Article Oct 5, 2018

Explainer: What you should know about the Myanmar genocide

What just happened?

The United Nations (UN) recently released a 440-page report examining the “infringement of fundamental freedoms, including the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and peaceful association, and the question of hate speech” of minority groups in Myanmar.

 According to the UN, the report establishes the clear “patterns of violations” of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed by the Myanmar military.

“During their operations the [Myanmar military] has systematically targeted civilians, including women and children, committed sexual violence, voiced and promoted exclusionary and discriminatory rhetoric against minorities, and established a climate of impunity for its soldiers,” said Marzuki Darusman, a member of the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

The report documents acts of genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya since August 25, 2017. The actions of the Myanmar military—which they called a “clearance operation”—included the killing thousands of Rohingya civilians, as well as forced disappearances, mass gang rape, and the burning of hundreds of villages.

“I have never been confronted by crimes as horrendous and on such a scale as these,” added Darusman.

Where is Myanmar?

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country in Southeast Asia that is bordered by India and Bangladesh to its west, Thailand and Laos to its east, and China to its north and northeast.

According to the 2014 census, 87.9 per cent of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist, 6.2 percent Christian, and 4.3 percent are Muslim. The country’s constitution, adopted in 2008, recognizes the “special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union” but also “recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

According to the UN, Myanmar has seen an increase in Buddhist nationalism since 2011, with virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence between Buddhists and Muslims.

Who are the Rohingyas?

The Rohingya people (historically know as Arakanese Indians) are an ethnic group with significant populations in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, and the United States. The Rohingya are majority Muslim, with a minority that is Hindu. In 2013 the United Nations designated them as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

What crimes and acts of genocide have been committed?

According to the report, the crimes against humanity committed in three states within Myanmar—Kachin, Shan and Rakhine States—include murder; imprisonment; enforced disappearance; torture; rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence; persecution and enslavement. In addition, in Rakhine State, the elements of the crimes against humanity of extermination and deportation are also present.

Sexual violence is especially common, and used by the military against women, men, and girls. As the report notes, in many cases, sexual violence was accompanied by degrading behavior, including insults and spitting. When women did escape, soldiers would frequently search for them, threaten and physically abuse their families, and destroy or steal their property. Sexual violence against men has been inflicted as a means of torture, including to obtain information or confessions from detainees.

Witnesses say sexual abuse and rape is frequently committed in military bases or in the jungle. One witness described seeing 20 soldiers surrounding two girls aged about 15 to 16 years old in the jungle in December 2017: “The soldiers were punching and slapping them. They pulled their hair. They pushed them on the ground and tore off their clothing. The girls were naked on the ground.” The witness ran from the scene in fear and later learned that villagers had found the bodies of the two girls.

What is genocide?

The term genocide was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin from the rooted words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and –cide (Latin for killing). Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1941, drafted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a resolution which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The Genocide Convention was the first human rights treaty adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

 Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group:

(a) Killing its members;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

“The crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts,” notes the report. “Factors pointing at such intent include the broader oppressive context and hate rhetoric; specific utterances of commanders and direct perpetrators; exclusionary policies, including to alter the demographic composition of Rakhine State; the level of organization indicating a plan for destruction; and the extreme scale and brutality of the violence.”

What is the response of the international community?

The report calls on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or establish an ad hoc international criminal tribunal, as well as implement targeted individual sanctions, travel bans and asset freezes against senior military commanders, and an arms embargo on the country.

In August, prior to this report’s release, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the U.N. Security Council must hold those responsible for the violence to account and added: “The whole world is watching what we do next and if we will act.”

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