Myanmar: why not call it genocide?

A United Nations report has called for top military leaders in Myanmar to be investigated for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against the Rohingya, an oppressed and abused Muslim minority group of nearly 1 million, living in a small section of Myanmar.

The U.N.’s year-long look at the crisis has led it to conclude that Myanmar’s claims–that its military is simply squelching threats from terrorist Rohingya–are false. They write:

“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages.”

The U.N. will refer the case to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution of six leaders.

While the U.N. used the term “genocide” to describe the actions of the Myanmar leaders, this term has not been embraced by many world leaders, including the U.S.

Recently, at the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest mass killing of Rohingyas, Secretary of State Pompeo delivered a speech that mentioned “widespread, systematic and extreme” actions by the military. He did not use the word “genocide,” using “ethnic cleansing” instead.

Why did he avoid the term?

Let’s take a look.

It’s time for the U.S. to describe the atrocities in Myanmar as “genocide” and take appropriate action.

United Nations and international standards

The United Nations was formed after WW2 in order to maintain international order and promote human rights.

The UN has standards by which it measures rights violations–including allegations of genocide–some of which are listed below.

genocide definition

The United Nations Convention on Genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” These acts include: “Killing … causing serious bodily or mental harm … deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction … imposing measures intended to prevent births … (and) forcibly transferring children.”

The U.N. has ruled that the crisis in Myanmar warrants charges against six military leaders to be brought to the International Court.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

From the United Nations site:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. 

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” the document states, then identifies 30 rights and freedoms to which we are all entitled. For seventy years, they have been a cornerstone of international human rights laws.

The right to asylum, the right to freedom from torture, the right to free speech and the right to education are listed in the UDHR. The document also includes the right to life, liberty, privacy, health, and security. It’s a template from which a country can develop its constitutional core values, and it’s a standard against which the U.N. can consider abusive regimes or practices. It is not legally binding but has given rise to other U.N. treaties.

It was developed in the aftermath of WW2, by a committee led by Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Myanmar military has come into direct conflict with the basic tenets of the UDHR by denying basic rights to the Rohingya through torture, detainment, murder, rape, arbitrary arrest, forced labor and religious persecution on the minority group.

Responsibility to Protect

The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine is newer, passed in 2005 in response to the genocide in Rwanda. This rule states that if a nation cannot (or will not) protect its own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, then it becomes the duty of the greater international community to address these crimes against humanity. The R2P requires us to act if “genocide” is identified.


Nicky Haley

Nicky Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said that the State Department’s report was “consistent” with the U.N. report and that the attacks on Rohingya were “planned, premeditated, and coordinated” by the military.

“We are now all armed with the devastating eye-witness accounts of the Rohingya,” Haley said Tuesday. “The whole world is watching what we do next and if we act.”

She did not use the word “genocide” but it seemed like it was coming, right?

State Department investigation

A U.S. State Department investigation found that Myanmar’s military showed “premeditation and coordination” ahead of a slaughter of Rohingya Muslims last year in one of the decade’s most horrifying mass murders.

Investigators gathered testimonies from survivors who described seeing villages burned to the ground, children tossed into rivers and flames, and women gang-raped. In addition to these atrocities, they also found “intent” or premeditation in the military response.

While Myanmar’s government insists their actions were simply a response to an attack by a small group of terrorist Rohingya, the State Department found  evidence that plans for a crackdown began months earlier.

This is included in the State Department report:

“In the months prior to the August attacks, security forces detained men and abducted women. Rohingya were subject to restrictions on freedom of movement, and in some cases the military removed fences and confiscated farming tools, knives and other objects — anything that could be used for self-defense,” according to the report. “A few refugees reported that authorities instructed villagers from other ethnic groups to leave the area prior to the attacks.

Myanmar and the press

Myanmar has stopped independent media organizations from entering Rakhine, the state where all the violence unfolded. Recently, two journalists for Reuters were sentenced to 7 years in prison in Myanmar–despite international pressure to release them–as a crackdown on the press.

The two journalists exposed an incidence in which that the military killed 10 Rohingyas in a tiny village of Inn Din. The report included photographs of the victims tied up and kneeling before their executions, and evidence of the mass grave where they were buried.

Mitch McConnell mis-direct

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell worked for 30 years to bring democracy to Myanmar, during which he was in contact with Aung San Suu Kyi, the current leader of Myanmar, who was put under house arrest for advocating democracy.

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

The New Yorker writes:

Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral clarity and graceful bearing long made her a potent symbol of human rights and nonviolence. But since she became the country’s de-facto leader, in 2016, she has remained impassive in the face of a series of human-rights abuses… 

The Huffington Post writes:

Beloved, beautiful and revered, Aung San Suu Kyi was the rebel with the fragrant flowers in her hair who outlasted a combined 15 years of confinement to come as close as possible to claiming power in Myanmar. It was a story of grace and resilience that captured the world’s imagination and attention.

Now, that inspirational tale is in tatters.

The House drafted a bill with provisions to impose sanctions on Myanmar officials for human rights abuses and requiring the State Department to evaluate whether the atrocities committed against the Rohingya constituted ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity or genocide.

But, Mitch McConnell, who has a long relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, and a history of supporting and defending her, removed the provisions, thereby protecting her from reprisals.

The word “genocide” should be avoided.


Under international law, in order to qualify as genocide, actions must demonstrate intent. Since most people–other than the Nazis–don’t explicitly talk about their intent to rid the world of a specific group of people, this is a tough standard to meet.

the china problem

Since Obama left office, and Trump has been in charge, there has been little attention paid to the country of Myanmar, a situation that seems to give China some room to move in to invest and build.

The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is an important part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to better connect China with pretty much the entire world–other than the U.S.–through a huge infrastructure for trade.

China has committed $7.5 billion to upgrade a Myanmar port, which would give China access to the Indian Ocean and provide an alternative route for its fuel imports from the Middle East.

China has also invested US$2.45 billion in oil and gas pipelines between Myanmar and China.

What would a full-scale condemnation of the crisis do to China/U.S. relations?

commitment to action

Is there a national interest or political will for the U.S. to commit to intervention if genocide is declared?

During the Obama administration, the first trip by a U.S. president was made to Myanmar to support their newly launched democracy. Sanctions were lifted. Everything was going the right direction–yet, the Rohingya were being oppressed, and the military still remained powerfully present in government.

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