Saro Thiruppathy checks the international response to Myanmar’s ‘horrific acts’ against the Rohingya

Is it ethnic cleansing or genocide? As the international community ponders this question, Canada took a bold step and declared that the Myanmar junta is committing genocide against the Rohingya people. The Canadian parliament passed a motion endorsing the findings of the UN fact-finding mission, and lawmakers concurred that crimes against humanity have been committed – and that these ‘horrific acts’ must be sanctioned.

They have recognised that these crimes constitute genocide and called upon the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Canadians have also called for senior military officials in Myanmar to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide. They also stripped Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi of her honorary citizenship for complicity in the atrocities.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt met with Suu Kyi and others, and said that Myanmar needs to know the international community will not let it rest. Speaking after the meeting on the issue of accountability, he declared: “If we don’t see the process happening, we will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure there is justice… the world is watching.”

America is still dillydallying and has not gone beyond calling the situation a matter of ethnic cleansing. In a State Department report released on 24 September, the US claimed that Myanmar’s military had waged a ‘well planned and coordinated’ campaign where mass murder, gang rape and other human rights atrocities had been committed against the Rohingya.

More importantly, the US did not use the term ‘genocide’ or refer to ‘crimes against humanity.’ Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan noted that “there weren’t legal judgements expressed in it because that wasn’t the point of the report… we are working towards holding those accountable…”

The report’s findings were released quietly on the US State Department website about a month after the UN fact-finding mission accused Myanmar’s military of acting with ‘genocidal intent,’ and asked that Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing and five generals be prosecuted under international law.

Myanmar’s close friend and ally China is also uncooperative and emphatic that the Rohingya situation should not be internationalised. China is backing the military junta that is the de facto ruler of Myanmar.

The report by the Independent International Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar chaired by Marzuki Darusman has asked “if the international community has met its responsibility to protect civilian populations from the commission of atrocity crimes including possibly genocide.” This is a serious concern especially in the light of the UN’s failure to prevent the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda back in 1994.

In an article published by Deutsche Welle, former UN adviser to Myanmar Liam Mahoney opines that the United Nations bears some responsibility for failing to intervene and mitigate the extent of the catastrophe in Rakhine State where most of the carnage took place.

“The UN and its partners have yet to break habits of polite compliance that were established earlier even when the reality of complicity of ethnic cleansing is now so evident… They failed to take advantage, instead falling into a trap in which an excessive fear of ‘losing access’ was used to justify all-embracing compliance with any government demands, no matter how unacceptable,” he noted.

Further criticism of the UN includes its avoidance of using the name ‘Rohingya.’ This is in keeping with Myanmar’s official rejection of the ethnic group. The Rohingya are now referred to as ‘Bengali’ to indicate that they’re not indigenous to Myanmar.

While these word games are going on, the report of the UN fact-finding reads like a horror story. The 440 page document, which was presented to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in August, indicates widespread human rights violations by the military against the Rohingya people.

The crimes against humanity include mass rape, child murder and executions where victims were made to dig their own graves.

Darusman told OHCHR that “it was hard to fathom the level of brutality… and total disregard for civilian life” when reporting on the manner in which the military a.k.a. ‘Tatmadaw’ conducted the campaign against the Rohingya.

“During their operations, the Tatmadaw has systematically targeted civilians, including women and children, committed sexual violence, voiced and promoted exclusionary and discriminatory rhetoric against minorities, and established a climate of impunity for its soldiers… I have never been confronted by crimes as horrendous and on such a scale as these,” he lamented.

As a result of the UN report, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that she will be proceeding with a fully fledged preliminary examination of the situation. Previously, in a landmark ruling, the ICC decided it has legal jurisdiction to investigate the forced expulsion of the Rohingya because Bangladesh, which is receiving the influx of refugees, is a signatory to the Rome Statute even though Myanmar isn’t.

Hopefully, the process will deliver justice through prosecutions of the main perpetrators and sanctions against Myanmar. But the fate of some 700,000 beleaguered Muslim Rohingya living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh will continue to be in limbo as they struggle with life under pathetic conditions.