Should we call the Rohingya crisis a 'genocide'?

Muslim activists demonstrate in support of Myanmar's Rohingya population, who have endured persecutions that some claim are tantamount to ethnic cleansing or genocide.

BANGKOK, Thailand — They have been compared to human viruses. They have been violently purged from their homes into ghettoized camps. Officials have called them ogres and designed laws to lower their birthrate.

Such is the fate of the Rohingya, a coastal-dwelling Muslim minority from Myanmar. 

The Rohingya have endured a bloody exodus from their homes at the hands of Buddhist vigilantes and complicit authorities. Nearly 150,000 are now stuck in camps where food and medicine are scarce and armed troops man the gates.

This is textbook ethnic cleansing. But is it genocide?

For better or worse, the word is increasingly used by highly influential figures to describe the Rohingya crisis.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among the world’s best known activists, has called it “slow genocide.” Other Nobel Peace Prize winners call it “nothing less than genocide.” Billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who funds political activists in Myanmar, has said the “parallels to Nazi genocide are alarming.”

Long simmering in obscurity, the Rohingya nightmare has become a global cause célèbre. It has even attracted its first celebrity: Matt Dillon, who recently visited Rohingya camps.

The Rohingya have roused the world’s guilt over past horrors that humanity failed to prevent — think Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda — and compelled many to condemn their persecution in the strongest language possible. (Myanmar’s government, which considers Rohingya to be invaders from Bangladesh, calls the genocide designation “unbalanced.")

But genocide isn’t just a chilling descriptor. It’s also a legal term that came to prominence in the wake of the Holocaust. And it’s defined by the United Nations as a crime against international law.

Rohingya migrant women cry as they sit on a boat drifting in the sea off the coast of Thailand on May 14, 2015.

According to the UN, a genocide can take place when any of the following acts are committed with “intent to destroy” an ethnic or religious group:

“Killing members of the group”

Rohingya have been hacked up and driven from their homes by Buddhist vigilantes. Authorities did little to prevent these attacks and, in some cases, abetted the violence, according to Fortify Rights, a nonprofit watchdog group that specializes in documenting anti-Rohingya abuse.

“Homes would be set ablaze, mosques would be set ablaze,” says Matthew Smith, the group’s founder. “And when local populations would attempt to extinguish the fires, state security forces would open fire.”

“Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”

Rohingya men interviewed by GlobalPost explain that corrupt cops or troops can victimize them at will. Men coerced into forced labor can’t work to feed their families. “We began to starve,” says a Rohingya man who once stayed in the camps and now lives in Thailand. “I was always working for police or soldiers for free.”

It is reasonable, right now, to be talking about genocide prevention. The situation is that serious.

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”

Mob attacks on Rohingya have been systematic and well planned, Smith says. “There were essentially town-hall style meetings ... in which the sole topic of discussion was how to remove Muslims from villages,” he says.

Though Myanmar’s central government doesn’t acknowledge the Rohingya’s right to live on their native lands, there is no national strategy to kill them. Most evidence suggests that members of a local political faction, formerly called the Rakhine National Development Party, were key instigators of the Rohingya purges that raged hottest in 2012.

Those purges forced Rohingya into camps that are notoriously bleak. As many as 250,000 Rohingya have also fled into the Bay of Bengal, and many ended up in brutal trafficking camps in neighboring countries.

“Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”

Rohingya women who have more than two kids can be fined or arrested. Even marriage licenses for Rohingya are restricted.

“Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” 

No evidence suggests this has happened to the Rohingya on any significant scale.

There’s no denying that the Rohingya are among Asia’s most subjugated groups. But what separates the Rohingya crisis from the most infamous genocides is scale. 

The death toll from Rohingya purges since 2012 is believed to number in the low hundreds. Far more have likely died attempting to flee their native areas on creaky boats. Exact figures are elusive but, however high, the amount is tiny compared to genocides that have cost millions of lives.

Death tolls, however, aren’t the only way to measure a genocide. “I think one of the common misconceptions is that, in order for genocide to happen, there needs to be a situation with mass killings,” Smith says. 

“The popular imagination around genocide has been shaped by horrific genocides that have occurred in the past,” he says. “In a way, that has prevented people from accurately calling a genocide a genocide.”

While academics and Nobel laureates use the word “genocide” to label the Rohingya nightmare, groups that work closely on the Rohingya cause, such as Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch, have not attempted to make a case for Rohingya genocide under international law.

“But it is reasonable, right now, to be talking about genocide prevention,” Smith says. “The situation is that serious.”

Those who warn of genocide as a potential threat are “definitely on the right path,” says Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “What we’ve seen is certainly ethnic cleansing. We’ve certainly seen crimes against humanity.”

But genocide, he says, is probably not a “legally accurate” description. 

“Some of the international advocates for the Rohingya, who are screaming from the rooftops that genocide is already taking place, don’t do their arguments service,” Robertson says. “It certainly doesn’t help efforts to pressure the government to reverse course and undo some of the things that are leading to warnings of calamity.”

Troops turning their guns on inhabitants of Rohingya camps would certainly constitute genocide, Robertson says, as would any government action plan designed to exterminate the Rohingya. 

“If a UN agency did decide there’s a genocide taking place ... then we’d have a responsibility to protect them,” he says. “It could compel the UN Security Council to authorize action. It would become a major international imperative.”

But for now, the UN isn’t even remotely close to using the word “genocide.” Its approach has been to gently nudge the government toward better behavior. Among UN officials, even the word “Rohingya” is avoided: it can infuriate Myanmar officials who prefer the term “Bengali,” a label that suggests Rohingya are native to Bangladesh, not Myanmar.

Only once has a UN official let slip the word “genocide” in reference to the Rohingya. Last year, the then-Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Tomás Ojéa Quintana, mentioned in a speech that the Rohingya crisis has “elements of genocide.” But he quickly added: “I myself do not use the term genocide for strategic reasons.”

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