Genocide is the most serious charge that can be levied in international law and should not be taken lightly
The existence of persecution, severe human rights abuses and a high risk of mass atrocities has long been recognized in Myanmar. But now a newly released assessment finds “strong evidence” that genocide may already be underway.
These findings both raise the stakes for Myanmar’s embattled Rohingya minority and beg the question of why a push for protection and an international investigation to ensure accountability have not been launched.
The assessment, carried out by Yale Law School’s Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic, and featured in a new Al Jazeera English documentary, finds that the Burmese government deliberately triggered communal violence, incited anti-Muslim riots and targeted the Rohingya minority. It is based on evidence collected by Al Jazeera English and the Southeast Asia-based advocacy group Fortify Rights. Their investigations include a mix of eye witness and victim testimonies, confessions of former officials and confidential government documents.
The violence and high risk of atrocities in Myanmar have been well-known. Reports by the United Nations (UN), the US State Department and numerous human rights groups have documented rampant hate speech, blocking of aid and restrictions of basic rights. In 2014, United to End Genocide released a report based on fact-finding missions to western Myanmar, concluding that nowhere in the world were there more known precursors to genocide.
The more than 1 million Rohingya living in western Myanmar have long faced persecution, and 140,000 people have been living in squalid displacement camps with severely restricted rights after their homes and villages were burned to the ground in 2012. In 2014, the government kicked out Nobel Prize-winning group Doctors Without Borders, the main provider of health services to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, leading to an increased number of deaths. The group has been allowed to return but at a much more restricted level. The conditions are so desperate that over 100,000 Rohingya have taken a perilous journey to flee the country; thousands are believed to have died at sea or in the camps of human traffickers.
What is new are the revelations of official documents and testimony of former officials that link the violence to state policies and organized efforts to target the Rohingya, amounting to much more than random communal violence. Confidential military and government documents reveal language stoking anti-Muslim fears by warning of “nationwide communal riots” and the danger of Myanmar being “devoured” by Muslims. A PowerPoint presentation used for military training demonizes Muslims, using a highly pejorative term, and warns against the “threat” of their growing population. Former officials, speaking anonymously, tell of government planning of riots, including paying instigators.
There is also the independent assessment of the Lowenstein Clinic, which carefully dissects the legal evidence of genocide, including the notoriously difficult to prove requirement of proof of “intent.” The clinic cites hate-speech against Muslims—particularly Rohingya—targeting of Rohingya because of their group identity, birth and marriage restrictions, deprivation of aid and evidence of mass-scale atrocities perpetrated against Rohingya. Though careful to indicate the need for a full and independent investigation to definitively conclude that genocide is occurring, the group finds that “evidence strongly suggests that the Myanmar government has acted with the requisite intent to have committed genocide.”
The timing of the findings are significant, coming just ahead of much lauded elections in November, which are being viewed by the world as a critical test of the country’s democratic transition. But the finding of “strong evidence” of genocide is a reminder that no matter how well the elections are run, an urgent need for accountability and protection of the Rohingya will remain.
In fact, the elections themselves further validate the report findings of government policies of targeted exclusion. In the run up to the polls, temporary identity cards held by Rohingya and other minorities were invalidated, barring hundreds of thousands who voted in the bi-elections in 2010 from again voting. Sitting members of parliament who are Rohingya have been blocked from running for re-election. A strong movement of extremist nationalist monks is wielding increasing influence and supporting the current military-backed majority party. Its leaders, including firebrand monk Ashin Wirathu, have been very open about their anti-Muslim sentiments, calling Muslims “snakes” and “mad dogs.”
The findings are also significant in terms of their implications for global policies toward Myanmar. Any finding of genocide brings with it an implicit call for action. The United States and European countries have been reluctant to take action against Myanmar as they hope to give space to reformers. But if the “strong evidence” recently found proves true, the stakes are suddenly much higher and the argument to hold back economic and diplomatic pressure is that much weaker.
Genocide is the most serious charge that can be levied in international law and should not be taken lightly. This is all the more reason for an internationally-backed, thorough and independent investigation. As the Yale Law School report recommends, the United Nations Human Rights Council is well-placed to authorize and oversee such an investigation.
The Human Rights Council should launch an investigation, and the international community should push the Burmese government to take measures to protect, not incite violence against, the Rohingya. The government may glaze over criticisms of its democratic transition, but it should not be allowed to glaze over genocide.