Is the Myanmar government and military flirting with ‘acts of genocide’ against the Rohingya?

As a responsible Government, you don’t just go around hollering ‘genocide.’ You say that acts of genocide may have occurred and they need to be investigated.


David Rawson, United States Ambassador to Rwanda1As quoted in Douglas Jehl, Officials Told to Avoid Calling Rwanda Killings ‘Genocide’, NEW YORK TIMES, 10 June 1994.

The Rohingya in Myanmar have by all accounts – save for those of the Myanmar government and military – been on the receiving end since at least 2012 of consistent, widespread, presumably organized, and arguably sanctioned acts of violence amounting to crimes against humanity. Take your pick of alleged crimes: persecution, rape, murder, forcible transfer, deportation, extermination, arbitrary detention and imprisonment, and arguably, apartheid.  The full treatment.

Ethnic cleansing with tinges of genocidal acts seems to be the obvious goal, or more ominously put, the desired solution: to expel and, if necessary, eradicate the Rohingya Muslims from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Meanwhile, the international community and those most expected to speak loudly and repeatedly contently wait, naively or apathetically, for the criminal acts against the Rohingya to dissipate, for their plight to be resolved. Wishful thinking based in part on willful blindness.

Current events show that the Myanmar government and military not only lack the political and moral will to act responsibly, but that they are also comfortable with accepting the commission of purported “acts of genocide” against the Rohingya. Appallingly, the storm of intolerance and indifference that has already stripped the Rohingya of their human dignity, the enjoyment of their inalienable rights, their property, their places of worship, their freedom, and, in far too unacceptable numbers, their lives, is brewing and picking up steam. Time is against the Rohingya.  Time to face the ugly and inconvenient facts.

Before I discuss the ongoing events, a few words about the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Northern Rakhine state (the name commonly given to the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung) is located in the west of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. It is populated mainly by the Rohingya, but also by other ethnic minorities such as the Rakhine Buddhist. The Rohingya have faced decades of repression and discrimination. The Myanmar government does not recognize them as one of the ethnic groups of the country. Instead, the Rohingya are regarded as mere refugees from Bangladesh.2 For more on the 2012 Rakhine state riots and the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis, see Report Documents ‘Rohingya Persecution’, Al Jazeera, 23 April 2013; Human Rights Watch Report, “All You Can Do is Pray”: Crimes against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arkan State, 2013; Jared Genser, Democracy on a Leash, US News, 12 November 2015; Rohingya Boat People: Myanmar’s Shame, The Economist, 23 May 2015. The 1982 Citizenship Law effectively denies the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring Myanmar nationality.3 Burma Citizenship Law, 15 October 1982, Chapter 2, para. 3: “Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1185 B.E., 1823 A.D. are Burma citizens.” Even for those Rohingya whose families settled in the region before 1823, the onerous burden of proof has made it nearly impossible to provide evidence of their lineage or history of residence, making them ineligible for any class of citizenship. For more on this law, see Human Rights Watch, Discrimination in Arakan, available at https://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/burma/burm005-02.htm. Being stateless, they lack legal protection by the government, which results in severe restrictions on their movement, impacting their ability to access healthcare, education, and livelihood opportunities.4 Rohingya Boat People: Myanmar’s Shame, The Economist, 23 May 2015; Report Documents ‘Rohingya Persecution’, Al Jazeera, 23 April 2013.

In 2012, religious and ethnic tensions between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists escalated into widespread rioting. Since then, ongoing conflicts have forced the Rohingya to flee, though they are often rejected (equally unwanted) by neighboring Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.5 Rohingya Boat People: Myanmar’s Shame, The Economist, 23 May 2015; Amnesty International, Bangladesh Pushes back Rohingya Refugees amid Collective Punishment in Myanmar, 24 November 2016.

The situation in northern Rakhine state has deteriorated significantly since 9 October 2016 when unknown assailants attacked three police outposts in northern Rakhine state, killing nine Border Guard police officers and seizing weapons and ammunition. The authorities responded by initiating a major security operation, conducting sweeps of the area to find the perpetrators.6 President’s Office website, Brief description of the violent attacks commenced on 9th October in Maungdaw district, Rakhine State, 17 December 2016; Interim Report of the Investigation Commission in Maungtaw, 3 January 2017. See also Mike Ives, Myanmar Holds Officers After Video Purports to Show Police Beating Rohingya, The New York Times, 3 January 2017; Myanmar says ‘No Evidence’ of Rohingya Genocide, BBC News, 3 January 2017.

