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Rohingya refugee children watch a football game during sunset at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Wednesday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

By Richard Cockett
January 5, 2018

The Yangon School of Political Science, squashed into an upper floor of a grimy old apartment block, is almost as hard to find as the liberalism that it tries to teach. Inside, the head of the school, U Myat Thu, concedes that the small foundation he has created to nurture “tolerance, liberal individualism and freedom of conscience” suddenly finds itself out of step with the times. Beyond the walls, the rest of the country has largely given itself up to the easy certainties of prejudice, hatred and ignorance.

Yet Myat Thu has spent many years as a member of National League of Democracy (NLD), the party co-founded by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 to challenge the murderous military regimes that hijacked Burma in the early 1960s. He thought, like many other members of the opposition, that he was fighting for those hallowed values of a liberal, tolerant and open society. In November 2015, his devotion finally seemed to have been vindicated when the NLD won a landslide majority in a historic general election, ushering in Suu Kyi as the de facto leader of the country.

He was hopeful. But a great deal has happened since then — above all, the military-led ethnic cleansing campaign that has terrorized hundreds of thousands of Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority into fleeing the country. “It’s horrible, and people have no feelings for them at all, no sympathy at all.”

Sadly, he is right. But what most worries him is that none of his fellow political warriors in the NLD have spoken out in the same way. Indeed, merely his use of the R-word marks him out in contemporary Burma as something of a hero of our time. The term “Rohingya” is officially banned, and so cowed are most people by this edict that almost no one uses it in private conversation, either.

Myat Thu believes that one reason for the NLD’s silence is that party members have for so long taken their cue from the top. If Suu Kyi is not going to say anything about the Rohingya, then they aren’t going to, either. In this sense, he, and others, wonder whether the NLD was ever the human-rights-based democratic movement that its Western supporters took it to be. Today it looks more as if it was merely a Suu Kyi fan club all along. Now that she is in power, nobody seems interested in advancing the values that the NLD was supposed to have stood for. “The process of democratization has stopped,” laments Myat Thu.

Anti-Muslim prejudice has a long history in Burma. The British encouraged millions of South Asians, many of them Muslims, to emigrate to Burma during the colonial period to run and exploit the latest addition to the empire. Burmans bitterly resented this, particularly the consequent loss of cultural and political control even in the Burman heartlands. By the eve of World War II, Yangon, the political and commercial capital, was an Indian-majority city.

The independence movement, and radical politics in general, thus became as much an anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner struggle as it was a specifically anti-British one. Suu Kyi herself is only one NLD activist to have written eloquently about the existential threat that Burman Buddhists felt from the unwelcome, uncontrolled influx of Indian Muslims, particularly when the men, relatively privileged in the colonial pecking order, started marrying Buddhist women.

These same fears dominate political discourse in Burma today, and they are as deeply embedded in the NLD as anywhere else. When the Rohingya issue first flared up before the 2015 election, some local party committees started to expel their Muslim members — despite orders to the contrary from NLD leaders. Animus against Muslims is widespread. The militant, xenophobic Buddhist monks who have whipped up most of the anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya rhetoric in the country regard Rakhine state as the “Western Gate,” the first bastion against the oncoming Muslim hordes of South Asia. The Rohingya breached that bastion and have to be pushed out again. It is a view shared by many Burman Buddhists.

Furthermore, although NLD activists still use a lexicon of human and political rights, as Suu Kyi sometimes does, the Rohingya can effectively be excluded from this because they are not citizens of Burma. Notoriously, they were not granted citizenship in the old military regime’s deeply flawed 1982 Citizenship Act, despite the fact that many of them had been living in Rakhine state since precolonial times. Often, young NLD supporters, sounding very progressive, tell me that they want to extend the same democratic and political rights to all “citizens” of Burma, but it does not seem to occur to them that this should include the Rohingya, as they are not citizens. Too often, I suspect that this is an easy excuse, masking deeper, rather less progressive sentiments. Maybe it is just ignorance, but they seem to forget all too easily that the Citizenship Act was designed by the military regime — their enemy — to divide and rule. Now many in the NLD seem happy enough to play the same game.

Myat Thu will keep on teaching against the current, but fewer and fewer want to hear what to has to say. He himself is a practicing Muslim, but he proudly traces his ancestry to many of the ethnic groups of Burma, intertwined over many generations. He embodies the promise of a different NLD, but one that now, sadly, appears to be gradually receding.

Richard Cockett is the Economist’s former Southeast Asia bureau chief and is the author of “Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma.”

Rohingya women, who fled from Myanmar, wait for aid to be distributed at a camp in Bangladesh. Photograph: Dar Yasin/AP

By Simon Tisdall
January 3, 2018

With no appetite for humanitarian intervention and no support for a powerful ICC, there is unlikely to be justice in Myanmar or elsewhere

A stark warning from the UN in mid-December that genocide may be taking place in Myanmar has been met by an awkward silence around the world, indicating a limited appetite for forceful humanitarian intervention, even in the most extreme cases.

The persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority is beginning to resemble the plight of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, albeit on a smaller scale. After failing to stop the Rwanda slaughter, when up to 1 million people died, the international community vowed it would never happen again. Now, it seems, the nightmare is back.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, previously described systematic attacks on the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military and civilian militias as ethnic cleansing, an assessment shared by the US.

But in a BBC interview last month, Hussein went a big step further. “You cannot rule out the possibility that acts of genocide have been committed … It wouldn’t surprise me in the future if the court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.”

The embarrassed silence that greeted his remarks reflects the fact that there is zero support for direct action in Myanmar. The concept of forceful humanitarian intervention, formulated in a celebrated speech in Chicago in 1999 by Tony Blair – and implemented in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor – is blown.

The disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, justified on moral and humanitarian grounds after the WMD argument imploded, discredited the “Blair doctrine”.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Myanmar’s generals are not alone in their impunity. In Yemen, which Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary, terms “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, Saudi forces are accused of causing large-scale civilian casualties, and of illegally blocking aid as a weapon of war.

A similar situation exists in Syria. Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president, has been widely accused of war crimes. But after six years of murderous mayhem, he still sits tight in Damascus.

Lack of political will is only one reason why the international community appears powerless to halt mass killings. Hussein’s prediction that Myanmar’s nominal leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and its top general, Min Aung Hlaing, could end up before a court was presumably a reference to the international criminal court, founded under UN auspices in 2002 and backed by 123 states out of a possible 195. The ICC is the world’s criminal court of last resort, charged with investigating and prosecuting individuals responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But Myanmar, like Syria and Yemen, is not a party to the ICC and lies outside its jurisdiction. The only way its leaders could face a judicial reckoning would be if the UN security council referred them to the ICC. This is not going to happen because China, a permanent member and Myanmar’s close commercial and political ally, would veto any such move. Likewise, Assad is protected by Russia, which has strategic interests in Syria.

