Alicia de la Cour Venning, Thomas MacManus and Penny Green are researchers at the International State Crime Initiative. In 2015, they concluded a 12 month study which investigated the historical and ongoing persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya. Here they write about their work and the effect it has had around the world.
In October 2015, we warned that the Rohingya were experiencing genocide.
Between October 2014 and March 2015 we conducted fieldwork in Rakhine state, and carried out over 180 interviews with individuals from Rohingya, Rakhine, Kaman, and Maramagyi ethnic groups, as well as international non-governmental organisation (INGO) and UN staff, government officials, local Rakhine civil society leaders, business people and politicians, and Buddhist monks.
Our research concluded that successive Myanmar governments have engaged in systematic repression against the Rohingya since the late 1970s; repression which amounts to genocidal practice.
Our research captures and documents the myriad strategies employed by the Myanmar state to destroy the Rohingya and the Rohingya identity. The Rohingya suffer from destitution; malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness as a result of restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, livelihood; and the ever present threat of violence and corruption.
We warned that the marked escalation since 2012 in state-sponsored stigmatisation, discrimination, violence and segregation meant the very existence of the Rohingya was precarious, and that the Rohingya were at high risk of experiencing further waves of violence, including mass killings.
Our warning was stark (PDF): “This report concludes with an urgent warning to civil society in Myanmar, to international civil society, to the government of Myanmar and to international states. A genocidal process is underway in Myanmar and if it follows the path outlined in this report, it is yet to be completed. It can be stopped but not without confronting the fact that it is, indeed, a genocide.”
In November 2015, following the release of our report, the Myanmar government’s media mouthpiece, the Global New Light of Myanmar (PDF) published an article making explicit reference to our research, claiming our work was “prepared on baseless, deceptive and false allegations” and reiterating that, “The Government and people of Myanmar do not recognize the term ‘Rohingya’ as it is an invented terminology”. The government explicitly rejected our findings as “unfounded allegations” and “malicious acts… interfering in the international affairs of Myanmar and disturbing the peace and tranquillity of the country”.
In the same year thousands of Rohingya who had taken to the Andaman Sea, risking their lives at the hands of brutal human traffickers, became stranded on boats, deemed ‘floating coffins’ by the UN. So desperate were their conditions of life inside Myanmar, that they gambled with their lives. Many drowned, died of starvation, or ended up in death camps on the Thai-Malaysia border. This state-orchestrated crisis became known as Southeast Asia’s ‘refugee crisis’, a large-scale ‘humanitarian disaster’. What this analysis elided was the genocide at the heart of Rohingya flight.
The 2017 waves of state terror, mass killings, village clearances, and terrified exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State is the predictable result of successive Myanmar regimes’ systematic campaigns of repression and terror. What we are currently witnessing is the foreseeable escalation of genocidal processes: the systematic removal of identity; the wide scale destruction of property, including razing entire village tracts to the ground; the forcible displacement of over half a million people; the mass gang rape of women; and the murder of civilians, including women and children by Myanmar security forces and Rakhine militias, clearly amounts to a systematic campaign designed to destroy the Rohingya identity.
History demonstrates a general reluctance on the part of international leaders to define an event as genocide until after mass killing has occurred, or, until a court has ruled on genocide. This means the international community has failed in its ability to prevent genocide, as envisioned by the Genocide Convention.
As a result of our research, we have been given high profile platforms to challenge. Our team has conducted hundreds of interviews, appeared in documentaries, and has written for influential news outlets. In recent weeks, we have been invited to brief over 50 journalists at BBC World as well as around 50 staff members at Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) London headquarters. We have also briefed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on our findings and distributed our report to a wide range of MPs and opinion makers.
In recent weeks, we have seen the narrative surrounding ‘genocide’ begin to shift significantly. In September both the French and Turkish presidents, Macron and Erdogan, as well as Bangladesh’s minister of foreign affairs adopted the term to describe events. While the UN has labelled Myanmar’s violence a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’, this terminology is unrecognised in international law and more perniciously is a euphemism for genocide.
In the Commons debate on ‘The Rohingya and the Myanmar Government’ (17 October 2017, Hansard Volume 629), Sarah Champion (MP for Rotherham) told the House:
“This is planned and co-ordinated ethnic cleansing. I am pleased and relieved that the Secretary of State has echoed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in describing it in that way, but we need not only strong language, but strong action. The director of International State Crime Initiative has called ethnic cleansing a ‘euphemism for genocide’. She adds that genocide is a process that takes place over many years. In 2015, the organisation described the violence towards the Rohingya as ‘highly organised and genocidal in intent’.”
Admitting that a genocide is taking place creates a legal obligation on states to act – to intervene to prevent, punish and protect. It is shameful but not unexpected that governments and the United Nations continue to adopt the perpetrator’s language of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in order to negate their duty to act.
We will continue to raise awareness, present the evidence and expose the perpetrators of this misery, terror and violence.
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