Is Burma’s Rohingya crisis an incremental genocide?

The Rohingya people of Burma are descendants of immigrants from East Bengal and settled on the Burmese-Bangladesh border, forming the Muslim enclave of Arakan. This enclave was created following the ceding of the province to British India after the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826).  This enclave is part of the official administration of the western Rakhine state, and hence, its Rohingyan people ought to be legally recognised as citizens.

The Burmese government refuses to recognise the 1.1.million Rohingyas’ as citizens. Aside from leaving them effectively stateless, the government carries out systematic relocation, abuse, torture, persecution and killing of the Rohingyan people. Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation in the UK notes: “They were a recognised ethnic group [during] Burma’s democratic period of time, 1948 to 1962. At that time, the Rohingya language was broadcast from Burma radio broadcasting programme. Unfortunately today, Burma’s government denies that the Rohingya exist”. Democracy in Burma ended with a military coup in 1962, and so did the official recognition of the Rohingyas.

Is it genocide?

State sponsored violence on this systematic level, ought to lead us to question whether or not the Rohingyan people are enduring an incremental genocide. Or indeed whether or not this could be a sign of an impending genocide?

The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) provides a widely accepted definition of the term, stating that genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. As such it proceeds to outline the eight stages of genocide. The systematic targeting of this particular group, as well as their forcible relocation into concentration-camps, provides evidence of what appears to be a precursor to genocide.

The difficulty with applying the label of genocide to the Burmese case is the issues that come with proving intent, a key component of defining a particular act as an act of genocide. Government records deny the very term ‘Rohingya’ people, hence proving that they are specifically being targeted is met with problems. Nonetheless, actions are notably systematic in nature and high-level UN officials and human rights groups continue to report on systemic state sponsored ethnic cleansing. Regardless, Genocide Watch notes ‘A pattern of acts of genocide is frequently called ‘genocide’ and evidence of such a pattern of ethnic, racial, or religious massacres is strong evidence of genocidal intent.’

The Media

There is a persistent lack of media attention and international political action against the situation in Burma and the Burmese government has faced little pressure to put an end to the crisis. Perhaps the most salient issue at hand, and the one allowing the perpetuation of violence and persecution to continue, is precisely this lack of media attention and thus the lack of acknowledging the precarious and dangerous situation this group of people is facing.

The Rohingya people of Burma have undoubtedly been forgotten; their turmoil unrecognised by international media and the general public. The power of media must be noted on this occasion, and with it, the significant responsibility of shedding light on the situation the Rohingyas.

It is important to constantly note the persisting crisis and to ensure that all humanitarian crisis are given due attention. The on-going refugee crisis, which has gained substantial media attention, is of course important to address, but so is the case of the Burmese Rohingyan people who are still suffering in silence. Social activism can perhaps fill the media void by constantly keeping the voices of these oppressed people heard and by acting as a point of communication between the Rohingyan people and the outside world, speaking on their behalf and providing information to the public on their plight.

One need only examine the recent case of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose body was found washed on a Turkish shore. The photograph of his body evoked an emotional outpouring from people around the world. Despite the fact that thousands of refugees have been drowning as they attempt to flee from war and poverty, the public has never reacted in such a way as it did recently. It took just one photo to create such an impact, and for this reason it is important to acknowledge that the media has the capacity to place pressure on governments to take more decisive action and prevent genocide from happening.

About the Author

Bulkies Abeidah is currently a student of Politics and International Relations, at Royal Holloway University of London, with an interest in Middle Eastern Politics, Human Rights, Foreign Policy and Counter-terrorism. You can find her on Linkedin.

Cover image ‘Myanmar/Burma: Little hope for Rohingya IDPs‘ by European Commission DG ECHO

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