Finding Burma’s path out of genocide
This month marks the fifth anniversary of the height of the Burmese military’s genocide against the Rohingya. Today, in the face of ongoing risks to the Rohingya, it’s time, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained in his March 21 genocide determination made at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to begin this “path out of genocide.”
The determination was the result of years of sounding the alarm of genocide and telling the world what happened to Rohingya in Burma, now known as Myanmar, not only in the military’s rampages of 2016 and 2017 that killed thousands and forced approximately 700,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, but in its decades-long campaign of systematic violence and persecution.
We were relieved when the U.S. government finally formally recognized the genocide against the Rohingya. We welcomed the $1 million in additional funding for the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. And we recognize the significant funds the United States has dedicated to humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya since the genocide.
Now is also the moment to articulate further changes and outline what making a genocide determination means going forward.
The urgency is all too glaring. The approximately 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Burma face a growing risk of mass atrocities, including genocide. Those living as refugees in neighboring Bangladesh face untenable and worsening living conditions. No one has been held accountable in a court of law for the brutal crimes committed against the Rohingya. Rampant impunity helped contribute to an environment where in February 2021, the Tatmadaw launched a coup ousting the civilian government. Since then, these perpetrators of genocide are estimated to have killed over 2,100 people as they brutally try to assert their control over the country. Their victims include peaceful protesters, children and democracy activists — including well-known leaders executed in late July in a marked escalation in the military’s response to political opposition.
Protecting Rohingya and other groups from mass atrocities must feature prominently in a broader U.S.-Burma policy. At the fore of that policy must be a commitment to listen to the Rohingya community. While each genocide survivor may call for different things, there are a few common refrains from the community.
Prioritize supporting efforts to advance justice
For Rohingya community members, this means both holding perpetrators accountable and supporting Rohingya-led efforts to bring cases forward around the world. It also means ensuring their equal rights as an ethnic group, including the restoration of full citizenship, and their safe return to their homes in Burma — both would help prevent the Tatmadaw from achieving one of their goals with the genocide, which was ridding Burma of the Rohingya. An expansive approach to pursuing justice would also include pursuing restitution for the land, property and other losses Rohingya endured — which would be essential steps to allow the Rohingya community to recover and rebuild.
Help the Rohingya community rebuild and become self-sufficient
The Rohingya community should be treated as a group full of resilience and dignity. The U.S., working with other governments, should support efforts to have host countries grant Rohingya access to education and employment. This will help them become self-sufficient and minimize the burden of host countries, notably Bangladesh, India and Malaysia.
Support the preservation of the Rohingya identity
The harm of genocide can never fully be repaired, but steps can be taken to support the preservation of the Rohingya culture, language and unique identity — an identity that the Tatmadaw sought to destroy.
As the new U.S. “Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities” articulates, the U.S. cannot on its own craft a path out of genocide. It must work with an array of local, regional and international actors. With that in mind, Burma’s National Unity Government (NUG), a government in exile representing the country’s democratically elected leaders, is a critical partner. It must build meaningful and sustained engagement with the Rohingya community through working with Rohingya leaders to develop a comprehensive transitional justice plan that will secure a safe future in Burma for the Rohingya community as well as the many other groups who have suffered mass atrocities at the hands of the Tatmadaw.
As a world leader, the United States should prioritize building an international coalition to support accountability efforts for mass atrocities and raise the consequences on the Tatmadaw for its continued crimes. The Rohingya community is in this fight for the long haul and will do whatever it takes to advance justice, rebuild and preserve their culture and accountability. They need to know that they have the backing of world leaders who are dedicated to pursuing a “path out of genocide” for the Rohingya.
Naomi Kikoler is the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
Wai Wai Nu is the executive director of the Women’s Peace Network in Burma.