The persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar is an issue which has attracted little attention at the international level. The low visibility of this issue reveals not only the double standards of the international community, but also brings into question the effectiveness of human rights laws. More than a million Rohingya refugees commemorated the third anniversary of the genocide on August 25 in crowded camps in Bangladesh. Rohingya Muslims are one of the most persecuted communities in the world and have been observing this day as the ‘Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day’ since it was the same day in 2017 that the Myanmar army began a vicious crackdown on Rohingya civilians—forcing thousands to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. However, the story of the Rohingyas’ persecution dates back to many decades.

The Rohingyas are Muslims who reside in Northern Rakhine, in the area of Arakan, and speak the Rohingya language. They themselves claim to be indigenous to Rakhine while some scholars maintain that they migrated to Myanmar from Bengal, mainly during the British rule. Aung San, the founding father of Myanmar, had a very inclusive and moderate approach towards all ethnic and religious minorities. This, however, changed when General Ne Win came to power. The military junta adopted a policy of nationalistic ideology based on Burmese ethnicity and Buddhist religion. The Rohingya, being neither Burmese nor Buddhist, were vulnerable to persecution and were labeled as “illegal Bengali immigrants”. While many religious and ethnic minorities were subject to oppression during the rule of the military, the Rohingya stand apart in that their very existence is threatened. They are being systematically pushed out of their homes by Myanmar’s military over the past three decades all the while being subjected to widespread violence as well as the complete negation of their rights, status and identity.

In 1974, the government denied Rohingyas the right to vote. They protested all over Arakan, leading to mass arrests. In 1978, operation Nega Min was initiated for classifying everyone in the state as either a citizen or an illegal immigrant. For Rohingyas, the result of this operation was rape, arbitrary arrests and detentions. Due to this violence, about a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. In 1982, the government passed a citizenship act and Rohingyas were denied their citizenship status. Resultantly, they legally ceased to exist. In 1991, a second operation called Operation Pyi Thaya was launched which resulted in another mass exodus of 200,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. With Bangladesh stopping to host refugees, Rohingyas tried to flee to Thailand. The Thai military has been accused of capturing hundreds of refugees and plunging them into the sea. A two-child policy has also been exclusively imposed on Rohingyas by the Myanmar state.

The acts of the state of the Myanmar amount to the crime of genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 1948. Burma has ratified the Convention and has placed no reservations. Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide to mean any act with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group: killing members of a group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to the members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. The intent to destroy a group does not have to be explicitly mentioned. Under international law and jurisprudence, intent can also be inferred from circumstantial evidence. The fact that acts against Rohingyas have been committed repeatedly at a massive scale and discriminating laws have been passed to target them leave no doubt as to the intention of the state apparatus.

Article 2 does not define genocide to mean destruction of the entire group. Even destruction of a part of group can constitute an act of genocide. Existence of one of the five conditions mentioned in Article 2 is sufficient to establish the crime of genocide. In the case of Rohingyas, the first four conditions are present. Rohingyas are being killed, serious bodily and mental harm is being caused, tough conditions of life have been imposed on them in order to bring about their physical destruction and a two-child policy has been imposed to stop the growth of the Rohingya population.

The international community and human rights organisations have so far failed to do anything constructive to end the plight of the Rohingyas. If the international community wants a peaceful world, then it must stand up for the rights of all marginalised and persecuted communities. Even in the domestic politics of Myanmar, the issue of Rohingyas is not given due attention. The return of Aung San Sui Kyi gave a glimmer of hope to the persecuted group. However, she has not condemned the genocide and persecution of Rohingyas. Her non-condemnation of the state of Myanmar has dimmed her reputation among the campaigners of human rights. Both international and local leaders of Myanmar should take account of the atrocities committed against Rohingyas and stand against the military junta which is still calling the shots.

Shakoh Zulqarnain

The writer is a Lahore based lawyer and has an LLM from the University of Chicago. He tweets at 

@ShakohZ.