The ICC has enjoyed limited success since its inception, in large part because major powers such as the US, China, Russia and India reject its jurisdiction, ostensibly on grounds of national sovereignty – although the US supports the court when it suits its purposes overseas. The ICC has also been weakened by member countries refusing to enforce its statute. 

The most notorious case concerns Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president accused of genocide in Darfur. When Bashir visited South Africa in 2015, Jacob Zuma’s government ignored its legal obligation to arrest him. Following criticism of its behaviour, South Africa and other African members have threatened to quit the ICC.

Leading countries with the capacity to make a difference in places such as Myanmar or, for example, war-torn South Sudan, are also frequently guilty of failing to uphold international treaties, human rights conventions and resolutions which they previously signed up to through the UN system.

A total of 143 countries backed the convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide, adopted by the UN general assembly in 1948. At the time, the Holocaust was still a recent event. But memories fade and so, too, it seems, does political resolve. 

A more recent, egregious example of international backsliding is the failure to honour the principle of the collective “responsibility to protect”. Shamed by the failures in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, a UN world summit meeting in 2005 agreed all countries have shared responsibility to prevent and respond to the most serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. 

The summit agreed that the principle of state sovereignty carried with it the obligation of the state to protect its own citizens. If a state was unable or unwilling to do so, the international community was empowered to act.

In Myanmar, where about 870,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee to Bangladesh and up to 10,000 people have been killed so far, their government has not only failed to protect them. It also appears directly culpable. 

This is precisely the sort of situation the 2005 UN declaration was intended to prevent. And it promised, if and when such crises occurred, that member states would take “timely and decisive action, in accordance with the UN charter”. All over the world, this solemn promise is being broken on a daily basis.

A house is seen on fire in Gawduthar village, Maungdaw township, in the north of Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo: Reuters

By Shakhawat Liton
December 25, 2017

Demand for trial getting louder but no concrete actions by UN

Nine years ago when a former judge and two prosecutors at the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia were examining the documents on human rights abuses in Myanmar, they were astonished by the UN inaction even though the global body knew for years the severe, widespread, and systematic violations of human rights there.

They saw that the UN resolutions and special rapporteurs had spoken out over and over again about the abuses that were reported to them. But the UN Security Council did not move the process forward, as it should have and had done in similar cases like that of the former Yugoslavia and Darfur of Western Sudan.

Internationally acclaimed jurists Justice Patricia M Wald of the US, Justice Richard J Goldstone of South Africa, and Sir Geoffrey Nice QC of the UK were working as commissioners for a report called "Crimes in Burma" which was prepared in 2009 by the law school of Harvard University. 

Justice Wald, who served as the chief judge for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, was a judge at the international criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Justice Goldstone, who served as a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, was the chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. Sir Nice was deputy prosecutor of the international criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia and the principal prosecution trial attorney in the case against Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague.

Milosevic was the world's first president to be indicted for war crimes by an international criminal court.

As judge and prosecutors at the two international crimes tribunals set up by the UN, they worked relentlessly to complete trials of perpetrators of genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Judge Pedro Nikken of Venezuela, a former member of the executive committee of the international commission of jurists, and Ganzorig Gombosuren, a former judge at the Supreme Court of Mongolia, worked with them.

In their examination, they found that UN documents have included a range of human rights and humanitarian law violations in Myanmar since 1992.

The International Human Rights Clinic of the Harvard Law School prepared the report by reviewing four types of crimes perpetrated in Myanmar: forced displacement of the population, sexual violence, murder, and torture that had been documented in various UN reports since 2002.

Based on the report's findings and recommendations, the five jurists called on the UN Security Council to urgently establish a commission of inquiry to probe and report on crimes against humanity and war crimes in Myanmar.

The world cannot wait while the military regime continues its atrocities against the people of Myanmar, they said in the report, adding that the day may come for a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of a special tribunal to deal with the country and member states of the UN should be prepared to support such action.

The law school of Harvard has moved further and opend another inquiry in 2011 regarding the situation in Myanmar. 

In 2014, the inquiry released its report where it said three military commanders and a combat division of Myanmar army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kachin and northern Shan State of Myanmar in 2005-06.

The report documented how soldiers fired mortars at villages; opened fire on fleeing villagers; destroyed homes, crops, and food stores; planted landmines in civilian areas; forced civilians to work; and captured and executed civilians.

The law school accused the three senior army officials, one of whom later became the home minister, of committing war crimes. It said, “The abuses perpetrated by the military have been too widespread, too persistent, and too grave to be ignored.”

It said it found enough evidence for International Criminal Court at The Hague to press war crimes and crimes against humanity charges against the trio and for issuing arrest warrants.

But nothing happened to the three.

In a legal analytical report the following year, the law school of Yale University documented atrocities perpetrated by Myanmar military against the Rohingyas. It found atrocities committed against the Rohingyas had increased precipitously since 2012.

The report concluded that the available evidence strongly suggested that all the elements of genocide were present in Rakhine State.

It too urged the UN to adopt a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in Rakhine State. "Myanmar may be responsible under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide for failing to prevent genocide from occurring within its borders," it stated.

Again, nothing happened to the perpetrators and like before, the Myanmar authorities denied all allegations.

The world waited and the inaction resulted in painful consequences. Over the years the situation worsened. The Rohingyas faced much worse than the people in Kachin and Shan states.

Like on previous occasions, UN senior officials kept voicing concern. After Myanmar military's crackdown on the Rohingyas in October 2016, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar in March this year said the situation in northern Rakhine state was far worse than anticipated.

"I would say crimes against humanity. Definite crimes against humanity… by the Burmese, Myanmar military, the border guard or the police or security forces," Yanghee Lee told the BBC in March.

At least 87,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar in the wake of the violence.

Lee has been banned by Myanmar government for her strong voices against human rights abuses.

A few months later, Myanmar refused entry to members of a UN investigation focusing on allegations of killings, rapes, and tortures by security forces against the Rohingyas.

Keeping the eyes of the world away, Myanmar military continued its brutalities.

The intensified atrocities perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingyas since August has already been labelled by UN and right bodies as "text book example of ethnic cleansing" and genocide and crimes against humanity. Over 6.5 lakh Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh since then.