The United Nations (“UN”) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that since early November 2016 almost 27,000 people have fled across the border from northern Rakhine state into Bangladesh.7 The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA Update – Humanitarian Situation in the Northern Part of Rakhine State, Myanmar, 13 December 2016, available here. Government officials in Myanmar have repeatedly denied reports of human rights violations by security forces. Conversely, journalists and NGOs describe the actions of the state forces in the region as ethnic cleansing and genocide, and have reported murders, mass rape and beatings, burning villages, and other human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity.8 Rohingya villages ‘destroyed’ in Myanmar, images show, BBC News, 21 November 2016; Amnesty International, Bangladesh pushes back Rohingya refugees amid collective punishment in Myanmar, 24 November 2016; Rohingya Myanmar: Nobel winners urge action over ‘ethnic cleansing’, BBC News, 30 December 2016; Charlotte England, Burmese government denies ongoing genocide of Rohingya Muslims, Independent, 5 January 2017.

Shockingly, our Buddhist brothers and sisters in Burma have lost the virtue of Buddhism.9 Kyaw Win, the Executive Director of the Burma Human Rights Network, as quoted by Mike Ives, Myanmar Holds Officers After Video Purports to Show Police Beating Rohingya, New York Times, 3 January 2017.

Most recently, a video surfaced showing officers beating members of the Muslim Rohingya during a security operation. This appears to have gotten the attention of the international community.  The selfie-style video showed the brutality of officers kicking and beating civilians and the impunity they feel. And as the saying goes, the evidence never lies. Finally, the government had to confront what it has known and neglected, if not outright encouraged. The government’s past failures to acknowledge, condemn, and act against this cycle of violence has nurtured a culture of impunity.

In the recent Interim Report of the Investigation Commission on Maungtaw, the Investigation Commission established by the government to investigate the attacks on 9 October 2016 dismissed the allegations of genocide: “[T]he increasing population of Mawlawi, mosques and religious edifices are proof that there were no cases of genocide and religious persecution in the region.”10 The Interim Report of the Investigation Commission on Maungtaw, 3 January 2017, published in the Global New Light of Myanmar, Vol. 3 (263), 4 January 2017, p. 2, para. 10.

Characterizing crimes as genocide is often over the top, hyperbolic. Whenever there are large-scale atrocities, the knee-jerk reaction is to claim that genocide is occurring.  And then there is the reverse action by some governments: best not to come out and claim that genocide is occurring – even when rather obvious – for fear that action (boots on the ground) may need to be taken to halt it. We saw this in the case of Rwanda. Better to punt and claim that only “acts of genocide” are taking place, a policy articulated by the Bill Clinton administration.11 See Douglas Jehl, Officials Told to Avoid Calling Rwanda Killings ‘Genocide’, New York Times, 10 June 1994; Rory Corroll, US Chose to Ignore Rwandan Genocide: Classified Papers show Clinton was aware of ‘Final Solution’ to Eliminate Tutsis, The Guardian, 31 March 2004, noting that “the State Department and the National Security Council have drafted guidance instructing spokesmen to say merely that ‘acts of genocide may have occurred.’”  Message to those who were perishing or about to: help will be on its way if the situation intensifies to genocide. Comforting. Years later Clinton would get teary-eyed as he admitted his failure to act in the face of overwhelming evidence of what was happening in Rwanda.12 See Bill Clinton: we could have saved 300,000 lives in Rwanda, CNBC, 13 March 2013, where Clinton is quoted saying that “If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost…it had an enduring impact on me.” See also Dana Hughes, Bill Clinton Regrets Rwanda Now (Not So Much In 1994), ABC News, 28 February 2014.

What are acts of genocide? It is like saying that a woman is a little pregnant. It may make for clever diplomatic speak, but it is just a vacuous phrase. Look beyond the phrase. Where a group (Rohingya Muslims) is being targeted as such, and the intent – as deduced from the actions taken – is at a minimum to maim, permanently expel from Myanmar, and kill them, because of who they are as members of that group (Rohingya Muslims), are there not sufficient hallmarks of genocide (or at the very least traces of extermination) present to merit immediate condemnation and action at the national and international level?13 Article II of Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide provides:  “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”  Statutes of the international courts and tribunals incorporate Article II of the Genocide Convention. See Article 4 of the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Article 2 of the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Article 4 of the Law on the Establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers, and Article 6 of the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court.

