What has happened to the Rohingya in Burma is an open-and-shut case of genocide about which few can plead ignorance. It has become the most satellite-documented genocide in history with before, during and after images. This photographic evidence is an unmistakable, undeniable real-time record of atrocity.
Momentously, on Dec. 13, 2018, the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bipartisan resolution that declares the Burmese military’s atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority to be genocide. The House now officially has adopted the position that the ongoing policies of mass violence and displacement against the Rohingya by the Myanmar government constitute genocide, bringing the U.S. closer to emerging international consensus on the issue.
Now, the ball is in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s court. Will the State Department see the writing on the wall?
One could expect it would, given its own appraisal of the situation. The State Department spent $1.4 million to develop its own report, based on the most scientifically accurate survey data available. It reports that 82 percent of survivors have witnessed rampant killing of civilians by the Myanmar military; 82 percent have witnessed the destruction of Rohingya homes and villages, again mostly by the military; and over 50 percent have personally witnessed the use of rape or sexual assault as a military weapon against innocent civilians. To quote the report: “The recent violence in northern Rakhine State was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents. The scope and scale of the military’s operations indicate they were well-planned and coordinated.”
This report should guide the State Department to adopt a clear policy regarding Burma. For starters, it must recognize the situation as a deliberate policy of genocide, premeditated and planned for some time.
For its part, the United Nations also has completed a fact-finding mission in Burma and produced a report documenting the heinous crimes of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military. The mission’s report, one of the longest human rights inquiries ever produced by the organization, joins a growing body of evidence establishing beyond reasonable doubt that the Tatmadaw has indeed committed genocide against its people.
National governments no longer can deny the obvious. In September, Canada became the first country to declare that the actions of the Burmese military constitute genocidal crimes against a largely defenseless, innocent population.
With 149 signatories to the U.N. treaty on genocide — which clearly states that cases of genocide require an international response — the official declaration of genocide by the U.S. State Department would resonate around the world. The global community would be compelled to act on the behalf of the Rohingya under international law.
The case of the Bosnian genocide, which took 25 years to successfully prosecute, demonstrates the need to shift from a stance of punishing genocide to preventing it. In this sense, the case of the Rohingya presents an opportunity to make a clear, forceful statement that such unconscionable crimes will not be countenanced.
On a policy level, the declaration of genocide is required to bring the kind of pressure to bear on the Burmese regime that would tilt the scale in favor of the Rohingya. For example, it would open the way to comprehensive economic sanctions, excluding food and medicine. Up until late 2016, the existence of sanctions led to democratic reforms in Burma. Once lifted, their absence sent an unmistakable signal to the Burmese military that there would be few consequences for its brutal actions. Bipartisan leaders in Congress and human rights advocates across the globe agree that the decision to remove sanctions was a grave miscalculation.
In the name of humanity, the State Department should follow the House to declare genocide in Burma, resolve to support full sanctions except on food and medicine, and thus provide leverage for the restoration of Rohingya citizenship — an essential condition that must be in place for a safe, dignified return for the refugees. Doing so will go a long way toward restoring the image of the United States as a force for moral order in the world, and will make sure that the horrors of genocide are relegated to history books, where they belong, rather than headlines.
As the House recognized, we stand at a crossroads. Down one path lies escalating genocidal violence by authoritarian, ethnonationalist states who have been emboldened by an apathetic international community. Down the other is the clear path of moral integrity, strongly stating that genocide will not be tolerated. The choice is clear.
Abdul Malik Mujahid is a producer, author and entrepreneur who chairs the Faith Coalition to Stop Genocide in Burma, a united group of American faith leaders from diverse religious backgrounds.