According to Doctors Without Borders at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in attacks during the first month of the military crackdown.

Rights bodies presented evidence in piles, about the burning of Rohingya villages, raping of women, and indiscriminate murder of the Rohingyas. 


In September, an international people's tribunal in Malaysia held Myanmar guilty of “genocide” against the Rohingyas and said the “systematic targeting of civilians” and other acts committed by the Myanmar army qualified as war crimes.

The seven-member bench of Permanent People's Tribunal, holding proceedings on alleged atrocities and state crimes against the Rohingya, Kachin and other ethnic minority groups in Myanmar, said the Myanmar army was committing the crime in the “context of official duties”.

“On the strength of the evidence presented, the tribunal reached the consensus ruling that the State of Myanmar has the intent to commit genocide against the Kachin people and the other Muslim groups," read the judgement delivered in a court-like setting at the University of Malaya's Faculty of Law.

New York-based Human Rights Watch on November 3 urged the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court because of its failure to investigate massive atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingyas.

The European Parliament recently urged its member states to adopt disciplinary sanctions against the perpetrators of violence and “human rights abuses” in Myanmar.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said he would not be surprised if a court one day ruled that acts of genocide had been committed against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

In a recent interview with the BBC, he said that attacks on the Rohingyas had been "well thought out and planned" and he had asked Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to stop the military action.

Zeid called the campaign "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

During her visit last month, Pramila Patten, UN special representative of the secretary general, promised to put the guilty soldiers in the dock of the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

If the UN could do what it had done in the cases of genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, there could be hope.


After its shocking failure to act on time to prevent the Rwanda genocide in 1994 in which more than 800,000 Tutsi were massacred by the Hutu majority, at least two former UN chiefs and some world leaders had apologised to the Rwandans. 

The UN got the opportunity in 1998 to boast about its stance against genocide when trials were being held for the genocide perpetrators, including the then Rwanda prime minister. The first verdict was delivered in early September 1998 against a Rwanda politician. 

In a discussion on the trial of Rwanda genocide perpetrators, the UN in October 1998 hoped the legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda laid the foundation for a new era in international criminal justice.

The UN's failure to act comprehensively was again seen in Bosnia. More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica in July 1995. The then UN secretary general Kofi Annan in a report in the General Assembly in 1999 concluded “the tragedy of Srebrenica will haunt our history forever”.

Yet, sentencing of Ratko Maldic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander known as the Butcher of Bosnia, to life in prison on November 22 by a UN criminal tribunal for genocide and his role at Srebrenica demonstrated the UN's stance against the heinous crimes.

Less than 10 years after Rwanda, genocide unfolded in Darfur of Western Sudan, exposing once again the failure of UN and international community to protect civilians.

In 2005, the UN Security Council passed a resolution and referred Darfur to the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute serious crimes committed in Darfur.

In 2010, the international criminal court charged Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir with three counts of genocide in Darfur.


Myanmar is not a state party to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. Therefore, the situation in Myanmar needs to be referred to the international criminal court by the UN Security Council through a resolution, which will empower the court to investigate human rights abuses and prosecute the abusers.

But passage of such a resolution by the Security Council looks almost impossible due to China, a close supporter of Myanmar for decades for its strong economic and business interest there. 

Since 2007, China backed by Russia has killed several efforts taken by the Security Council on Myanmar with their veto power.

China's support helped Myanmar military generals to remain above the law for decades. This impunity gave them the licence to carry out the genocide.

Time has come for China to reassess its strategy so that in future it is not branded as a partner of genocide in Myanmar.

If China supports a UN move to refer the Myanmar situation to the International Criminal Court, there will be no dearth of evidence to prosecute the alleged perpetrators.

By Maung Zarni
December 13, 2017

Can you imagine BBC, Chatham House, Rand Corporation portraying as potential “Jewish terrorists” the survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbruick, Dachau and other world infamous death and labour camps? Can you imagine young Jewish children and orphans who were rescued through the programme “kindertransport”, being framed by Allied Policy Makers and advisers as “embryonic Jewish terrorists”, who naturally might be seething with the desire for revenge against the Old Europe post-Third Reich, that, with no shame nor conscience, appeased Hitler in exchange for lucrative business deals or anti-USSR intelligence cooperation while millions of Jewish parents were gassed to death?

Of course not. 

But that is precisely what is now happening to the survivors of my Buddhist country’s genocide, whose name even the entire Catholic Church in Myanmar, and by extension, Pope Francis, have dared not pronounce, lest saying the victims’ ethnic identity might irritate Myanmar’s genocidal leaders, the likes of General Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi

One million Rohingyas are suffering from this double-whammy of oppression: a perceived threat at home in North Arakan or Rakhine State of Myanmar, and a projected threat across the borders in Chittagong of Bangladesh.

The country of their birth – whatever their citizenship status or ethnic identity – falsely, and officially, frames Rohingyas as ‘illegal Bengali migrants’, or worse, ‘communities of Jihadists’. This view has been cultivated and popularized in the Burmese civil society at large, which now behaves more like the Germans in the 1930s’ than the public that is pushing for human rights or democratization. 

In the eyes of the Burmese public, Rohingyas are seen as a demographic threat to the ‘Buddhist Way of Life’ and a national security. Accordingly, they are mistreated genocidally on their own soil. The host country of Bangladesh of 166 million Muslims, which opened its eastern borders when the human tsunami of fleeing Rohingyas cried out for refuge, has long-standing concern about the Rohingyas in need, becoming ‘a non-traditional security threat’ (epidemic, prostitution, narcotic trade, etc.), as well as a potential pool of Islamic terrorists.

Joining these sovereign states and their governments in this pathological orgy of mis-framing the world’s largest stateless people, that is, the most vulnerable and persecuted community who have just survived the most unimaginably sadistic, coordinated and widespread terror, are consultants and journalists who make a living pumping out ‘security analyses’ for national governments and government-funded think-tanks.

To my dismay, even the country’s great humanitarian and Nobel Peace Laureate Mohammad Yunus – not to mention the usual national security types - has shown no qualms about expressing his national security concerns for Bangladesh, emanating from the prolonged Rohingya presence. He has recently done this in his interview with Mehdi Hassan on Al Jazeera English and elsewhere.

It is now widely reported that Rohingya orphans, women and young girls – including the survivors of genocidal gangrape by Myanmar troops – have been preyed on by local Bangladesh and Rohingya criminal networks – to be exploited as prostitutes, drug mules, bonded labourers, and so on.

