America’s Rohingya genocide determination an important first step
Since the return of partial democracy in Myanmar in 2010, the Rohingya have been the target of persecution, ethnic cleansing and genocide. As of now, about 1 million Rohingya are living as refugees around Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, having fled the military violence of 2017. A further 600,000 are held in internal camps in Rakhine state completely at the mercy of the military authorities, having been displaced by the ethnic violence of 2012-13. A further 300,000 to 400,000 of the community are scattered across the region, from India to Thailand, with no rights (since none of these states will give them refugee status).
Myanmar is accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice, where the former leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, sought to defend the military violence and avoid mentioning the word “Rohingya.” Even before the 2021 military coup, the ICJ was sufficiently concerned about the fate of the Rohingya still in Myanmar that it ordered the government to show how it would protect this “extremely vulnerable” community from the risk of further violence. The coup has effectively prevented further progress at the ICJ, although the hearings continue.
US policy toward Myanmar has changed since 2010. Initially, along with the EU, it was supportive of Suu Kyi and prepared to downplay the persecution of the Rohingya in an attempt to support the claimed process of moving Myanmar toward democracy. In 2018, the State Department started to investigate the events of 2017 and this led to the Trump administration declaring it had been an act of ethnic cleansing by the military. Last week, however, the Biden administration opted, for the first time, to describe this as an act of genocide. Its reasons may have included worsening relations with Russia (a major supporter of the regime), but also that the junta clearly has no interest in a renewal of democratic reform.
A side effect has been the marginalization of the old National League for Democracy leadership (who, at the least, shared the military’s prejudices against the Rohingya) thanks to the emergence of a new overarching opposition grouping that is trying to unify all Myanmar’s persecuted minorities. The national unity government has gone so far as to tell the ICJ it wishes to withdraw some of Suu Kyi’s objections to the genocide charge.
Rohingya advocacy groups have widely welcomed the US shift, not least as it adds further weight to the ongoing case and, not surprisingly, the regime has rejected the description.
This American shift at the very least means there is now renewed focus on the events of 2017-18 and the wider plight of the Rohingya.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
What is not clear are the practical implications. While the US is not a full signatory to the ICJ, it is aligned on most issues (including genocide), so feasibly it could join the current case. This would certainly add weight to the evidence being presented, but the legal process is currently stalled as the junta refuses to attend or engage. Equally, it cannot lead to a declaration by the UN Security Council as Myanmar will continue to be protected by Russia and China, but it does make it more likely the council will discuss the issue and use the term “genocide.”
All this, plus engagement with Rohingya groups, at the very least means there is now renewed focus on the events of 2017-18 and the wider plight of the Rohingya (this, in turn, might help Bangladesh to negotiate support as it deals with the refugees).
Presumably, the declaration also marks a firm departure from the previous policy of protecting Suu Kyi from criticism on the grounds that this might destabilize the democratic process. However, the US declaration explicitly blamed the military for the genocide after it enacted a policy that was shared between it and Suu Kyi’s government.
Nevertheless, now that an explicit determination has been made by the Biden administration, the US should utilize the full force of its global leadership to ensure that justice is delivered and the architects of the genocide are held accountable. The US should also take the lead in delivering reparations to the Rohingya and working with all allies and partners — like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Myanmar’s national unity government, the UN and the government of Bangladesh — to develop a plan to return the Rohingya to their homeland.
The genocide determination is most welcome and long overdue, but it should only be the beginning of efforts to right this wrong and deliver for the Rohingya.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim