HYUNG JUN YOU WRITES – At this very moment, the world is enduring more than one genocide, but surely none is worse than the plight of the Rohingyas.
Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country comprised of 135 different ethnicities.While there are few ethnic groups that are not officially recognized by the state, the Rohingyas are one. A Muslim minority group, they are mostly clustered at the Rakhine state, boarding Bangladesh.
In August 25, 2017, the Rohingya insurgent group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 Myanmar security outposts, killing 12 security personnel in theprocess. The Myanmar military responded immediately, within hours, and started to target Rohingya villages across the Rakhine state. Known as the “clearance operations,” Myanmar armed forces and security units drove the Rohingyas out from their homes and subjected them to torture, gang rape, and mass killings, all because of their ethnicity and religious practice. This resulted in the death of 10,000 Rohingyas (Report from International-State Crime Initiative puts the death toll from 20,000 to 25,000) and forced 725,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.
This is genocide. There is no other way to say it. So, the questions to ask are: what is the cause behind it? How is it that the Myanmar government been able to effectively suppress therights of their own people? What can the United States government do to punish Myanmar and help the Rohingya refugees? Or should it do nothing?
Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948. The soon-formed parliamentary democracy came to an end in 1962 when the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw), headed by General Ne Win, instigated a coup. Before the coup, based on their 1947 Constitution and 1948 Union Citizenship Act, Myanmar had an inclusive citizenship that theoretically included the Rohingyas in Rakhine state. Prime Minster U Nu, the first Myanmar prime minister under parliamentary democracy, said in his 1954 radio address that the Rohingya’s “are our nationals, our brethren…They are one of the ethnic races of Burma.” This statement shows that the first civilian government at least attempted to create a multi-ethnic national identity. However, many government officials supported a claim that Rohingyas were “Bengalis”, in effect, that they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
After the coup, the military started to change how citizenship was issued. General Ne Win argued that the citizenship definition under the prior civilian government was too broad. This led to the creation of the 1982 Citizenship Law, which divided citizenship into three categories: full citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalized citizenship. Full citizenship was guaranteed only for national ethnic groups, of which the Rohingyas were not part. Associate citizenship was given if the person was granted citizenship under the 1948 Act but required further review under the new law. Naturalized citizenship was for those who can prove their residence in Myanmar before independence. Under this law, the Rohingyas qualified for naturalized and even for associate category but in practice, the government left out the Rohingyas. Instead they issued Temporary Registration Cards (TRC) to the Rohingyas.
The TRC did not guarantee the Rohingyas a pathway to citizenship. It was instead used by Tatmadaw to identify the Rohingyas and abuse them. For example, in 1991 and 1992, Tatmadaw conducted security operations in the Rakhine state that drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to Bangladesh. Being stateless also meant denial of participation in the political process. This led the government to enact even more restrictive laws against the Rohingyas, such as requiring them to obtain a travel form from government offices to move from one village to other. Restriction of movement meant lack of job opportunities. This has led to a continuous cycle of poverty.
By the 1990s, however, it seemed like the military junta was going to step down from power. They were becoming more unpopular among the Myanmar population because of their human rights abuses and mismanagement of the economy. This led to several civil uprisings across the country that ended in deaths. The junta held an election in 1999 that saw Auug San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), gain the majority vote. The military not only did not honor the election result and instead slammed Suu Kyi under house arrest.
The world hung onto Aung San Suu Kyi as the only hope for Myanmar. Both President Clinton and Bush imposed heavy economic sanctions on Myanmar and its top government officials to get them to lift the house arrest order for Suu Kyi and to pressure the Tatmadaw to step down from power. The sanctions had some positive effect. The military government rewrote the constitution in 2008 that partially democratized Myanmar. It created more checks and balances within the government institutions, encouraged freedom of the press, and allowed public protests to be held. They also released Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010. In 2015, a free election was held and the NLD won an overwhelming majority. Even though Suu Kyi was barred from running for president under the 2008 Constitution, the newly elected NLD president soon created a new position called “State Counselor” for Suu Kyi, which made her a de factoleader of Myanmar.
These new developments compelled the United States to the policy of diplomatic relations with Myanmar. Under the Obama administration, relations between Myanmar and the US improved. Most sanctions were lifted, which meant foreign companies could invest easily. According to the World Bank, 2010 foreign direct investment (FDI) in Myanmar was $901 million but that number tripled to $3.2 billion by 2016. The sudden lifting of sanctions was criticized by many human rights groups, saying Myanmar still had long ways to go to reform their political process. Many cited the Rohingya Muslims as an issue that Suu Kyi failed to address. President Obama recognized that problem but thought that over time Suu Kyi and her NLD party would deal with ethnic tensions after integrating Myanmar to the global economy.
Sadly, that did not happen. Suu Kyi not only failed to address the growing ethnic tension but is now complicit in the Rohingya genocide as she has failed to label the genocide as genocide and has even called the Rohingya’s, “Bengalis”.
America’s response has been weak. Since 2017, the United States has imposed targeted sanctions on eight individuals and military groups. However, unlike previous US sanctions, these are targeted towards eight specific individuals and groups instead of targeting the entire Myanmar military or the government. It also doesn’t include immediate family members of military generals.
The US can re-impose economic and financial sanctions on Myanmar, and expand the visa ban on Myanmar military generals and their immediate family members. The US can do this through the following acts:
- Customs and Trade Act of 1990 (Section 138);
- Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (Section 307);
- The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003;
- The Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008;
- The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016.
The first four acts reimpose the sanctions put in place by President Clinton and Bush. It will block all imports and exports from Myanmar, restrict FDI flowing into the country, and target state-owned enterprises. The final act, The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016 (GMHRA), gives the executive branch the power to enact financial sanctions and visa bans on foreign individuals who are responsible for human rights violations. This act is a powerful tool because it does not require congressional approval. Therefore, it gives the president immense power to act swiftly on foreign individuals who are committing human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings and genocide. The Trump administration already used GMHRA to sanction few Myanmar generals, but he could do more and sanction civilian/military government officials as well. The sanctioned individuals should include, but not be limited to:
- Ye Aung, Minister of Border Affairs;
- Sein Win, Minister of Defense;
- Kyaw Swe, Minister of Home Affairs;
- Pe Myint, Minister of Information;
- Win Myint, President of Myanmar;
- Myint Swe and Henry Van Thio, two Vice Presidents of Myanmar;
- Kyaw Tint Swe, Minister of State Counsellor’s Office.
The word ‘genocide’ was coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, an international law scholar, because he felt a new horrifying vocabulary needed to exist to describe what happened to the Armenians and the Jews during World War I and II. He thought ‘genocide’ was an easy word to say but also memorable. His intention was that the word would be powerful enough to invoke the horrors of the Holocaust and compel states to act.
There is a genocide going on in Myanmar against the Rohingyas. We must not look away from what’s happening in Myanmar. We must ask ourselves the same question Lemkin asked after the Armenian genocide which was, “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?”