Deeply troubling is the existence of white-collar crimes, which I will call the symbolic exploitation of Rohingyas, whereby researchers, journalists and other professionals make their living selling analyses and reports framed within the discourses of ‘Muslim insurgency’, ‘Islamic radicalization’ and ‘fundamentalist terror’. Their human objects of professional gaze, that is, Rohingya survivors of Myanmar genocide – are potential drug mules, petty criminals and ultimately Jihadists.

Considering that out of the recent arrivals of 640,000 Rohingyas, 60 per cent are deeply emotionally scarred women, traumatized children, frail elderly men and women the broad stroke portrayal of this population as a ‘threat to regional instability’ and potential for ISIS recruits is as despicable as the genocidal acts that drove these people in deep and visible misery.

These white-collar criminals – again think-tank consultants, seasoned journalists, amateur Myanmar experts - are equally, if not more, deadly and immoral as the local pimps and petty criminals in Chittagong. Both groups prey on the most vulnerable of all human to line their pockets, enhance their expert reputations and climb their professional ladders as ‘experts on terrorism’, ‘security’, etc.

Swallowing my deep outrage, I have forced myself to read think-tank reports, newspaper editorials, political discussions and media interviews where politicians, consultants, NGOs and journalists express what they consider the prospects for radicalisation of what Bangladesh refers to, gingerly, as ‘forcibly displaced persons from Myanmar’. These ‘security experts’ blatantly ignore the fact that no Rohingya has blown him- or herself up in either Myanmar or Bangladesh – or for that matter, any world’s capital, in the last 39 years since Myanmar launched its first wave of genocidal terror in North Arakan under the guise of ‘anti-illegal immigration’ campaign.

Alas, calling the one million Rohingya genocide survivors, which is what they in fact are, would, I would hope, compel the world of national governments, mass media and national security agencies to accord Rohingyas the kind of belated political support and moral stature which the Holocaust survivors were deservedly accorded.

Why then do the integrated world of power, intelligence and money go along with the pathetic mis-framing of these human victims of the crime of barbarity in Myanmar?

I offer two brief but interlinked explanations: Islamophobia and the mental culture of paranoia on which intelligence agencies rest.

First, these agencies and men and women who staff them, are, institutionally and temperamentally, conditioned to view any human individuals as potential criminals while normal, healthy minds view other humans as decent, potential friends, lovers, and partners. A dear friend and university classmate of my late father who held a coordinator position in Burma’s National Intelligence Bureau reinforced my view that national security paradigms are anchored in institutionalized paranoia.

Second and finally, since 9/11 the western media and the powerful culture industry such as the Hollywood have helped spread the Orientalist (read racist) portrayal of Muslims and Islam as terroristic, senseless, ruthless, parochial, and reactionary. Never mind that it is “the Christian West” – if we must put the mega-pathos of humans in religious terms - have been the primary factor behind the greatest number of death and destruction on a global scale over the last 100 years. The Two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War of Gulags and Death Squads, the Korean War, the Vietnam, and the presently expanding wars in the Middle East come to mind. That doesn’t even include the 500-years of Church-blessed and/or financed European colonialisms and the resultant colonial genocides across the globe.

It is high time that Rohingya refugees are popularly and officially recognized as survivors of Myanmar genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, or whatever one may choose to call their horrendous experiences.

The last thing these Rohingyas – including over 200,000 children – deserve is to be painted as would be Jihadists and Muslim insurgents. We did not call or treat the Holocaust survivors as potential “Jewish terrorists”. Why should we mis-frame, either out of Islamophobia or Pavlovian-paranoia, the Rohingya survivors as potential “Jihadists” or “Muslim insurgents”? Don’t add insult to the genocidal injury of the world’s most persecuted people whose only crime is that they are Rohingya Muslims. 

Maung Zarni is a Burmese human rights activist, an adviser to the European Centre for the Study of Extremism based in Cambridge, UK and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia. He blogs at

Rohingya Muslims wait to cross the border to Bangladesh, in a temporary camp outside Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar November 12, 2017. Picture taken on November 12, 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

By Pablo Aabir Das
November 25, 2017

A discriminatory citizenship structure and pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar suggest that if the Rohingya return home they are likely to face violence and persecution once again.

Since August, over 600,000 Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, have fled their homes to escape persecution. These refugees have been forced to take shelter in makeshift settlement camps in Bangladesh, where disease and malnutrition have contributed to a pervasive gap in human services. In recent weeks, as a cold front has set in around the camps, there has been increasing concern over children freezing.

As a result, it should come as a reprieve that Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed a tentative agreement to send the Rohingya back to their home in the Rakhine State. While the details are still in flux, the understanding appears to be based off a framework that resolved a similar Rohingya refugee crisis in 1993. Among other things, this means that Rohingya who can prove that they possessed identification documents prior to the crisis can return home.

The issues surrounding this proposal are numerous, not least of which is the lack of clarity on where the Rohingya would even reside – most of their villages were decimated in the violence. The underlying challenge, however, is how the repatriated Rohingya will overcome historical barriers upon their return; Myanmar’s government has denied the Rohingya citizenship and, consequently, access to basic rights.

Proponents of the agreement suggest that if the Rohingya return with documentation, they may soon receive legitimate citizenship. However, even if citizenship is included as a condition to the Rohingya’s return, it is unlikely to serve as a solution to this multidimensional crisis. An anti-Rohingya sentiment is deeply embedded in the fabric of Myanmar’s society. Throughout the country, the Rohingya are characterised as dangerous intruders, intent on proliferating radical propaganda across the nation.

Citizenship is unlikely to ease this predisposition, partially because legal issues compound the social stigma – despite holding citizenship, there are countless cases of ethnic groups that are denied access to justice and basic services. With this in mind, it is a real possibility that as the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh ends, another one will soon reappear in Myanmar.

A conditional citizenship

Myanmar’s rule of law is fragile and tenuous so the constructs of citizenship that uphold established democracies do not exist in the same capacity. Laws surrounding nationality and ethnicity propagate a convoluted, hierarchal system that relies on proof of ancestry as a precursor to full rights. In other words, if residents cannot prove that they had two ancestors living in Myanmar prior to 1823, they can be denied full citizenship.

The system is intentionally prejudicial. Myanmar’s ethnocracy has systematically elevated Buddhist notions and values; as a result, the principles that define democracy, such as pluralism and parity, are elusive. Instead, what prevails is a societal structure that is stratified and discriminatory. Rather than using citizenship as a mechanism for inclusivity, Myanmar has passed laws that have manipulated it into an assimilation barrier for non-Buddhists.

Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law is the cornerstone of this system. The law not only fails to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, it also places those who have citizenship into three tiers: full citizens, associate citizens and naturalised citizens. Associate citizens are typically ethnic minorities who face discrimination from public officials and, subsequently, limited social and political freedoms.

A Rohingya refugee stands outside her makeshift shelter at Hakim Para refugee settlement near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 21, 2017. Credit: Reuters

The Kaman: a cautionary tale

It would seem that even this partial citizenship should, in theory, allow the Rohingya to live peacefully and independently. However, an examination of the Kaman people, a Muslim ethnic group who hold associate citizenship, casts doubt on this notion.

Often perceived as demographically insignificant, the Kaman are largely overlooked in Myanmar. Recognised as an indigenous population, they have nevertheless faced similar threats as their stateless counterparts. During the 2012 Rakhine State clashes between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists, the Kaman were forced out of their homes and into internal camps. Five years later, they remain caught up in the violence.

Unlike the Rohingya, as citizens, the Kaman should enjoy access to justice and the protection of the law. In recent years, however, as the anti-Muslim violence has risen in Myanmar, the Kaman have been denied fundamental rights including voting rights and freedom of movement.

As a peaceful ethnic group, the government has no rationale to deprive the Kaman of their rights aside from discrimination and neglect. This is most clearly reflected in the Kaman’s difficulty in obtaining citizenship documentation. In 2014, 2,000 displaced Kaman applied for national identification cards they lost in the violence, but after drawn out deliberations, only 38 had their requests granted.

With no prospects of legal recourse, the issues surrounding the Kaman are symptomatic of a failed justice system and a society that seems to value their lives solely based on race and creed. This same fate is likely to befall the Rohingya who return with documentation; societal prejudice will trump any sort of legitimacy they may be granted.

A bleak road ahead

It is flawed to believe that a citizenship system that has been used to deprive the Rohingya of their rights for so long can suddenly be used as an instrument to safeguard their future; especially when that system has a history of discriminating against those who already fall under its purview.

If the current state of affairs in Myanmar is not enough to raise concerns about the repatriation agreement, perhaps precedent can shed some light on the situation. The Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar in the past, and each time many have been forced to return to the same environment and the same treatment. Even in instances when they have been granted a political voice, like in the 1990 election when they won a small percentage of seats, it has been short lived. Following those elections, the generals annulled the results and launched a violent crusade against the Rohingya.

Once they return, there is no evidence that legal recognition will provide the Rohingya with the reconciliation, or protection, they need to secure a future in Myanmar. A long-term solution that allows the Rohingya to prosper in the Rakhine State would involve significant reforms in Myanmar’s laws and an overhaul of bias shown towards the Rohingya. These are tall orders, and as both Bangladesh and Myanmar are eager to resolve the crisis, it seems unlikely that they will be taken into consideration.

Pablo Aabir Das is with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Rohingya refugees stand in an open area during heavy rain as they are held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) after crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh on Aug. 31. (Photo: Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters)

By Simon Adams
November 25, 2017

Last Wednesday an international court found Ratko Mladić, the notorious “butcher of Bosnia,” guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. As Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, Mladić’s troops forced thousands of civilians to flee from “ethnic cleansing” – a cruel euphemism that will forever be associated with the wars in the former Yugoslavia. At the time Mladić appeared all-powerful and untouchable, presiding over the genocide at Srebrenica and wantonly committing war crimes. He will now die in prison.

It took decades for international justice to catch up with Mladić. And while the verdict is a welcome warning to other perpetrators, it also poses the uncomfortable question of whether the international community is doing enough to hold those responsible for atrocities today accountable for their crimes? 

Last month, at a meeting held at the United Nations in New York, I argued that “democracy in Myanmar cannot be built on the bones of the Rohingya.” Sitting between the former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh and the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, those were my concluding remarks regarding the quickest and most brutal episode of ethnic cleansing of our times. They were made to a room crowded with diplomats, UN bureaucrats and human rights activists who were gathered because since 25 August more than 622,000 Rohingya have crossed the border from Myanmar (Burma) into Bangladesh. 

The Rohingya are fleeing so-called “clearance operations” carried out by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State, including widespread killings, rape, and the burning of more than 280 villages. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described these attacks as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” 

The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic group in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, have been persecuted for generations. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the estimated 1 million Rohingya as one of the country’s “national races,” rendering them stateless. Other discriminatory laws restrict their freedom of movement and access to employment and education. In short, the conditions under which the Rohingya minority live in Myanmar constitute a uniquely Southeast Asian form of apartheid.

The military’s operations began as collective punishment for a coordinated attack on police and army barracks by Rohingya militants armed mainly with knives. One week later, the Commander of Myanmar’s military, General Min Aung Hlaing, described the “Bengali problem” (he refuses to use the term Rohingya) as an “unfinished job” that previous governments had failed to complete. Atrocities committed against the Rohingya population since then constitute crimes against humanity under international law. They may ultimately prove to be genocidal in intent. 

The response of the UN Security Council has been tepid at best. It took ten weeks for the Council just to issue a Presidential statement condemning the atrocities. The reason for the delay is that China is a powerful ally of the Generals who still dominate Myanmar. China is also Myanmar’s largest supplier of arms. But facing global outrage, China eventually agreed to a unanimous Presidential statement rather than a legally-binding resolution. Words, but no action.

Despite the Security Council’s inertia, the flow of Rohingya refugees has ebbed. This is not because atrocities were halted, but because Myanmar’s military has largely finished its job. Possibly as much as 80% of the Rohingya population have fled. And no one knows how many more are dead or displaced inside Myanmar. Unfinished business, indeed.

My comment at the UN regarding the bones of the Rohingya was a response to those who see these atrocities as unconscionable, but ultimately, as a lesser priority than the political preservation of Myanmar’s frail democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi. The greatest threat to Myanmar’s democracy today, however, is the impunity of its Generals. What kind of a country will Myanmar be if they are allowed to successfully impose their scorched earth policy on Rakhine State? They will certainly have no incentive to respect the human rights of the other 135 ethnic groups who live within Myanmar’s borders. 

But there is an alternative. First, the international community should suspend all bilateral ties with Myanmar’s military. All senior officers with command responsibility for ethnic cleansing should also face targeted sanctions. And all international trade, aid and investment programs in Rakhine State should be scrupulously reviewed. The local authorities and the Myanmar military must not be allowed to profit from the seizure of Rohingya crops, livestock and land. 

