In a conference held in Los Angeles on Saturday by the Burmese American Muslims Association (BAMA), an international panel of speakers condemned the ongoing persecution of Burma’s Rohingya minority, placing it within the framework of genocide, and calling on the country’s current government to restore the marginalized group’s rights.
The event, entitled Myanmar Muslims Genocide Awareness Convention 2016, was broadcast live online and featured speeches by Shwe Maung, a former Rohingya member of Burma’s Parliament, civil rights activist Htay Lwin Oo, and Maung Zarni, a scholar and non-resident research fellow with Cambodia’s Sleuk Rith Institute.
Former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, and president of Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton, delivered pre-recorded talks.
“Many scholars and experts believe that the conditions and elements of a genocide in process have been present in Myanmar against the Rohingya, especially during the military government,” said Quintana, who served as rapporteur from 2008-2014. “But they’re also saying that those conditions are not changing with this civilian government.”
“The situation needs to urgently be addressed by the Myanmar government,” he continued, citing limitations to an estimated 140,000 displaced Rohingyas’ freedom of movement, a lack of food and access to healthcare, and episodes of violence against the community.
“It has already been 100 days since the new government took over and we haven’t seen clear and concrete measures to reverse the trend against the Rohingya,” Quintana said, referring to the National League for Democracy (NLD) administration headed by state counselor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Talks at the conference were marked by heavy criticism of Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which defines citizen status along ethnic lines, and does not recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s ethnic groups. In order to be granted even subordinate forms of citizenship, those belonging to “unrecognized” groups are instead forced to prove their family’s presence in Burma dating back multiple generations—a near-impossible task since such residency often predates the use of the documentation required for such verification.
“The Rohingya are victims of a classification system in Myanmar that literally classifies them out of citizenship,” said Gregory Stanton in his talk. In 1996, he created a model for the US State Department identifying eight—and later, ten—stages of genocide, the first of which is “classification” of “us versus them” along ethnic, national, racial or religious lines.
“If you stop using the name that the people have chosen, you are trying to classify them out of the system,” Stanton added, referring to the widespread use of the term “Bengali,” over “Rohingya,” which implies that the group—which has an estimated population of 1.3 million in Burma—are migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The insinuation that Rohingya are Bengali “is absolutely not true,” said Shwe Maung, a Rohingya who served as a member of parliament representing Arakan State’s Buthidaung Township from 2011 until 2016. He was barred from running for re-election in 2015 after authorities alleged that his parents were not Burmese citizens, a claim which, in a 2015 op-ed for the New York Times, he dismissed as “laughable,” considering he had been eligible to represent his constituency in the previous election.
“A lot of Myanmar Muslims and Rohingya Muslims have sacrificed for the NLD,” Shwe Maung said. “[We] expected a little relief from the NLD…[but] not a single Rohingya was able to vote because they were disenfranchised.”
The organizers of the convention made public a resolution demanding that the NLD government restore the citizenship rights of the Rohingya, guarantee the security of non-governmental organizations working in Arakan State, facilitate unrestricted access for international investigators to conflict areas, return property to the displaced, and allow the Rohingya the right to self-identify as such.
While calling for public support for Yanghee Lee, his successor as the special rapporteur for Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana pointed out that the most recent UN report on the Rohingya “does not refer to the risk of genocide even one time,” saying that this was “something we need to consider.”
The term “genocide” has been contested in Burma; Reuters reported in March that the US State Department had released a report to Congress stating that while the US government remained “concerned” about the persecution of the Rohingya, they “did not determine that it was on the level of genocide.” They did, however, call for “comprehensive and just solutions” to abuses against the group, including improved access for aid agencies and the restoration of citizenship rights to stateless populations.
A report published in October of last year by the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School for the NGO Fortify Rights concluded that both action and inaction from the Burmese government towards the Rohingya satisfied the criteria of genocide as defined by the 1948 Genocide Convention.
In his talk at the conference, delivered via video, Stanton drew parallels between the Holocaust—in which 6 million European Jews were killed under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime during World War II—and the persecution of the Rohingya in Burma.
“The Jews were classified out of their citizenship, their businesses were taken away, their homes were confiscated, their property was confiscated—they were eventually sent to concentration camps. All of these parallels are like what is happening to the Rohingya,” Stanton said. “We must make the world pay attention.”
BAMA was founded in 2013, and has since held annual conventions addressing violence against the Rohingya. Many of this year’s speakers also participated in a conference at the University of Oxford in May to address the persecution of the Rohingya in the context of democratization in Burma. A year earlier, in May of 2015, the “Oslo Conference to End Myanmar’s Persecution of the Rohingya” was hosted by the Norwegian Nobel Institute; there, the oppression was also described as genocide.