Sounding The Alarm On Potential Genocide In Burma
By Olivia Enos
December 31, 2016
A recent report from Amnesty International highlights heightened persecution against Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Burma. The report claims that activities carried out by Burmese security forces against Rohingya may amount to crimes against humanity. As violence continues, the international community should carefully examine whether the attacks rise to the level of genocide.
Burma, a majority Buddhist country, discriminates against Rohingya primarily on the basis of religion, but recent persecution is also political. Many Rohingya have roots in Burma tracing as far back as the 19th century, when their ancestors emigrated from Bangladesh. Yet the Burmese government does not consider Rohingya to be citizens. Instead, they are stateless – denied the right to vote and limited in educational opportunities and access to food and medical care. Today, nearly 140,000 Rohingya are corralled in 40 internment camps established by the Burmese authorities in the Rakhine state where most Rohingya reside. Conditions in the camps are deplorable with limited access to food, water, and medical care.
The situation facing Rohingya worsened in 2015 after the government revoked their temporary identification cards and excluded them from voting in the historic election that brought to power the National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Nobel-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite Burma’s transition to relative democracy, the situation facing Rohingya continues to deteriorate. Suu Kyi has been unusually quiet on their plight. Her leadership on this issue, however, is critical to it gaining political traction and legitimacy in Burma.
The Genocide Convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Among these “acts” are killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, attempting to destroy an entire group, and transferring children from one group to another.
A U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) report sounded the alarm in 2015, indicating that there were already early warning signs of genocide in Burma. The report listed physical violence against Rohingya, segregation, blockages of humanitarian assistance, and denial of citizenship as just a few of the early indicators of genocide – all of which continue today.
Rohingya have unquestionably experienced extrajudicial killings and bodily or mental harm targeting them specifically because of their ethnicity and religion. According to Matt Smith, a Burma watcher and founder and CEO of Fortify Rights, extrajudicial killings and mass rape of Rohingya women and girls is occurring today. And satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch provides evidence of government forces torching as many as 1,500 homes in Rakhine State.
John McKissick, a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), recently said that UNHCR believes that a campaign of ethnic cleansing is underway. However, Suu Kyi herself recently filed a complaint against the UN for this statement and asked the international community to stop “drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment.”
The U.S. government has done little to address the crisis. In March 2016 the State Department said that it believed that Burma is persecuting Rohingya, but that it did not constitute genocide. Now, the U.S. is calling for a “credible and independent investigation” into the situation facing Rohingya.
But the U.S. can and should do more. Beyond investigating the situation facing Rohingya, Washington should also strongly encourage the Burmese government to recognize Rohingya as citizens. Until Rohingya are recognized as citizens, they will continue to suffer the same abysmal treatment they have endured in recent years.
Speculation about crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide is bad enough, but a U.S. or international legal body should make an official determination on the scale of rights abuse occurring in Burma and take the requisite action to ensure the rights of Rohingya are protected.