International observers have watched with horror over the last year as Myanmar’s “slow-burn genocide” against its Muslim Rohingya minority flared into large-scale violence that human rights groups have alleged were planned months in advance. Despite widespread condemnation from political leaders and human rights organizations as well as sanctions from the US, Canada, and the EU, Myanmar has continued to deny wrongdoing, persist in its persecution of the Rohingya who remain in the country, and do nothing to create conditions for a safe return of the nearly one million Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.
Recent weeks have seen conflicting signs about what the future holds. A flicker of hope has arisen for the Rohingya as the UN issued a report accusing Myanmar of genocide, which was followed days later by an International Criminal Court (ICC) ruling that Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya can be prosecuted despite Myanmar’s not recognizing the court’s authority. ICC prosecutors successfully argued that the crime against the Rohingya was not completed until the refugees entered Bangladesh, where the court’s authority is recognized. Myanmar was quick to reject the legitimacy of the ICC court ruling.
This is the first instance of the ICC’s investigating a state that has not signed the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the ICC. While the court may proceed in determining whether the treatment of the Rohingya is classified as a crime against humanity, which would normally result in political leaders standing trial on those charges, it is unclear what will happen if Myanmar officials refuse to appear before the court.
At the same time, Myanmar has garnered international condemnation after jailing two Reuters journalists in December 2017. The journalists had exposed a mass grave of ten Rohingya murdered by the army. Despite rumors that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi would grant the journalists amnesty at the end of the trial, she has not done so. Aung San Suu Kyi described the reporters as “traitors” at a private meeting in January, according to US diplomat Bill Richardson, who had been in attendance. At the time, Richardson was serving on an international advisory body that was investigating the Rohingya crisis. He left that post later in January to protest what he alleged were attempts to whitewash Myanmar’s crimes.
Activists have long sought the recognition of the violence in Myanmar as “genocide,” as the term carries unique legal and political weight. Tricycle used the term as far back as 2013 in an article written by Maung Zarni, a Burmese Buddhist and a longtime Rohingya rights activist who founded the Free Burma Coalition.
“I feel fully vindicated by the UN conclusion on Myanmar,” Zarni recently told Tricycle by email, adding that he was pleased by “the UN fact-finding mission presenting the unvarnished truth about this crime, implicating not only the trigger-pullers and order-issuers but also the civilian leadership, particularly, Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi was formerly a comrade of Zarni’s in the fight for democracy in Myanmar, but her justification of the genocidal violence against the Rohingya has caused many human rights activists and international bodies to reject her leadership.
“The UN’s findings on the Myanmar genocide puts the moral and political ball in the court not only of the Security Council but also of the more than 140 UN member states that signed the Genocide Convention,” said Zarni, referring to the UN convention that requires its signatories to respond to genocide with intervention and punitive measures for the perpetrators. “Let us save the slogan ‘Never again!’ from becoming an insult to the victims of past genocides.”
Zarni was also pleased with the ICC ruling, but warned that the ICC’s investigation is narrowly focused on two elements: cross-border deportation and the internal transfer of Rohingya. The UN fact-finding mission, on the other hand, found that a decades-long genocide had been committed.
Zarni also hopes that the international community, while seeking justice, does not lose sight of the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis.
”The real justice will be had only when Rohingyas can have a piece of land they can call home, where they can raise children in safety and in peace,” he said.
On September 9, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on the international community to “take specific steps to build up pressure on Myanmar” to repatriate the nearly one million Rohingya refugees who are currently living in squalid, inhumane conditions. (Around 700,000 of those refugees fled Myanmar after the violent crackdown in August 2017, while the rest fled similar persecution in October 2016.)
Speaking to global groups, including the Islamic Development Bank, which has 57 member countries, Hasina said they “cannot remain silent when Myanmar’s Rohingya citizens are victims of ethnic cleansing,” according to Reuters.
Rights groups have stated, however, that conditions in the Rakhine state are not suitable for a repatriation. The Rohingya who have not fled continue to be denied basic human rights, and some refugees have said they would die in Bangladesh before going back to Myanmar.
“The only viable solution for the Rohingya,” Zarni concluded, “is international protection to return to their homeland in Myanmar, not a forced return to an ongoing genocide.”
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