By: Eva Branson
Houses burning. Cries of grief filling the air. Loved ones killed in broad daylight. Scenes of assault all around. This image is a reality for the Rohingya people remaining in Myanmar today.
The Rohingya are a stateless nation; a Muslim ethnic-minority that have lived in Myanmar for centuries without citizenship or basic rights. The Rohingya have their own language not recognized by the state of Myanmar and are not among the 135 ethnicities recognized by its government. As of September 2017, there were just over one million Rohingya living in Myanmar’s state of Rakhine. Since then, over 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in search of refuge.
The Rohingya are among the most persecuted people on Earth. The clash between the Buddhist-majority Burmese state and the Rohingya began in 1948, when Myanmar gained independence from Britain. The British drew new borders in accordance with those of an extinct Buddhist kingdom to expedite their withdrawal from Myanmar and appease Burmese leaders, leaving the Rohingya as a minority in the Rakhine state, a province on Myanmar’s coast bordering Bangladesh. Immediately following Burmese independence, the Rohingya were allowed to apply for identity cards. They lost this privilege after a military coup in 1962, after which they were considered undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. Despite the fact that the Rohingya share a religion with the Bangladeshi state and its people, Bangladesh does not consider the Rohingya to be part of its state. Bangladesh has, however, offered refuge to those fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
What is happening in Myanmar right now is widely termed ethnic cleansing by notable world leaders, such as United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The UN unanimously approved a statement “strongly condemning” the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar and expressing “grave concern” about human rights violations occurring in Rakhine.
While international organizations have started moving in the right direction by seeking funds and providing relief to the refugees in Bangladesh, they have not taken all measures necessary to put an end to the violence. They have stopped short of calling the Burmese state of affairs “genocide.” There are numerous reasons for this, but one of the most significant is the current gridlock of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Britain has circulated a Security Council resolution which would legally bind the UN to act on behalf of the Rohingya. China, a permanent member of the UNSC, expressed strong opposition, effectively ending the conversation around the resolution and leaving international diplomats legally free of any obligation to help the innocent Rohingya.
The Chinese government has a strong conflict of interest within Myanmar. The Burmese economy has grown significantly over the last decade, and China can be largely credited for the boom. In the last two fiscal years, China has been one of the most prominent contributors of Burmese foreign direct investment (FDI), second only to Singapore. The Chinese government also has a significant interest in Myanmar oil, and this April the two countries agreed to open a cross-border pipeline from Myanmar to southeastern China. This relationship between China, a permanent UNSC member, and the violent Burmese government has effectively eliminated any hope for ending the violence in Myanmar. As long as these interests are sustained, the Chinese government will never approve a resolution aiming to suppress the violence inflicted on the Rohingya by the Burmese government.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the United States government is starting to take unilateral action. A bill sponsored by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain and Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ben Cardin proposes the imposition of sanctions on Myanmar until the Burmese government is held accountable for atrocities against the Rohingya. In a statement, Senator Cardin said “there will be consequences for [Myanmar’s] crimes against humanity.” A corresponding bipartisan bill has also been introduced in the House of Representatives.
The textbook definition of genocide is “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” Is it deliberate? Undeniably so. The Burmese military has intentionally burned down houses, killed civilians, and raped countless Rohingya women. In one particularly disturbing story, a Rohingya woman recounts her baby being pried out of her arms, thrown into a fire, and then being gang-raped. Narratives such as these are impossible to discount and show with extreme clarity that the violence against the Rohingya is indeed deliberate. Systematic? Yes. Extremist monks in Myanmar have been preaching that killing the Rohingya would not be a crime against humanity, but rather, more like “pest control.”
According to international law, genocide is a crime that is to be punished by UN member states. They are to “provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide.” Because of China’s conflict of interest and its superpower status on the UNSC, it is not surprising that the UN is hesitant to call Myanmar’s current state of genocide by its name. It is, however, the UN’s obligation to protect the innocent Rohingya in Myanmar against the crimes being committed against them, despite a conflict of interest with one of its members. It is a good start for the US to begin to take action, but that alone is not enough. It is inexcusable to let technicalities like terminology justify a genocide that hegemons are fully aware of. China and other UN member states cannot simply turn the other cheek and pretend that the assault on the Rohingya is not happening.
The general consensus term about what is happening to Myanmar is “ethnic cleansing,” and it certainly is that. However, that is not the full extent of the situation. The tense relationship between the Burmese and the Rohingya has fit the criteria of genocide for years, and it has now become undeniable: this is a textbook case of genocide. Unlike the term genocide, ethnic cleansing is not linked to any international law and therefore does not necessitate external intervention. The distinction should not be necessary. The term “ethnic cleansing” should be enough to send a clear message to hegemons that action needs to be taken. As we have seen in the case of the Rohingya, however, that is sadly not the case. It is therefore absolutely crucial that the UN takes the next step to label this as genocide so that the forced displacement, murder, vandalism, and assault stops. The international community always says after an atrocity like this one that we must never forget the lessons we have learned. We have seen similar chains of events unfold in Rwanda, the Balkans, Darfur, and we continue to see it in Syria and Myanmar. In each of these cases, we have always said “never again.” We have to mean it.