The United States, Canada, European Union and others have already imposed some of these measures, but all UN member states should do so. 

Secondly, influential international friends of Aung San Suu Kyi need to continue to lobby her to implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission. Led by Kofi Annan, the Commission has offered practical suggestions to end the persecution of the Rohingya and ease conflict in Rakhine. Not by coincidence, its final report was released on 24 August, the day before the current conflagration began. Expeditiously implementing the Commission’s recommendations would weaken those inside Myanmar’s military who still prefer to conduct domestic policy with bayonets and bullets.

Finally, we need to recognize that the international community has utterly failed the Rohingya. Despite years of warnings about the risk of mass atrocities, including by my own organization, a number of governments took refuge in the idea that quiet diplomacy – including acquiescing to Myanmar’s insistence on not publicly mentioning the Rohingya – would create space for gentle reform. Instead it had the reverse affect, encouraging those generals who desired a final solution in Rakhine State and wanted to test the limits of Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral authority. 

Unlike Ratko Mladić’s victims, Rohingya refugees should not have to wait two decades for justice. It is time to amplify the voices of those calling for the Myanmar authorities to uphold their responsibility to protect the Rohingya. This will require more than hand wringing. It will necessitate holding General Min Aung Hlaing and all those responsible for ethnic cleansing in Myanmar accountable for their actions. What is at stake is not just the fate of the Rohingya, but the very idea of an international community that is prepared to defend universal rights.

Simon Adams is Executive Director of Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

Mohammed Shoaib, 7, who was shot on his chest before crossing the border from Burma in August, shows his injury outside a medical center after seeing a doctor at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Nov. 5, (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

By Omar Waraich
November 7, 2017

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — They may be out of harm’s way, for now, but their ordeal continues. Over the past two months, more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the border from Burma, also known as Myanmar, to seek shelter in Bangladesh. Not since the Rwandan genocide has a humanitarian crisis unfolded so fast and on such a scale. If one counts the hundreds of thousands who were already based here, driven out by earlier waves of violence in Rakhine state, there are now more than a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

At first, the new arrivals were welcomed. Across Bangladesh, there is an outpouring of sympathy for the persecuted minority who have been driven from their homes by a harrowing campaign of torture, rape, killings, arson and other human rights violations. The Bangladeshi government, which had long been ambivalent towards the Rohingya, embraced them. On a visit to the camps last month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared that if Bangladesh could feed 160 million people, it could feed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Across the Cox’s Bazar district, she is shown consoling refugee children on placards that hail her as the “Mother of Humanity.”

Now, the mood is slowly giving way to anxiety. Bangladeshis are keenly aware that the humanitarian crisis has enhanced their prestige abroad, but there are worries about how their poor, densely populated country will cope. With an eye on next year’s elections, which are clouded by fears about how the religious right might exploit the crisis, ministers routinely grumble about the insupportable burden they are forced to carry. There is no sign that the refugees will be able to return to their homes anytime soon, and there is no plan to provide for their long-term needs.

As far as Burma’s generals see it, they have successfully executed a plan to finally rid themselves of the Rohingya. Stripped of their citizenship, denied recognition as an ethnic group, the Rohingya have long been subject to an entrenched system of discrimination. The heart-rending testimonies of the past two months bear a chilling consistency with reports from the late 1970s, when 200,000 Rohingya were also driven out of their villages amid a frenzy of violence.

Back then, many Bangladeshis found it easy to sympathize with the plight of the Rohingya. The memories of 1971, when the Pakistan army carried out large-scale human rights violations and drove millions of refugees into India, were still fresh. But that didn’t stop the government from trying to force them back. “We are not going to make the refugees so comfortable that they won’t go back to Burma,” a minister said at the time. Within the space of six months, 10,000 refugees had died in the camps of hunger.

The desire to see the refugees return to Burma appears to dominate the current Bangladeshi government’s thinking. It has refused to grant the Rohingya refugee status, leaving them without any legal status on either side of the border. That decision may seem trivial, but it’s of fateful significance, since it prevents international humanitarian aid agencies from mobilizing the kind of support needed. Also against the wishes of the humanitarian community, the government is constructing what may become the world’s largest refugee camp.

The Kutupalong refugee camp, assigned to Rohingya refugees who fled here during the early 1990s, has now been extended in every direction. Scattered across 3,000 acres of previously forested land, it will become home to more than a million people. Plans are underway to coax earlier arrivals of Rohingya refugees out of the makeshift dwellings and onto the rambling hills where they have been assigned shelter. There is no direct access by road; supplies have to be delivered by foot.

The weather is oppressive. The searing heat is only interrupted by monsoon rain or severe gusts of wind. The thought of the camp’s fate during the coming cyclone season fills the humanitarian community with dread, as do other looming hazards. A fire in a tent, or the outbreak of disease, will sweep across the camp with a fury that will be difficult to tame. Doctors Without Borders has described health conditions in the camp as a “time bomb.” The government is still toying with the reckless idea of moving the Rohingya refugees offshore, to a pair of uninhabited and uninhabitable silt islands that have barely emerged into view. Meanwhile, criminal gangs, human traffickers, armed groups and others who sense opportunity in misery are a constant menace.

Every refugee I spoke to said they wanted to go home — but not before “shanti,” or peace, returns. It will not be enough for the violence to stop. The cruel, entrenched system of discrimination and segregation that made them so vulnerable in the first place has to be dismantled. The Rohingya cannot be left living in fear of a fresh wave of violence that will drive them across the border yet again, condemned to their tragic status as a perpetually unwanted people.

For that to happen, Burma’s military must be held accountable and Bangladesh’s government must be helped with its burden. This is not a crisis that will disappear any time soon, and unless there is a determined global response over the long-term, it could become worse still. The plight of the Rohingya is a test — a moment that demands the international community demonstrate that the words “never again” still carry some meaning.

Omar Waraich is deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International

By Azeem Ibrahim
November 6, 2017

The Rohingya situation has been evolving. And now, it seems, we can no longer avoid the conclusion we have all been dreading. This is now a genocide, and we, in the international community, must recognize it as such.

The first world leader to confront this reality has been France’s Emmanuel Macron one week ago: he condemned “this genocide which is unfolding, this ethnic cleansing”, before calling the UN to act in accordance to their obligations in such humanitarian disasters.

President Macron’s intervention shows the kind of moral courage we need our leaders to have in this world of escalating humanitarian disasters, from the still ongoing calamity in Syria, the Yemen famine, or the tragically under-reported violence across the Sahel.

