There has been some resistance to labelling the attacks against the Rohingya in Myanmar as genocide.
Yes, some approximately 1 million Rohingya population in the north-western Rakhine state had been pushed over the border by a concerted attack by the Myanmar armed forces, but the death-toll was rather smaller than we expect in a typical genocide: just over 10,000 or so. For this reason, more circumspect observers have preferred the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the events.
But death-toll is not the only relevant factor here. A genocide, as defined under international law, is not merely when a large group of people is killed, but also when an ethnic or religious identity is systematically attacked with a view to destroying it.
That is what makes the Rohingya situation unambiguously a genocide: their Burmese attackers deny the very existence of the Rohingya identity as a people indigenous to the region of north-west Myanmar, and claim that they are but illegitimate Bangladeshi immigrants.
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And in fact, it is not just the attackers that do this: even Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, refers to them as “Bengali Muslims”.
But the Myanmar authorities have not limited themselves to merely denying the Rohingya their identity in the public political discourse. Evidence is emerging that during the “clearing operations”, the Myanmar army was deliberately and systematically targeting the educated and the community leaders among the Rohingya, village elders, teachers, religious leaders, and simply killing them.
In other words, not only do the Burmese deny the existence of the Rohingya, but any Rohingya who could articulate a defence of the identity of the group and could pass on the shared history and identity to the next generations were to be killed first.
We are no longer talking about inter-communal violence or “collateral damage” in the army’s fight against “insurgents”. This is unambiguously a coordinated effort to destroy a people, a culture, a shared identityDr. Azeem Ibrahim
This is textbook genocide. We are no longer talking about inter-communal violence or “collateral damage” in the army’s fight against “insurgents”. This is unambiguously a coordinated effort to destroy a people, a culture, a shared identity.
This is a well-established genocide tactic evident in other historical genocides. Academic scholars on the subject of genocide, such as Karen Jungblut of the USC’s Shoah Foundation, or Thomas MacManus of Queen Mary, University of London, have noted the parallels with the Holocaust and other recent genocides.
And this tactic is likely to be especially effective in the case of the Rohingya. Decades of marginalisation, of suppression of Rohingya education – for example teaching the Rohingya language is prohibited in Myanmar, and of constraining communication of the group with the outside world have left them with few educated community leaders to speak to them of their identity, and uniquely vulnerable to these tactics.
And this is not for lack of potential. Even as the assaults and mass migrations were taking place in the last 12 months, some Rohingya children who have been lucky enough to be able to take the Matriculation Exams in Myanmar, the equivalent of the end of high school examinations in the West, have come on top of regional rankings in academic performance.
Needless to say, these children were not educated or assessed in the Rohingya language. And for their troubles, they will not be given the opportunity to actually go to university in Myanmar even to study in Burmese, as higher education is strictly prohibited for the Rohingya.
And the UN still seems to think it is a good idea to try to repatriate the Rohingya from the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh to Myanmar. No such move should be made, let alone endorsed by any international humanitarian body or organisation, until Myanmar demonstrates it is committed to allowing the Rohingya to be Rohingya.
But in Myanmar at the moment, not even the moderates and the Nobel Peace Prize laureates would countenance such a thing.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.