The Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Bosnian genocide, many more, and now the Rohingya genocide — for every single one of these atrocities, there were warnings and opportunities for the international community to intervene. In all cases the signs were either ignored or met with weak political statements without physical action. The result was genocide. It is deeply saddening that the international community has failed to recognize and properly respond to such warnings of genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
The Tatmadaw, the official name of the Burmese military, has been killing, raping, and burning the land of the Rohingya minority population. The Tatmadaw’s claim that the Rohingya, a majority-Muslim group, are a threat to the country’s security and stability. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled and thousands have been killed. The UN Secretary General has called it “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”
Verbally criticizing the violence and calling for additional humanitarian aid is a knee-jerk reaction that will do little to protect the Rohingya. The US and the international community have ignored countless warnings for decades regarding the plight of the Rohingya and should not be surprised by recent events that have unfolded in Myanmar. The crisis has escalated to a point where there are very few potential solutions, but changes can be made to address the oppression of the Rohingya. First, the US and international community must expand the EU arms embargo to a global arms embargo. Second, after blocking the source of weapons, top Myanmar military officials in Rakhine state must be referred to the International Criminal Court. These complementary actions offer an opportunity to reduce state-sponsored violence against Rohingya communities.
History of Oppression
The persecution of Rohingya is a recurring phenomenon throughout Myanmar’s modern history. While the recent crackdown has been most severe since 2012, the Rohingya have suffered as victims of state persecution prior to their citizenship being revoked in 1982. From 1824 to 1948, following British rule, there was a massive migration of workers to Myanmar from India and Bangladesh. The Myanmar government viewed the migration as illegal and used this justification to refuse citizenship to the Rohingya.
In 1948, after independence from Britain, a Muslim rebellion demanding equal rights and an autonomous area was rejected. In 1977, the government launched Operation Dragon King, an attempt to register citizens and screen foreigners. By 1978, the Tatmadaw forced over 200,000 Rohingya out of the country with the same tactics of killings, rape, and arson that are witnessed today. In 1982, Myanmar’s junta passed a law stating that eight ethnicities were entitled to citizenship, excluding the Rohingya. As a result, the Rohingya are one of the largest stateless groups in the world now. Again in 1991, over 250,000 Rohingya fled the country to Bangladesh. UN reporters have identified deportation, forced population transfers, and other abuses against Rohingya since the 1990s as “widespread” and as a result of “state policy.”
There are approximately 925,939 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar living in Rakhine state. Although Buddhists make up the religious majority of Myanmar, in Rakhine state there is an approximately equal representation of Muslims and Buddhists, which in turn leads to higher religious tensions in Rakhine than the rest of the country.
Fig. 1: Demographic Distribution in Myanmar
The UN and the US have stopped short of declaring the cruelty in Myanmar as “ethnic cleansing” and claim it has not yet reached genocide. However, the distinction between categorizing the violence as ethnic cleansing as opposed to genocide has significant political consequences. Ethnic cleansing is not defined and not recognized as a crime under international law. On the other hand, once genocide is declared, countries are often compelled to take action.
The report of a murder of a Buddhist girl by Rohingya men in June 2012 incited Burmese officials and Buddhist monks to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim villages. Government forces destroyed mosques, conducted mass arrests, and blocked aid to displaced Muslims. All of these actions were shocking atrocities, but such atrocities have recurred throughout Myanmar’s history. One Muslim man pleading for protection was told that “the only thing you can do is pray to save your lives.”
Attempts to Intervene
It would be unfair to claim that the US has done nothing, but new strategies must be adopted to address the severity of the Rohingya crisis. In October 2017, the Trump administration ended military aid for Myanmar and rescinded invitations to attend US-sponsored events. Furthermore, the US spent more than $299 million in humanitarian aid for displaced Rohingya while the Treasury Department imposed economic sanctions on Burmese security forces in August of this year. The sanctions specifically target four military and border guard commanders and two military units: Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe, Khin Hlaing, and Thura San Lwin, and the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Division.
Nevertheless, the current US strategy has failed to halt violence targeting the Rohingya. Merely passing sanctions is nowhere near enough, and the Trump administration must support its words with decisive actions.
Leaving the fate of the Rohingya in the hands of the UN will likely fail to prevent ethnic cleansing or genocide. The UN currently has 19 agencies in Myanmar and plenty of offices and staff in Rakhine state, but the international body failed to even warn of the crisis. UN officials have justified downplaying the treatment of Rohingya because cooperation with the Burmese government was necessary for “capacity-building.” One senior UN staffer even admitted that UN personnel are “pandering to the Rakhine community at the expense of the Rohingya.” These actions need to be stopped — Myanmar’s government must be held accountable for its reckless treatment of the Rohingya.
Global Arms Embargo
Unlike the Trump administration’s attempts at sanctions, the European Union’s sanction regime has been successful and should be mirrored. The EU imposed an arms embargo, including equipment that could be used for repression, military training, and communication. If human rights abuses continue, the sanctions also include provisions for personal sanctions, which include travel bans and asset freezes, against military officials.
Fig. 2: Myanmar Weapon Imports
The EU sanctions managed to evoke a reaction from the Tatmadaw. Just hours after sanctions were declared, Myanmar’s military announced the removal of one general in command of an operation in Rakhine state. Although the official military statement reported that there were “some flaws” in his work, the timing appears too close to be merely a coincidence.
The EU’s leadership has inspired other countries to take action as well. Canada announced new sanctions on seven Tatmadaw leaders and announced that it was willing to work with the EU and the international community to stop the murder of innocent Rohingya.
Canada and the EU are only the beginning. In order to block all revenue sources that fund the oppression of Rohingya, a global arms embargo is necessary. As one of the world’s largest recipients of international aid, Myanmar will struggle to maintain its current intensity of attacks against the Rohingya without support from other countries.
Save it for the Jury
Once it is physically impossible for the Tatmadaw to continue its campaign of violence, the leaders must be held accountable. An independent UN report concluded that the Commander-in-chief and five generals of the Tatmadaw can be prosecuted for “orchestrating the gravest crimes under law.” On September 27, 2018, the UN Human Rights Council voted to establish a body to prepare evidence of human rights abuses in Myanmar for future prosecution. The Burmese government has been both “unable and unwilling” to investigate and prosecute crimes. When the national court fails, it is the responsibility of the ICC to step in.
The longer it takes for the UN Security Council to refer the case to the ICC, the more evidence will be destroyed. All of the villages that the Tatmadaw continue to burn are also destroying evidence of crimes. America needs to act now to prevent further escalation of violence.
Better Late Than Never
The international community has failed too many times to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide. However, it is not too late to stop the Rohingya genocide. We cannot hesitate any longer to take concrete actions against the Tatmadaw. A global arms embargo and ICC case are necessary immediately. A better future is possible for the Rohingya — decisive action can and will protect millions from state-sponsored terror and violence at the hands of the Tatmadaw.