This week marks three years since the Burmese military attacked Rohingya civilians, killing an estimated 10,000 victims and driving over 700,000 more from their homes over several weeks. These attacks were as vicious as they were foreseeable. The Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority, have been persecuted for decades by the Burmese government on the basis of their identity, suffering waves of physical violence and discriminatory laws and policies targeting all aspects of their lives.
The attacks three years ago were carried out with the intent to destroy the Rohingya people. There is a name for such crimes: genocide. This third anniversary of the attacks, as the Rohingya remain at risk of genocide, is a time to take stock of how we got here, and what more is needed to secure the rights of this long-persecuted, highly vulnerable group. We come together as a Rohingya woman and a descendant of Holocaust survivors to reckon with the unconscionable crimes the Rohingya community has faced, and affirm the obligations of the post-Holocaust commitment of “Never Again” to halt ongoing, and prevent future genocides.
This year is an especially grim anniversary, as approximately one million Rohingya refugees remain displaced in Bangladesh with little prospect of safely returning home to Burma in the near future. Three years ago, we had no idea that those Rohingya refugees would now be at risk of a global pandemic, stuck between crowded, unsanitary living conditions in Bangladesh, and the fear of genocide in their home country of Burma. It’s a cruel twist that Rohingya refugees are now increasingly vulnerable to COVID-19 because they survived and fled a genocide.
Rohingya who have fled elsewhere – to Malaysia and India, for example – face serious risks as well. Their situation is made more precarious by COVID-19-related scapegoating and targeted hate speech that casts Rohingya as dangerous. Rohingya refugees throughout the world face violent attacks, and Rohingya activists regularly receive death threats and other forms of intimidation. In addition to the threats that COVID-19 poses for Rohingya people, the pandemic has also begun to lead to a reordering of priorities on the part of the international community. On this anniversary, we must remain vigilant to the plight of Rohingya genocide survivors and the myriad risks they continue to face.
Risks also remain for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still in Burma – as the Burmese military continues its violent campaigns against ethnic minorities across the country and the laws and policies of persecution that have oppressed the Rohingya for decades remain intact. Burmese officials even continue to deny the existence of the Rohingya as a community native to the country. No substantive improvements have been made since 2017 that would mitigate the risk of genocide to the Rohingya people.
There are, however, some reasons for hope. The past year has seen significant progress in the pursuit of justice for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya. For example, in a case brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by Gambia alleging that Burma violated its obligations under the Genocide Convention, Court ordered Burma to take necessary measures to halt acts of genocide against Rohingya victims and prevent future crimes. But the benefits of these formal judicial efforts will take significant time to make a real impact on those who long for justice the most – the people who have lost family members, their homes, and their futures to the genocide. Rohingya perceptions of justice are about so much more than criminal accountability and genocide – justice means being able to return to their places of origin, being recognized as a group native to Burma, and having their full citizenship and other equal rights restored.
If the Burmese government wanted to take seriously its obligation to prevent genocide, it could initiate key changes – such as restoring citizenship for the Rohingya, lifting restrictions on freedom of movement and access to health care, education, and economic activities, ending the crime of forced labor, and supporting independent, credible investigations into allegations of killing and sexual violence by the Burmese military. Thus far, the government has done little to carry out these critically-needed measures, or to satisfy the ICJ’s provisional measures order. While the Burmese government has the primary obligation to protect the Rohingya from genocide in the future, the rest of the world still has important roles to play.
First, countries around the world, including the United States, should call the crimes against the Rohingya what they are: genocide and crimes against humanity. Such a determination recognizes the experience of a people targeted for destruction on the basis of their identity. This important step, however, must be accompanied by significant additional efforts to improve the living conditions and safety of Rohingya populations still in Burma.
Specifically, countries should, in coordination with each other, press Burma to take the ICJ’s provisional measures order seriously and take the actions necessary to halt genocide and prevent its recurrence in the future.
Finally, the world needs to be a bulwark against the normalization of genocide and other atrocity crimes. These crimes are of such magnitude that they must be addressed with utmost seriousness and urgency; perpetrators must be held accountable and the Burmese government policies that allowed genocide to unfold must be purposefully dismantled.
Atrocities against the Rohingya have been committed in waves over decades – this anniversary should be a moment for concerted action to press Burma to improve the conditions Rohingya continue to face in their home country so that they, one day, will be able to return safely home.
Image: Broken dishes can be seen in the burned out remains of a house in Myo Thu Gyi Muslim village where houses were burnt to the ground near Maungdaw town in northern Rakhine State on August 31, 2017. At least 18,500 Rohingya fled their homes following attacks by militants on August 25 in Rakhine State and a crackdown by security forces who have torched villages and targeted civilians, according to witness accounts. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)