A Genocide by any Measure

Burmese military continues unrelenting acts and crimes of genocide of Rohingya Muslims

The Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, is on the border of the nation of Myanmar next to the Nafs River. The 740,000 Rohingya—including more than 400,000 children—have fled into Cox’s Bazar (UNHCR) Oct. 2017 / Credit: Mubassar Adnan Khan  

By Wakar Uddin

March/April 2022

As the international community’s attention to the Rohingya crisis in Burma (renamed as Myanmar by the military) continues to deepen, this Muslim minority’s identity and background have become more relevant. Many in the international community ask, “Who are the Rohingya, and why are they being driven out of their homeland and exterminated?”

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority indigenous to Arakan, which the military dictatorship has renamed “Rakhine State.” Until 1874 it was a sovereign nation known as “The Kingdom of Arakan,” where the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine people  lived together in peace. The kingdom fell to the invading Burmese (Bama) Kongbaung Dynasty in 1874. 

The etymology of “Rohingya” is signified by the natives as Rohang (pronounced as Rooang), a region in northern Arakan. Dr. Francis Buchanan, author of “Asiatic Researches on Transactions: History and Antiquities, the Arts, Sciences, and Literature” (1799), has documented that they are native to Arakan, who then identified themselves as “Rooinga.”

The country’s Rohingya population was approximately 4 million. Now, however, only 700,000 remain — the military’s systematic violence and institutionalized ethnic cleansing campaigns have forced more than 3 million to flee to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and several Middle East countries. The largest exodus to Bangladesh occurred during the military’s August 2017 implemented self-proclaimed “ground clearance operation” — 750,000 people were displaced. Currently, Bangladesh has over 1.2 million Rohingya in refugee camps, including those who were forced out before 2017.

The Constitution and Rohingya Citizenship

For the past several decades, the military has concealed the fact that the post-independence democratic Burmese government had recognized the Rohingya as one of the country’s national races and ethnic minorities. Since independence in 1948, numerous Rohingya leaders have contested and/or been elected to serve the country and their Arakanese constituencies in the civilian governments during the 1950s and 1960s, the multiparty national election in 1990 and the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union) and state assembly until 2015. Twenty-six Rohingya parliamentarians, who served their constituents in representative assemblies from 1947-2015.

In the 2010 election, two Rohingya political parties, the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) and the National Democratic and Peace Party (NDPP), participated in the national election. Additionally, several Rohingya candidates stood from the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and others ran as independents. Three Rohingya USDP candidates were elected to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and two to the Arakan state assembly. The USDP-run government abruptly revoked Rohingya voting rights in 2015, and since then no Rohingya candidates have been allowed to contest elections at any level.

Human Rights Violations and the Masterminds of Violence

Human rights violations against the Rohingya are deeply institutionalized as well as systemic and systematic. These range from depriving them of the freedoms of movement and worship; denying basic education and health care, destroying places of worship; confiscating land, building settlements (natala) on Rohingya land; and from arbitrary arrest, extortion, rape and sex slavery to human trafficking by the armed forces. 

During the military’s 60-year rule, this widespread persecution has provided fertile ground for the growth of ultra-nationalist ideology among the general Burmese population and the fear that the Rohingya supposedly pose a threat to Buddhism because they want to “Islamize Arakan State.”

On July 12, 2012, long-serving Gen. Thein Sein and president of the former USDP-led government, characterized the Rohingya as a national security threat and advocated their expulsion (June 20, 2017; www.law.upenn.edu/live/news/7191) and transferal to any country “willing to take them” (July 13, 2012; www.dvb.no/).

The military’s dehumanization of the Rohingya has been widespread, even comparing them to animals. According to the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 26, 2107), this attitude is so deep that a military diplomat who called them “ugly as ogres” was promoted. 

The Rohingya Genocide 

The actual blueprint for genocide dates to early 1960s with a highly sophisticated and strategic plan to eliminate this ethnic minority by destroying everything “Rohingya.” It stayed under the international radar for at least five decades. The first major instrument of genocide became obvious only in 1982 when the military dictatorship devised its own 1982 Citizenship law, which primarily targeted the Rohingya. 

