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The Rohingya: A Case for Genocide

Posted by [email protected] on June 7, 2018 at 6:05 AM

By Lucia Lombardo

Introduction and History

The Rohingya people are a historically persecuted group of Muslims living in Myanmar. Since 1962, their rights have been stripped away piece by piece by the government of Myanmar until 2015 when violence against the people intensified. This violence has cemented the Rohingya as the largest group of stateless people in the world today. Until this point international organizations and countries have stopped short of calling what is happening in Myanmar a genocide; world leaders have condemned Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and called on her to stop the violence, but no substantive action has been taken.

The term Rohingya is ethno-religious and roughly means Muslim people whose home is Rakhine state. The Rohingya trace their lineage back to the area between East Pakistan and Burma. East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971 and Burma, a colony of Great Britain, gained its independence and changed its name to Myanmar in 1948 and in 1989, respectively. The Rohingya were granted Burmese citizenship by the new government when the country declared independence in 1948 and were subsequently granted independence under the following two regimes. However, starting in 1962 military juntas took power in government; they were anti-Muslim and the Rohingya’s rights eroded away. In 1982, the military government, headed by Ne Win, authorized 135 ethnic groups as Burmese nationals in a now infamous citizenship law, leaving any group not authorized saddled with the burden of proving their ancestry in the country back to 1823. Many Rohingya had no official paperwork denoting this even though dozens of generations had lived in Rakhine state, and thus were rendered stateless.

The violence in Rahkine state has ebbed and flowed since 1982. Starting in 2012, violence against this group caused hundreds of thousands to be internally displaced within Rakhine state, living in shelters and camps. In October 2016, a new insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked Myanmar border guards and killed a dozen military men, which caused a military lockdown in Rakhine state. The international community sent a strong message for restraint for the civilians involved in the attack but failed to mention restraint on the part of the military. About a week later, almost 90,000 Rohingya refugees reached Bangladesh, citing mass rape, extrajudicial killing and torture as reasons for their fleeing. This was the initial factor in the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to deploy a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to look for evidence of international crimes.

Genocide in Law

Genocide was deemed a crime under international law in 1946 by the UN General Assembly and was codified into international law in 1948 with the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention defined genocide as any of five acts committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial and religious group. These acts are as follows: killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Rohingya

Whether the Rohingya persecution could be treated as a genocide and whether persons could be tried in the ICC is a subject of intense debate between both scholars and governments. Most of the academic literature published on the situation in Myanmar was published in or before 2017 right when the latest breakout of violence occurred and thus did not have access to what has occurred since then. Most reports, albeit for some NGO reports, have described mounting evidence of genocide or increased evidence of genocide, but have not outright condemned the attacks as genocide in nature.

However, the international community is beginning to reach a consensus on a possible genocide of the Rohingya. As stated above, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a fact-finding mission to Myanmar in March 2017. The mission concluded its mandate in March 2018 and is preparing their final report for the General Assembly, to be published in September of this year. However, the chair of the mission gave an oral report during the 37th session of the Human Rights Council on March 12, 2018 and gave an outline of the mission’s findings. The mission’s focus for Rakhine state was to understand the pattern of human rights abuses broadly and to collect information on specific incidents since August 2017. The chair stated that international crimes had been and were being committed, mainly against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Images obtained by the mission show 319 villages that were burned either partially or completely, including homes and mosques. These so-called clearance operations by the military are commonplace in Rakhine state, with entire villages emptied before being burned.


The fact-finding mission commissioned by the U.N is promising, but a UN Security Council recommendation to the ICC to prosecute will need to occur before any charges are brought. Given the initial findings of the mission, this step may be able to be taken after the final report is submitted to the General Assembly in September. The Rohingya have been targeted by the Myanmar government since the 1960s and have endured decades of verbal abuse and dwindling rights as well as increasing violence and crimes committed against them. This has caused a mass exodus of the Rohingya from Rakhine state and most have fled into neighboring Bangladesh, which is unequipped to deal with the influx of over 600,000 refugees; living conditions in the refugee camps here are at times no better than what the Rohingya fled. The sharp increase in so-called clearance operations since August 2017 have made this genocide impossible to ignore and the Rohingya deserve justice from the ICC before they are completely exterminated.

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