Echoes of Rwanda: Tragedy and Inaction in the Myanmar Genocide


By: Chande Blurton

Between April and June of 1994, an estimated 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda were brutally and systematically murdered in a government campaign to erase them from the country. As these atrocities occurred, the international community – United States included –  largely stood by and watched in horror. Former President Bill Clinton, who was in office at the time of the genocide, visited Rwanda four years later and apologized for United States’ inaction during the crisis. “We did not act quickly enough after the killing began… We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.” There is importance in the words used to describe a conflict. Recognizing a genocide as it unfolds and acting to stop it is vital in order to save lives and promote peace. Clinton’s regret over US response to the Rwandan Genocide shows that to remain silent in the face of death and destruction makes one complicit in it. We are currently bearing witness to eerily familiar events playing out in Myanmar—is this President Trump’s Rwanda?

The Rohingya people have a long history of persecution that extends as far back as the nineteenth century. Tension between Rohingya and other Burmese citizens escalated in 1977 when 200,000 Rohingya were forced to cross the border into Bangladesh after being declared illegal residents by an army drive aimed at citizen registration. The anti-Rohingya sentiment among Myanmar residents and officials was formalized in 1982 with the Citizenship Act of Myanmar, which stripped the Rohingya of their rights as citizens. With this Act, the Rohingya became the single largest “stateless” community in the world and were denied access to health care, education, employment, the right to worship freely, and the right to marry. This discriminatory policy motivated the rise of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgency group turned violent paramilitary organization. ARSA has since exacerbated the conflict by attacking Myanmar military posts throughout the Rakhine region.

Since August, there has been a shockingly rapid progression of violence. Numerous reports have surfaced exposing military action against the Rohingya including the systematic burning down of villages, rape of girls and women, beheading of men, and murder of children. Although Myanmar government describes these efforts as “clearance operations,” UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein calls the situation “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” “The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities,” Rex Tillerson, U.S. Secretary of State, said a few weeks ago regarding the attacks by Myanmar military against the Rohingya people. He’s right, but his call-to-action should begin by acknowledging that the events transpiring go beyond human rights violations.

Interestingly, though, U.S. officials and other world leaders seem to hesitate to call the crisis in Myanmar a genocide, perhaps out of reluctance to get involved in the domestic affairs of a recently-democratic state. In the Rwandan case, the Clinton administration was so sure that using the g-word implied an obligation to intervene that it instructed officials not to use the term.

Indeed, the imperative to intervene in cases of genocide is not just a moral one but is codified in the framework of international law. The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide defines this crime-of-all-crimes as acts committed with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group such as killing members of the group, causing bodily or mental harm, preventing births, or inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction.” Nearly 150 countries have signed onto this convention, creating a means through which states can expand their jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for crimes that threaten the security and peace of humanity. It holds that states are obligated to not only prevent genocide from happening when possible but also punish those who commit it. The idea that states are bound by responsibilities to the international community via “obligatio erga omnes,” or “obligation flowing to all,” was upheld in  1970 by the International Court of Justice in the Barcelona Traction case.

If the atrocities in Myanmar constitute genocide, then the United States is legally bound to take action. However, although the acts committed by the Myanmar army certainly align with the Convention’s description of genocidal acts, intent is more difficult to prove. Are Rohingyans being targeted as a result of a desire to destroy the group based on an aspect of their identity? According to a legal analysis by the Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, there is evidence of intent to destroy the Rohingya in statements from government leaders and Buddhist officials. For example, a 1988 policy document entitled “Rohingya Extermination Plan” from the Burmese State Peace and Development Council details specific actions the government took to discriminate against Muslims with the goal of reducing their birthrate and motivating them to leave the country. Written back in 2015, even before the recent rapid precipitation of violence, the Yale report concludes that there is clear evidence of genocide occurring in Myanmar.

The plight of the Rohingya people is not going entirely unnoticed. Even so, international action has focused primarily on dealing with the refugee crisis in Bangladesh rather than addressing its causes. This is the most rapid displacement of people since the Rwandan genocide; Rohingya are flooding the border from the western Rakhine State of Myanmar at a rate of 16,000 people per day in search of refuge. Bangladesh does not have the resources or infrastructure needed to support the rapid absorption of hundreds of thousands of displaced individuals, so international aid and attention are critical. However, focus on refugees and aid is only a partial solution. As the death toll grows, it is important to recognize this situation for what it is.

A self-critical UN report following the Rwandan genocide holds the United States particularly accountable for this hesitation, citing an unwillingness to repeat a failed mission in Somalia months prior which left 18 Americans dead. So what is Washington going to do today about the Rohingya? The White House did issue a statement in September calling for the Burmese government to respect international law and “stop the violence and end the displacement of civilians from all communities.” However, not specifically naming the Rohingya people blunts the already weak force of the statement. It is urgent that Sec. Tillerson and the Trump Administration apply pressure to the UN Security Council to address the situation in Myanmar and refer it to the International Criminal Court. Let us act now rather than necessitate another apology down the line.

As Bill Clinton put it in his speech to Rwanda, “Let us work together as a community of civilized nations to strengthen our ability to prevent and, if necessary, to stop genocide… All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

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