The Lady speaketh not

What of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?14 Daw, literally meaning “aunt”, is not part of her name but is a honorific for any older and revered woman, akin to “Madame” or “Lady”. Silence.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Should not the residents of Myanmar, the Rohingya, and the international community, expect more than her purposeful silence, her occasional drab demur, or her belated request for an international commission?   As the de facto head of state,15 The post of State Counsellor of Myanmar was specially created for Aung San Suu Kyi because under the Myanmar Constitution, she could not become the President as her late husband and two children are of British nationality. For more, see Euan McKirdy, New Government Role Created for Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, CNN, 7 April 2016. and having promoted herself as the doyenne of human rights activists in Myanmar,16 Aung San Suu Kyi spent much time between 1989 and 2010 under house arrest because of her efforts to bring democracy to then military-ruled Myanmar, which her an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression. For more, see Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi, BBC News, 5 December 2016. one would think that she would be front and center in condemning these cruel, inhumane, and, yes, genocidal acts.

Is Aung San Suu Kyi’s position so tenuous that she would suffer politically were she to speak out against this systematic violence against the Rohingya?  Is she afraid of any backlash from the military, the police, and those who support, incite, and carry out the physical acts of violence?  Is she just being pragmatic – as any politician of her position should be?

Aung San Suu Kyi’s deafening silence and lame rationalizations give aid and comfort to the perpetrators.  Some argue that she needs a bit more time and space. Take, for instance, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s most recent statement.  Selected to the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, he made the following remarks: “I think there are tensions, there has been fighting, but I wouldn’t put it the way some have done…. [The international community should give Aung San Suu Kyi’s government] a bit of time, space and patience.”17 Kofi Annan Downplays Claims of Myanmar Genocide, BBC News, 6 December 2016. Tensions?  Is Annan serious?

How much more time and how much more space does Aung San Suu Kyi need?  If she can use the bully pulpit to garner votes for her party to win the elections, she can certainly use the bully pulpit to condemn these ongoing acts of crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya.

But is it really a matter of having more time and space, or is it about clinging to and coveting more power? Aung San Suu Kyi may wish to recall and reflect upon her own thoughts on power and the fear of losing it – which seems to be the case with The Lady.

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.18 Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear (Penguin Books 1991).


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Footnotes   [ + ]

Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

5 thoughts on “Is the Myanmar government and military flirting with ‘acts of genocide’ against the Rohingya?”

  1. I like the way you act for that population. It was not the time that you were a defenser of Ieng Sary! Thank you for that. The lady AUNG SAN SUUKYI should do something for rohingya population. Her silence is not acceptable! It’s a shame for a nobel peace prize! It is even coward! I wish that this news could spread to other countries and a lot of people could know about these crimes.
    Mrs. FENIES

    1. Ieng Sary was entitled to a fair trial and to be represented competently. I see no contradiction in representing an accused and ensuring his human rights are afforded, and advocating for the protection of victims.

  2. This is such a refreshing and truthful analysis, hitting all the key points surrounding the name of the crime, particularly coming from someone who knows what he is talking about. So, hat’s off to the author. I am sure he knows that Bill Clinton’s State Department issued an internal directive to all US Missions to only admit that “acts of genocide” may be happening in Rwanda, while 800,000 were killed in an genocidal act of violence. The only problem is no genocide has ever been recognized by states by its name when it is being committed. All genocides are inconvenient to those in power – anywhere. UN-based global justice mechanisms have failed We the People of this Planet. But it is still important and powerful that lawyers speak out in the face of such inhumanity in my native Burma, or anywhere in the world. Two other good lawyers who use their talents for humans, rather than States. http://www.policyforum.net/confronting-genocide-myanmar/ http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/30/a-genocide-in-the-making-burma-myanmar-rohingya/ Law should be of, for and by the People, not the Powerful and the Rich. That’s wishful thinking, for sure. But we must wish and work for what serves humans, not Frankensteinian, immoral states with monopoly over Violence. Thank you to you all.

  3. Thank you very much for your precious time and writing on Rohingya people topic. Indeed these people are now in the worst suffering situation in the hands of Burmese Military. Actually Burmese Govt. has long plan to eradicate these Rohingya people from their land ” Rakhine State”. Now they got excuse to punish and expel them from Rakhine State. UN and other important observers are still observing whether the ” Genocide ” word should be used. They know very well that the current condition for Rohingyas in Rakhine state is worse than Genocide.

  4. Thank you for reporting on the condition of the Rohingya in Burma. I appreciate you keeping this issue front and center. In media reporting, the Rohingya’s tragic suffering is often portrayed as communal violence when in reality, they are the victims of a persecution. Identifying the situation in Burma correctly is very helpful

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