Months before a surge of genocidal violence forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the Burmese government made “extensive and systematic preparations” to perpetrate violence against the stateless Muslim minority, according to a report released this month by the advocacy group Fortify Rights.
The report—titled “They Gave Them Long Swords”—claims that in the months leading up to the coordinated state-led attacks on the Rohingya in August 2017, the government took several steps to lay the groundwork. These steps included collecting sharp or blunt objects from Rohingya civilians, which could otherwise be used in self-defense; training and arming Buddhist and other non-Rohingya civilians in the northern Rakhine State; tearing down fencing and other protective or obscuring structures around Rohingya homes; expelling or refusing access to aid organizations and NGOs in an effort to deprive Rohingya civilians of food and other lifesaving aid in order to weaken them; and deploying high numbers of state-security forces. The Rohingya possess almost no civil rights to prevent these measures.
As the report points out, these preparations fit within the United Nations’ Framework for Analysis of Atrocity Crimes as “preparatory actions for genocide and crimes against humanity.”
The report, which is based on a 21-month investigation, recounts how the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, provided weapons—including firearms and swords—to non-Rohingya citizens in the Rakhine State. This occurred months before the attacks on Rohingya that began on August 25, 2017, in which armed citizen “vigilantes” took an active part.
Human rights groups, including Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch, as well as the UN, have extensively documented the Myanmar government’s systematic use of arson, murder, torture, and rape against the Rohingya.
The Fortify Rights report also alleges that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a small militant Rohingya group, perpetrated human rights abuses, including the murder of Rohingya civilians. Rohingya survivors and members of ARSA told Fortify Rights that the militant group threatened, beat, and in some cases killed Rohingya they suspected of being government informants. ARSA members also told Fortify Rights that Atta Ullah, the head of ARSA, had ordered the murders.
Meanwhile the nearly one million Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh continue to reckon with the aftereffects of their exile as they face an uncertain future. There has been a wave of children born in the camps, the result of the rapes perpetrated against Rohingya women that began more than ten months ago. Reports tell horrific stories: Women who have conceived babies as a result of being raped are stigmatized and abandoned, or forced into unsafe abortions. In some cases, the women, rejected by their husbands and families, grapple with seeing their newborn children as unwanted burdens and reminders of trauma.
Myanmar and the UN signed a secret repatriation agreement in June which, after a leaked copy surfaced, was rejected by Rohingya leaders due to its failure to give citizenship rights to the Rohingya. Meanwhile, the government of Bangladesh and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have started an exhaustive process to record and verify the identities of the Rohingya refugees. The six-month effort, which includes fingerprinting, retina scans, and the creation of ID cards for each refugee, began in June and aims to help document and protect the Rohingya.
Myanmar, for its part, continues to deny wrongdoing. Kyaw Moe Tun, director-general of Myanmar’s foreign ministry, recently claimed while speaking to a UN human rights commission that reports contained distorted and exaggerated information. “The root cause of the tragedy was terrorism,” Kyaw said, “and terrorism cannot be condoned under any circumstance.” The reference to terrorism addresses the ARSA attacks in August 2017, which the government claims were the cause of the “crackdown” on the Rohingya. The claim, however, is contradicted by the Fortify Rights report. The rights group is not alone in resisting the narrative Myanmar has been trying to popularize; UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee told an audience at the Berlin Conference on Myanmar Genocide in February that she was skeptical that the ARSA attacks could have been executed without the foreknowledge of the Myanmar government, which has an extensive security apparatus.
Still, Kyaw Moe Tun insisted at his July 4 meeting with the UN commission that his government was committed to “the defense of human rights.”
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, responded, “In my four years as high commissioner I have heard many preposterous claims. That claim is almost in its own category of absurdity. Have you no shame, sir, have you no shame? We are not fools.”
The Myanmar official did not reply to Zeid’s comments.
Despite growing recognition of the genocide inflicted upon the Rohingya community, the international response has been mixed. Israel, which has continued to provide arms and training to the Burmese military, recently signed a deal with Myanmar allowing the two countries to edit each other’s school history textbooks, a move apparently aimed to protect both countries from criticism of their human rights record. Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, told Tricycle that many major corporations continue to do business in Myanmar, including Microsoft, Starbucks, Visa, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Motors, General Electric, the GAP, KFC, and many others.
Canada and the European Union placed new sanctions on seven Myanmar military officials in June, one of whom was fired afterward. Myanmar says the official was dismissed due to weakness in his response to attacks on police outposts by ARSA, casting doubt on the assumption that his dismissal is related to the moral message of the sanctions.
Human rights organizations are also advocating a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, has raised the question of whether the ICC could address the actions of Myanmar, which does not recognize its authority, as a result of the deportation of the Rohingya into Bangladesh, where their authority is recognized.
Fortify Rights has also called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, to hold an emergency meeting to “address the Rohingya crisis and ensure international justice and accountability.”
“Genocide doesn’t happen spontaneously,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights, in a press release. “Impunity for these crimes will pave the path for more violations and attacks in the future. The world can’t sit idly by and watch another genocide unfold, but right now, that’s exactly what’s happening.”
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