”
— Rohingya Refugee, posted March 8, 2018 on Humans of New York
At this year’s Day of Learning, some students attended a workshop on the Rohingya Genocide and I want to continue the conversation in the post. Since the Rohingya Muslims began fleeing Buddhist-majority Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh in August 2017, newspapers around the globe have captured their flight with provocative accounts from the refugees. Thanks to the press’s tireless work, the plight of the Rohingya has jumped from front page news into the national consciousness of millions worldwide. But, what should we do with this knowledge and outrage? What comes next?
Knowledge is the first step to enacting change. Next comes action. With this in mind, in this post I will provide a concise background of the conflict, and suggest some of the next steps that we can take to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya.
Step 1: Knowledge
Who Are the Rohingya?
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a country in Southeast Asia, located between Thailand and Bangladesh. A majority of its population identifies as Buddhist, but the country is also home to a large number of ethnic and religious minorities, including Rohingya Muslims. Although the Burmese government identifies 135 ethnic groups within its population, the Rohingya are left out.
Despite their long history in the country, mostly in the coastal state of Rakhine, widespread government propaganda labels the Rohingya as ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh unworthy of inclusion in Burmese society. As a result, the state and the civilian population attack and disenfranchise the Rohingya without fear of impunity.[i]
Ethnic Cleansing and “Acts of Genocide”
Following the end of Britain’s colonial rule, the country was governed by a military junta. Since 2010, Myanmar has experienced a period of democratization, resulting in the 2015 election of Noble Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi to the office of State Counsellor (similar to Prime Minister). Although Suu Kyi is the nominal leader of the country, the military still holds the real power.[ii]
In the past two years, a Rohingya militant group known as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked several police outposts in the Rakhine state, resulting in the death of nine police officers.[iii] The government views these isolated attacks as the justification for wide spread violence against the Rohingya.
Since the attacks, state-sponsored security forces – with the help of Burmese civilians – have initiated “clearance operations” to allegedly combat ARSA. These operations, however, actually attack all Rohingya. In the past 18 months, thousands have been murdered, countless have been raped, and entire villages have been burned to the ground. At the time of writing, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape the violence. Fearing for their lives, the Rohingya are unable to return to their homes.
Step 2: Action
In order for the international community to take direct action in Myanmar, it must refer to the atrocity as a as a genocide. Despite all the media attention, not a single world leader or government has labeled the events in Myanmar as such. On March 7, 2018, United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein came close when he stated that “acts of genocide” against the Rohingya are currently taking place, however, even “acts of genocide” is too weakly worded to incite action.[iv]
Under international law, countries that have signed the United Nations Genocide Convention (ratified by 149 states as of January 2018), are compelled to act if they refer to an event as genocide. While terms like “acts of genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are powerful, they do nothing to ameliorate the plight of the Rohingya. States are not obligated to intervene when acts of genocide occur; it is only when the events are labeled as genocide that the international community is compelled to act. By avoiding direct accusations of genocide, world leaders also avoid the legal responsibility to stop it.[v]
We must push our leaders to speak truthfully and declare the violence as “genocide.” Sign a petition, contact your elected officials, or start an email writing campaign to push for an official recognition of genocide. Being informed is important, but we must strive to do more. The future of the Rohingya depends on it.
[i] For example, in 1982 the country’s military rulers adopted a law that stripped them of citizenship. Without citizenship, the Rohingya cannot access health care or education and their rights are severely restricted. As of early 2017 over one million Rohingya lived in Myanmar, largely confined to very poor villages and internment camps as a result of the longstanding discrimination against them.
[iii] “They Tried to Kill Us All”: Atrocity Crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar (Washington D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Fortify Rights, 2017), 8. https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/201711-atrocity-crimes-rohingya-muslims.pdf (accessed March 8, 2018).
[iv] Stephanie Nebehay and Simon Lewis, “’Acts of genocide’ suspected against Rohingya in Myanmar: U.N.” Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-rights/acts-of-genocide-suspected-against-rohingya-in-myanmar-u-n-idUSKCN1GJ163 (accessed March 8, 2018).
[v] This is a story that we have all seen before. During the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, the world watched as nearly 1,000,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days. Officials in the United States and around the world were advised to describe the events in Rwanda only as “acts of genocide.” This time around, something needs to change. The world community has not learned from its mistake in Rwanda. It continues to watch genocide unfold in Myanmar without labeling it as such.