A recent report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) details the brutal treatment of the Rohingya by the Myanmar military and armed gangs. More than half a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since clearance operations started in northern Rakhine state in August.
While the terms “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide” do not appear in the report, the information shared by refugees who fled the violence strongly suggests that the violence the Rohingya are experiencing right now meets the definition of a genocide under international law.
Beyond a “potential genocide”
The roots of the current pogroms date back to 2012 where an incident of mob justice against three Rohingya men accused of rape quickly spiraled out of control. Rather than reign in the Buddhist mobs attacking Rohingya villages, Myanmar police and military forces soon began to use the violence to their own advantage. By 2014 the government forced at least 100,000 Rohingya into rural concentration camps where poor health conditions and the inability to leave killed many, though with international observers barred from the region the exact number is unknown. Those not forced into the camps were still denied free movement in the country, effectively cutting them off from local markets, medical services and aid groups trying to help. And still, villages burned.
Human Rights Watch started compiling satellite images when the violence first started in 2012 that show the wholesale destruction of Rohingya villages and likening it to ethnic cleansing. By 2014, the organization United To End Genocide placed the Rohingya on their watchlist of groups at risk of genocide. In 2016, following the announcement that Myanmar planned to create a “regional police force” from Buddhist civilians to patrol Rohingya areas without any official oversight was called a “recipe for disaster” by the International Commission of Jurists.
But what the OHCHR report makes clear is that five years after the violence first started, this is no longer a situation that coulddevelop into genocide. It has become one.
Speaking with eyewitnesses who have fled to Bangladesh, medical personnel, and NGO workers in refugee camps and informal settlements, the OHCHR report details the systematic clearing of Rohingya villages, arbitrary killings, rape, torture, targeted arrests and disappearances of community leaders, widespread destruction of property and the mining of the border to deter any Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh from returning.
In one paragraph, the report summarizes just how brutal and thought out the current government actions are at destroying the Rohingya presence in Myanmar:
Credible information indicates that the Myanmar security forces purposely destroyed the property of the Rohingyas, scorched their dwellings and entire villages in northern Rakhine State, not only to drive the population out in droves but also to prevent the fleeing Rohingya victims from returning to their homes. The destruction by the [armed forces of Burma] of houses, fields, food-stocks, crops, livestock and even trees, render the possibility of the Rohingya returning to normal lives and livelihoods in the future in northern Rakhine almost impossible. It also indicates an effort to effectively erase all signs of memorable landmarks in the geography of the Rohingya landscape and memory in such a way that a return to their lands would yield nothing but a desolate and unrecognizable terrain. Information received also indicates that the Myanmar security forces targeted teachers, the cultural and religious leadership, and other people of influence in the Rohingya community in an effort to diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge.
The crimes documented are eerily reminiscent of those committed in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. In fact, the rapid and large scale exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar since August is the highest rate or refugee crossings since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Nearly half of Myanmar’s Rohingya population has fled, with more on the way. And given their lack of citizenship and the government’s continuing clearance operations, those now sitting in camps in Bangladesh will probably never be allowed to return.
Genocide has a very specific definition under international law. It does not just mean widespread ethnic cleansing. Rather, it is the the intentional destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. This report offers evidence that the purpose of these security sweeps by Burmese security forces are not merely to wage a counter-insurgency, but rather to target the Rohingya people themselves because of their identity.