This was done tactfully after approximately 200,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated, a portion of whom had been forced into Bangladesh by Nagamin Sitsinye (Operation King Dragon), a 1978 population clearance operation. Following this campaign’s failure, the military junta reached an agreement with Bangladesh, and Rohingya refugees were repatriated due to their undeniable citizenship documents.

This operation set the stage for the military’s subsequent genocidal campaigns that caused waves of Rohingyas seeking refuge abroad. The most brutal and ruthless military assault took place in August 2017, when over 750,000 of them fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Along with mass killings, dismemberment, gang rapes and mutilation, burning them inside their locked homes, throwing children into fires and shooting at escaping families, the military committed several other incomprehensible crimes.

The ongoing horror was so immense that the widespread international outcry finally attracted the attention of the UN General Assembly and Security Council, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Council of Foreign Ministers Conference, the European Union, the Muslim World League, ASEAN and several government institutions, among them the U.S. State Department, White House and Congress. This latter body passed several resolutions, and Washington sanctioned several senior military officers and further tightened its existing sanctions on Myanmar.

Interestingly, the country’s single largest source of foreign exchange is the oil and gas industry ($1.5 billion in 2019), which includes joint venture partnerships with international oil and gas majors such as Chevron, an American multinational energy corporation, and TotalEnergies SE, a French multinational integrated oil and gas company [Under shareholder pressure, the French conglomerate announced Jan. 21, that it is withdrawing from Myanmar over the deteriorating human-rights situation since the military coup]. 

The Rohingya Genocide Case at the International Court of Justice

The international outrage over the military’s decades-long genocidal acts and crimes against the Rohingya was further heightened in 2017, when the Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) — the organization OIC helped form — urgently requested the OIC to convene an emergency meeting to bring the military to justice. The OIC, along with the wider international community’s support, agreed and approved it at the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers’ Conference in Dhaka the following year. Consequently, on Nov. 11, 2019, OIC member state The Gambia filed a case — “Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar)” or the Rohingya Genocide case against Myanmar — at the International Court of Justice (ICJ; or the World Court). 

In its court filing, The Gambia lodged a 35-page application against Burma/Myanmar, a signatory of the 1948 Genocide Convention. The application alleged that Myanmar has violated its obligations and committed acts and crimes of genocide against the Rohingya in Arakan/Rakhine state, as well as Articles I, II and III of the 1948 Convention. Leader and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, along with a legal team, represented Myanmar.

The Gambia also requested the enactment of provisional protection measures. At the ensuing ICJ public hearing, held during Dec. 10-12, 2019, The Gambia’s team provided “brutal descriptions” of atrocities. On Jan. 23, 2020, the ICJ issued an order on The Gambia’s request for provisional measures ordering Myanmar to prevent genocidal acts and crimes against the Rohingya during the pendency of the case and to report regularly on its implementation of the order. 

The ICJ also issued a procedural order, setting filing deadlines of July 23, 2020, for The Gambia’s Memorial, and Jan. 25, 2021, for Myanmar’s responsive Counter-Memorial. On May 18, 2020, the court extended The Gambia’s memorial and set a filing deadline of Oct. 23, 2020. An extension was also granted to Myanmar until July 23, 2021.

On Feb. 1, 2021, a military coup deposed the democratically elected government on the false allegation of voter fraud in the 2020 national election. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party had won that election by a landslide — over 80% votes nationally. Renowned analysts on Myanmar say that the Rohingya issue and the ICJ case were the major factors behind the coup. The military junta replaced both her and her team with a military group led by Col. (ret.) Wunna Maung Lwin, who had been foreign minister of the military’s previous USDP government. 

The case remains ongoing, and a hearing is scheduled for Feb. 21-28, 2022 (as we go to press). Myanmar has filed a preliminary objection. Currently, the international community is pursuing various avenues to bring these perpetrators of the genocide and crimes to justice. The ICJ will have significant impact and implication on the future filing of the case at the International Criminal Court.

Wakar Uddin, Ph.D., is professor, The Pennsylvania State University; director general, the Arakan Rohingya Union; and founding chairman of The Burmese Rohingya Association of North America; member, Supreme Council of The Muslim World League.

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