August 28, 2022
Last week marked five years since the start of the most recent stage of the genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya. It was on Aug. 25, 2017, that Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, began what it described as “clearance operations” in Rohingya villages in Rakhine state.
This is a terrible euphemism for vicious activity. Thousands of Rohingya were murdered outright, shot by the Tatmadaw, paramilitaries and racist mobs. Uncountable women were raped and casual violence was widespread. Homes, and entire villages, were burned down, many with their inhabitants inside.
The efforts of this campaign of mass violence were concentrated on driving out the Rohingya. Their homes were ransacked and wrecked, their villages burned and they were forced, at the barrel of a gun, to leave.
It is worth stressing the degree of violence in those early days, which continued long afterward. It was a premeditated campaign of violence that displayed signs of a great deal of planning. It had nothing to do with enforcing the law or keeping the peace; it was genocide, pure and simple. It was the attempted destruction of one group of people by a powerful regime, carried out through mass killings, institutionalized rape and the expulsion of men, women and children from their homes.
The effect was clearly genocidal. An entire people was driven out. Its attackers used lies to justify this ethnic cleansing, claiming that the Rohingya were foreigners, had no claim to Myanmar and no place in its history. These were falsehoods deployed not to mask a genocide but to justify one.
All the while, much of the democratic world, which had heralded what it thought were liberalizing reforms in Myanmar a short time earlier, struggled to get its bearings.
As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were thrown out of their homes and villages, international organizations such as the UN struggled to keep count of those killed. The interior of Myanmar was kept under strict military control. Whatever news leaked out was patchy and sporadic. But even in this restricted environment, it was very clear what the military was doing and what its intentions were.
As summer drew to a close that year in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were forced to be on the move. Driven out by Tatmadaw forces, they made their way in ragged columns to the country’s borders.
We are five years distant from these events but even now they are shocking. This is how genocide is conducted in the modern world: Undeterred and open.
We are five years distant from the genocide in Myanmar but even now these events are shocking.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The international response to the early phase of the genocide was mixed. Many countries condemned it but few did much that was concrete to oppose it or to punish the perpetrators. Bangladesh took in an estimated 750,000 Rohingya refugees who flocked to Cox’s Bazar, ending up in a refugee camp that is now home to more than a million people. Those people are still there, still unable, half a decade later, to escape the consequences of the events of August 2017.
Over the past five years, some countries have stepped up to help the Rohingya and try to bring their attackers to justice.
In the International Court of Justice, Gambia has brought a case against Myanmar for genocide. The case continues and has resulted in a collating of evidence about the crimes committed by the Tatmadaw that can only be welcome. It has helped to keep the call for justice alive and might yet bring the generals and the instigators and perpetrators of the genocide to account.
But more work remains to be done. Most obviously, the Rohingya still live in Cox’s Bazar in a state of limbo. Refugee populations are never best served by being left as they are; their conditions worsen and the world has a chance to forget about their cause.
There is always a moral necessity to examine these conditions. There is nothing so permanent, in international relations, as the temporary, and it is the moral duty of countries that wish to aid the Rohingya to ensure that temporary indignities are not made to last.
In Myanmar itself, political changes have come about in the past five years. Politicians from the National League for Democracy were in government when the genocide was launched and now many of them are in jail. They lied about the genocide or attempted to cover it up — but this did not save them from the generals.
Now their parties have been forced by repression into new coalitions, alliances of necessity, to fight against the Tatmadaw, which threatens to extend the scope of its violence from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities to all forces of opposition.
Over the past five years, one might hope that some members of the NLD have learned the foolishness of attempting to compromise with the bringers of genocide. We must hope the rest of the world has learned this lesson too.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017).
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