Still, “genocide” is not a word that can or should be thrown around loosely. And not even the President of France can carry such a verdict on his own. But serious analyses by some of the world’s leading legal scholars and increasingly leaning towards the conclusion that the Rohingya are the victims of genocide.

Allard K. Lowenstein of the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, for example, has found strong evidence of genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar in his legal analysis of the human rights situation in Rakhine state as long ago as Autumn 2015. That was when there were still over 1 million Rohingya still living in Rakhine state.

Tragically prescient

Subsequent analyses, for example by the International Stata Crime Initiative group at Queen Mary University of London in 2016, have had largely the same findings. And these analyses of the human rights situation then has proved tragically prescient. After last month’s dramatic exodus of Rohingya out of Myanmar, there are now probably fewer than 600,000 left in the country of their birth.

Article II of UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention describes genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Though the Rohingya situation meets most of the above criteria for being described as a genocide under international law for a number of years now, the label has been resisted until now because we think of genocide as one huge act of frenzied violence, like we have seen in Rwanda. But Rwanda has been the exception, rather than the norm.

The Nazi genocide during WW2, for example, began slowly and had few distinctive flashes to indicate delineate where one degree of crime against humanity ended and where another began. All in all, that genocide developed and unfolded over a period of more than 10 years.

The Rohingya situation has been going on for decades, but it has certainly been in genocide territory since at least the outbursts of communal violence in 2012. Those clashes, and the ones in the subsequent years have driven 200,000 - 300,000 Rohingya out of Myanmar.

But somehow, at that rate of attrition, and against the backdrop of Myanmar’s supposed move toward democracy with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to power in late 2015, world leaders have allowed themselves to hope that the situation could still be turned around.

Reality of an exodus

Now, the reality of an exodus of more than 609,000 people, amounting to approximately 50 percent of the total Rohingya population in Myanmar, in the space of just one month, the incontrovertible evidence of large scale burning of villages by the Myanmar military, the reports of widespread extra-judicial killings against fleeing civilians by the country’s federal security forces, have made it much more difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is nothing short of genocide.

The tragedy is that the international community will compound the situation. Despite President Macron’s call for an adequate response, the UN Security Council will decline to respond to the situation with the seriousness it deserves. If a situation is defined by the Council as a “genocide”, then the UN becomes legally bound to intervene, with peace-keeping missions and so on.

That is why Western countries will be reluctant to make the necessary commitments, and China, who is building one branch of its New Silk Road infrastructure right through Rakhine state to access the port of Sittwe, will outright veto any such proposal.

Just like we did in Rwanda, just like we did in the Balkans, we are once again seeing a genocide happen before our very eyes. And all we will do about it, once again, is to bury our heads in the sand and plead ignorance when our children will ask us why we let this happen.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst & Oxford University Press).

Rohingya refugees wait to receive food at a camp in Ukhia in Bangladesh on Monday. (Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

October 31, 2017

Human rights advocates are too quick to use the G-word to describe mass atrocities. But in the case of the Rohingya, it applies.

The Rohingya refugees who have been pouring across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border for the past month carry with them stories of unspeakable brutality. Enforced starvation, torture, mass rape, the slaughter of newborn infants, the litany of horrors inflicted by Myanmar’s military goes on. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has called these acts “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” But as the death toll mounts, many are asking whether Myanmar is expelling the Rohingya or exterminating them.

In other words: Is this genocide?

The “crime of crimes” was named and outlawed in 1948 by an international community still reeling from the shock of the Holocaust. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it—“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”—and codifies a commitment to “liberate mankind from such an odious scourge.” Nearly 150 countries have signed the convention, accepting an obligation to prevent genocide from happening and punish those who commit it.

Although the convention doesn’t explicitly say anything about stopping ongoing violence, the mandate “Never Again” echoes in the minds of policymakers and the public. Famously, during the slaughter in Rwanda, the Clinton administration was so convinced that a designation of genocide would carry with it a moral obligation to intervene that it instructed its officials not to say the word. Human rights activists invoke the charged term to ring the alarm about ongoing attacks on civilians, signaling by analogy to the “worst crimes in human history” that the situation demands international action. And given how frequently serious violations of human rights are met with apathy and inertia, persecuted groups often see a genocide label as their best hope of intervention on their behalf.

But there are important reasons to avoid invoking genocide liberally. And like many international lawyers, I’ve been a broken record cautioning against the rush to deploy the G-word. It has a specific legal meaning, one that hinges upon the perpetrators’ intent to destroy a group. Using it to refer to mass slaughter without evidence of that intent risks diluting the definition of the crime beyond all meaning. For instance, the torture, rape, and murder of huge numbers of civilians in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, for instance, are war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, but not genocide. Although the violence is systematic and devastating, civilians are not being targeted on the basis of their group identity.

Activists often claim that deferring to these concerns yields a definition of genocide so harshly restrictive that it rarely applies, letting the international community off the hook from responding to horrific violations of human rights. It’s true that most atrocities don’t qualify. But misclassifying atrocities as genocidal can lead to poorly tailored policy solutions because it obscures who is being attacked and why—information that is critical to an effective response.

If we’re careful to avoid crying genocide when it’s not warranted, we should be all the more confident about doing so when it is. And in Myanmar, the signs of genocide are there for anyone who knows how to read them. Not in the scale or savagery of the violence, although both are shocking, but in the evidence of the military’s intent to eradicate the Rohingya minority.

Without mind-reading powers, it can be hard to identify genocidal intent. For instance, in both the Central African Republic and South Sudan, widespread and brutal violence is being inflicted on civilians, clearly on the basis of their ethnicity. But whether these attacks are genocide or another crime depends on what’s inside the perpetrators’ heads. Was the slaughter of 500 members of an ethnic minority part of an effort to wipe the group out, discourage them from supporting a rival armed group, or scare them into fleeing the country? It’s difficult to distinguish among these possibilities without knowing what the perpetrators were thinking.

The Nazi regime kept extensive records documenting its plans to wipe out the Jews, but most atrocity perpetrators aren’t so meticulous. Because of this, international courts have repeatedly ruled that genocidal intent can be inferred from context. The tribunal convened after the genocide in Rwanda convicted perpetrators of genocide based on the huge numbers of Tutsi victims and the systematic nature of their targeting. And the Yugoslavia tribunal looked to “the general political doctrine which gave rise to the acts” to establish intent.

