The World Isn’t Prepared to Deal With Possible Genocide In Myanmar

“I was lucky, I was only raped by three men,” one survivor of the violence told investigators.

Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

A United Nations report recommended Monday that Myanmar’s top generals be investigated for genocide at the International Criminal Court for their role in the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya.

“There is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine State,” said the report, by a UN fact-finding mission, using the Burmese name for the country’s military. It recommended that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military, as well as five other generals be investigated and prosecuted for genocide against the Muslim minority group.

The UN report is a damning indictment of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, who have been rendered effectively stateless because of the country’s citizenship law. Myanmarese authorities consider the Rohingya Bangladeshis, and refer to them as “Bengali.” Following the widespread violence directed at the Rohingya in 2017, hundreds of thousands of people fled to camps across the border in Bangladesh. The UN report called the “clearance operations” a human-rights catastrophe, noting “the estimate of up to 10,000 deaths is conservative.”

Discrimination against the Rohingya began well before the widespread violence directed at them in August 2017, following the attack on Burmese military posts by an armed Rohingya group. But the discrimination was codified in 1982, when Burma’s junta passed a law that identified eight ethnicities entitled to citizenship and excluded the Rohingya, who until then had enjoyed equal rights under the law, from the list. The Rohingya suffered persecution in the following years. The worst of it occurred in 2012, following the rape of a Buddhist woman allegedly by Muslim men. The violence that followed forced 140,000 Rohingya into camps for internally displaced people.

Although the fact-finding mission’s recommendation that Myanmar’s generals be investigated for genocide is significant, it took years to get to this point. It will likely take years more for there to be any meaningful action—by no means assured at this point—against the alleged perpetrators.

“What we’ve asked in the long term is a referral either to the ICC or a tribunal to be set up, but if that is not politically feasible at the moment, at least to set up a mechanism that will preserve the evidence, collate it, and create prosecutorial files that can be used in an international tribunal in the future or can be used when national governments exercise universal jurisdiction,” Radhika Coomaraswamy, a former UN diplomat who was a member of the mission to Myanmar (also known as Burma), told me. “We feel we have the political backing required to have that mechanism created.”

The mission said the events in Rakhine state, where most of the Rohyingya live, “are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts.” These include “hate rhetoric,” statements made by military commanders and other perpetrators, the government’s exclusionary policies, and a level of organization that suggests a plan for the destruction of the Rohingya.

The UN report released Monday said Burmese military officials should be tried for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, as well as in Kachin and Shan states. Kachin is home to Burma’s Christian minority, which has also been targeted for state-sponsored violence in the majority-Buddhist country. Many of those displaced live in Shan state.

Although the UN panel’s recommendation for an investigation into genocide in Myanmar is unprecedented, getting the international community to take coordinated action will be a challenge. Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, and any case brought against it at the ICC must be initiated by a member of the UN Security Council. Both China and Russia, which are permanent, veto-wielding members of the body, have resisted international pressure on Myanmar. The Myanmar government itself has vowed not to cooperate with any international investigation into the events in Rakhine, and did not cooperate with the UN’s fact-finding mission.

While the United States has stopped short of describing the events in Myanmar as genocide, it has labeled them “ethnic cleansing.” Olivia Enos, a policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, told me it would be “positive” if the Trump administration called the events in Burma genocide. She added: “It would be a positive step forward even if the administration called it crimes against humanity, which would be an upgrade from ethnic cleansing.” According to Politico, a “State Department investigation … found that Myanmar’s military exhibited ‘premeditation and coordination’ ahead of” the massacre of the Rohingya, but the “Trump administration has apparently not yet decided whether to call it a ‘genocide.’”

The fact-finding mission’s recommendation of a genocide investigation represents perhaps the most severe criticism by the UN of the government of Myanmar. The mission alleged that Myanmarese soldiers committed gang rapes in at least 10 village tracts, on occasion raping or gang-raping 40 women and girls together, often in public spaces, and in front of families and communities. One survivor told investigators: “I was lucky, I was only raped by three men.”

The UN mission was highly critical of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, for not using “her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine State.” The UN report acknowledged that the military, which ruled the country for five decades until 2011, still controls most aspects of security and, indeed, the instruments of force, but it said Myanmar’s civilian government “through their acts and omissions … contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.”

Significantly, the UN report also focused on Facebook’s role in the crisis, calling it a “useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate.” It called Facebook’s response “slow and ineffective,” calling for an independent investigation into the social-media platform, which in many parts of the world, such as Myanmar, is the only window to the internet. Following the report’s release, Facebook said it had removed 18 Facebook accounts, 52 pages, and one Instagram account related to hate speech in Myanmar. Accounts removed included those of the top generals named in the UN report.

The UN Human Rights Council is scheduled to meet next month to discuss the mission’s findings, and could issue a resolution to take the matter further. Separately, the UN Security Council meets Tuesday to discuss the Myanmar crisis. The meeting was scheduled prior to the release of Monday's report.