As we witness the horrors being unleashed in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the contextual clues that international courts look for are abundant. The Rohingya are subjected to harsh deprivations of citizenship rights and restrictions on the ability to marry and bear children, pursuant to a series of formal laws beginning in 1982. A leaked 1988 policy document tellingly titled “Rohingya Extermination Plan” outlines the government’s intent to limit the Rohingya’s population growth “by application of all possible methods of oppression and suppression against them.” And for the past five years, they have been denied freedom of movement, kept in squalid displacement camps and urban ghettos ostensibly in the name of security.

Together with ominous comments from high-ranking military officials that refer to the Rohingya as “an unfinished job,” these measures suggest the existence of a long-standing plan to eliminate the group. They make up exactly the sort of sociopolitical context in which international courts have inferred in the past that mass atrocities were committed with genocidal intent.

Viewed against this background, many of the Myanmar military’s recent actions that could have plausibly been interpreted as efforts to terrorize the Rohingya into fleeing instead look like measures in pursuit of their destruction. The targeting of teachers and religious leaders, systematic burning of homes, and the particular brutality inflicted on women and very young children appear calculated to erase Rohingya culture, eliminate all traces of their presence, and prevent the survival of future generations.

The Rohingya crisis is a rare case where we can make an even stronger claim, based on more than just suggestive evidence. Some of the military’s actions are simply inconsistent with any goal other than the Rohingya’s extermination. Aid workers on the ground report that security forces have surrounded a number of villages blocking both the delivery of supplies and any escape routes while the inhabitants starve to death. Others have documented multiple instances of soldiers shooting people as they attempt to flee across the border. And finally, international media reports confirm that the military has laid landmines in the border area, causing those attempting to seek refuge in Bangladesh to be killed and maimed. These are not efforts to coerce the Rohingya population into flight but to pen them in and eradicate them.

Observing the scale of the crisis and the viciousness with which Myanmar’s military is targeting the Rohingya, international actors have denounced these atrocities as crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. But these terms do not capture the full extent of the attack on the Rohingya population. Failure to correctly identify genocidal violence when it is clear what is happening has grave consequences. Not only for the victims, who risk annihilation, but for citizens of all the repressive states whose leaders are watching, and may be emboldened by international inaction.

The atrocities unfolding in Rakhine state are not the actions of a military using violence and terror to expel an undesirable population. This is a government bent upon the destruction of a vulnerable ethnic minority. It’s time to call it what it is: genocide.

Kate Cronin-Furman is a human rights lawyer and political scientist who researches mass atrocities. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Follow her on Twitter.

By Azeem Ibrahim
October 23, 2017

The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is now widely described as ethnic cleansing. But the situation has been evolving. And now, it seems, we can no longer avoid the conclusion we have all been dreading. This is a genocide. And we, in the international community, must recognize it as such.

Article II of United Nation's 1948 Genocide Convention describes genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

Though the Rohingya situation has met most of the above criteria for being described as a genocide under international law for a number of years now, the label has been resisted until now because we think of genocide as one huge act of frenzied violence, like the machete insanity in Rwanda or the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. 

But the final peak of violence is in all historical cases merely the visible tip of the iceberg. And the final outburst only occurs once it has already been rendered unavoidable by the political context.

In Rwanda, Hutu tribal propaganda ran for years on the radio and in magazines referring to the Tutsis as cockroaches and a mortal threat to the Hutus that needed to be eliminated lest the Hutus themselves would die. Kill or be killed. The frenzied killing was not something that just occurred to the Hutus one day in April 1994. It was the logical conclusion of a campaign of dehumanization and paranoia which lasted for years.

The same is true of the Holocaust. The Nazi genocide began slowly and had few distinctive outbursts of violence to delineate where one degree of crime against humanity ended and where another began.
All in all, that genocide developed and unfolded over a period of more than 10 years. Most of that period was not taken up with the killing of Jews, Gypsies and all the other "sub-humans." Rather, it was taken up with manufacturing of the category of "sub-humans" by state propaganda. Only once the problem was manufactured and sold to the wider population did the "final solution" become viable.

Pattern of genocide

In Myanmar, extremist Buddhist monks have been preaching that the Rohingya are reincarnated from snakes and insects. Killing them would not be a crime against humanity, they say -- it would be more like pest control. 

And necessary "pest control" too. Just like the Tutsi conspiracy to kill all the Hutus, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Rohingya are supposed to be agents of a global Islamist conspiracy to take over the world and forcibly instate a global caliphate. The duty of any good Buddhist who wants to maintain the national and religious character of Myanmar is to prevent the Islamist takeover, and thus to help remove the threat posed by the "vermin."

Every modern genocide has followed this pattern. Years of concerted dehumanization campaigns are the absolutely necessary pre-condition for the mass murder at the end. Usually these campaigns are led by a repressive government, but other political forces also come into play. Such was the case in Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda. And so it is with Myanmar. 

The campaign of dehumanization against the Rohingya has been going on for decades, and events certainly took an unmistakeable turn towards genocide since at least the outbursts of communal violence in 2012. Those clashes, and the ones in the subsequent years, drove 200,000 to 300,000 Rohingya out of Myanmar. 

But somehow, at that rate of attrition, and against the backdrop of Myanmar's supposed move towards democracy with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to power in late 2015, world leaders have allowed themselves to hope that the situation could still be turned around.

Now, the reality of an exodus of a further 600,000 people in the space of just six weeks; the incontrovertible evidence of large scale burning of villages by the Myanmar military -- which the military is calling clearance operations of terrorists -- and the reports of widespread extra-judicial killings against fleeing civilians by the country's federal security forces have made it much more difficult to avoid the conclusion: this is genocide. We no longer have just the slow-burning genocidal environment which whittles down a people until their ultimate extinction. 

Now we are also confronting the loud bang at the end. More than half of an entire population has been removed from their ancestral lands in just eight weeks!

The tragedy is that the international community will abet the situation. The UN Security Council will decline to respond to the situation with the seriousness it deserves. If a situation is defined by the Council as a "genocide," then the UN becomes legally bound to intervene, with peace-keeping missions and so on. That is why Western countries will be reluctant initiate such a move, and China, who is building one branch of its New Silk Road infrastructure right through Rakhine State to access the port of Sittwe, will likely veto any such proposal.

Just like we did in Rwanda, just like we did in the Balkans, we are once again seeing a genocide happen before our very eyes. And we will do nothing about it. We will bury our heads in the sand, and when our children will ask us why we let this happen we will plead ignorance. Once the final act of killing starts, it is usually too late. For the Rohingya, the final act is in full swing. And still we are in denial about what is happening.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of "The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide" (Hurst & Oxford University Press)

Rohingya Exodus