From his tent in the illegal shanty town carved out of a Bangladeshi forest, 25-year-old Abdul watched as men, women and children limped into the refugee camp, gaunt from days without food. They were, like him, Rohingya – the Muslim ethnic minority often called the world’s most persecuted people. Abdul had arrived in the camp as one of 66,000 refugees who fled neighbouring Myanmar in the last months of 2016. Nearly a year later, the Rohingya were once again on the run, hundreds of thousands escaping to Bangladesh along swampy trails worn deep by a million refugees over seven decades.
The most recent violence had begun on August 25, 2017, when armed Rohingya groups attacked some 30 police and military posts in Myanmar, close to the border with Bangladesh. Retaliation for their actions was swift, with soldiers razing more than 200 villages, sending 600,000 Rohingya fleeing. The refugees told of Burmese soldiers attacking villages, raping women and shooting men or decapitating them with knives. They described landmines along escape routes. Each morning, corpses of Rohingya, drowned while trying to cross the wide Naf River, which divides Myanmar from Bangladesh, washed up where they had hoped to seek refuge.
Abdul brought the new arrivals to his shelter, made of discarded plastic stretched over bamboo slats, where all he had to offer was a spot on the red-clay floor. Soon, 30 people occupied its 80 sq ft (roughly 7.5 square metres). They counted themselves fortunate: most newcomers slept under monsoon-season skies. Nearly a million Rohingya crammed into the narrow peninsula at the southern tip of Bangladesh, most living in squatter settlements ringing United Nations-run camps, which have been at capacity for decades. Eventually, Abdul’s tent became so crowded he had to bed down in a nearby mosque, but, having made a similar escape 10 months earlier, with shrapnel embedded in his shoulder, he felt he had to help.
I first met Abdul in February 2017, at the end of a wave of attacks that began in October 2016. My purpose was to investigate the story of a single village – Pwint Hpyu Chaung, Abdul’s home – to establish a clear narrative in a messy war. At the time, violence against the Rohingya was under-reported, played down by the Myanmar government as a justified response to a small-scale insurgency. The Rohingya, they said, were burning down their own houses to win international sympathy. For years, Myanmar’s military has refused to let outsiders into the region, making refugees’ stories almost impossible to verify.
I hoped that by comparing accounts of dozens of witnesses in the camps with testimony of sources inside Myanmar, I would establish what had happened in Pwint Hpyu Chaung.
Getting into unofficial refugee camps was not a problem: the miles of tumbledown shacks lining the road proved too much for the Bangladeshi military to patrol. Once inside, I found everyone wanted to tell their story. In a stifling tarpaulin tent, a 12-year-old boy told of watching as his mother was raped by soldiers while he hid in a paddy field, and of finding his father’s bound, charred corpse among the ashes of his home. Men pulled up shirts to reveal crater-like bullet wounds, and women unravelled headscarves to show raw burns.
Ultimately, I tracked down 21 Rohingya from Pwint Hpyu Chaung and neighbouring villages, including Abdul, who I have given a pseudonym to protect his identity. They presented a detailed and consistent narrative of a massacre in November 2016.
Their stories represent only a fraction of the atrocities that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has said “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and which other observers have labelled genocide. What this violence should be called remains a matter of debate, however. Under international law, the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” have different meanings. “Ethnic cleansing” was coined during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s to describe Serbian use of mass murder and rape to drive non-Serbians from their nascent “ethno-state”, and as such it refers to the forced exile of a people. In contrast, “genocide” is a legal term for “acts committed with intent to destroy [italics mine], in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group”, according to the United Nations Genocide Convention.
The Genocide Convention was established in 1948, when members of the newly formed UN declared that “never again” would they allow the systematic slaughter of whole peoples as they had during the second world war. The convention created a legal definition of genocide that includes acts of killing, prevention of births and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction”, among other violations. Genocide was now an international crime, punishable under international law, and the convention required that all signatories act to “prevent and punish” genocide. It was a utopian response to a seminal horror – an expression of the belief that, by working together, nations might prevent the gravest of tragedies. Today, more than 140 nations have ratified the document, including Myanmar.
To Abdul and other Rohingya I spoke with in refugee camps, the injustice being perpetrated on them is clearly genocide. When Abdul arrived in Bangladesh in late 2016, he was sure that the community of nations would not allow the violence to continue. But as months passed, diplomats and experts argued over semantics: was this a case of ethnic cleansing or of genocide? Actions by the UN that could have addressed the crisis were blocked by the bureaucratic machinations of Myanmar’s allies, with powerful neighbour China playing a not insignificant role in obstructing effective action.
In 2017, the administration of new US President Donald Trump proposed travel bans targeting Muslim refugees, and began a slow and deliberate dismantling of American diplomacy, withdrawing the US State Department from its traditional role as defender of human rights worldwide. In March last year, the US declined to support a UN Commission of Inquiry into the violence that had displaced Abdul.
The factors paralysing the international response to the Rohingya crisis are complex. Abdul, however, asks a simple question: why has the international community allowed the Rohingya to be slaughtered and driven from their land when a legal framework exists that compels them to act?
Abdul was seven years old when he began to understand that his government wanted to exterminate him. The realisation came slowly, during nights when he stood watch as a sentry in Pwint Hpyu Chaung – a string of three hamlets that sheltered more than 1,000 Rohingya in a marshy river valley in Rakhine State, in the west of Myanmar. The year was 1999. Abdul was supposed to watch the roads for trouble from Buddhists settled in nearby “model villages”, a programme instituted by the Myanmar government to drive the Rohingya out of their homes.
Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhists who control Myanmar’s government had been at each other’s throats for decades, their conflict fuelled by religious and ethnic tensions. In the early 1990s, the government conducted a policy of confiscating Rohingya land, and building Buddhist outposts there. These villages were populated with the Rohingya’s traditional adversaries: the Bamar, the dominant Buddhist ethnic majority in Myanmar; and the Rakhine, a local Buddhist ethnic group.
First-hand descriptions of the villages are rare because the government exercises authoritarian control over areas where the Rohingya live. But a previously unpublished UN report describes the programme in detail: model villagers were often convicts and marginalised people, such as the homeless, relocated from overcrowded parts of Myanmar. The government moved settlers into houses on Rohingya farms, dispossessing them of their homes and livelihoods.
Sometimes the Rohingya were forced to build the model villages that displaced them. In one case, Burmese authorities conscripted more than 1,000 Rohingya from 17 villages, including hundreds of children who were forced to work until 11pm, beating anyone who worked too slowly. Model villagers regularly set up checkpoints to extort money from their Rohingya neighbours. They also stole crops and animals with impunity, and formed paramilitary units that assaulted them.
But during Abdul’s sentry shifts, the danger from model villages never materialised. Instead, he spent lonely hours watching the glow of electrified Bangladeshi towns across the Naf River. Pwint Hpyu Chaung, with its wood huts thatched with dried palm leaves, and the surrounding Rohingya villages remained dark. Little modernity had reached Abdul’s home, which lay in the most tightly controlled corner of the country. In 1999, Myanmar was one of the most isolated countries on Earth, ruled over by a military dictatorship. There were no televisions, and Abdul had learned only basic Burmese at school, so he had nothing to gain from available radio broadcasts and newspapers. He knew almost nothing about the outside world – except that across the river, the lights shone.
Abdul left the local Islamic school at about the fourth grade to work in his father’s rice paddies, expecting to spend his life as a rice farmer like all his male relatives. His favourite pastime was stalking egrets in jungle streams at night with a catapult, breaking each bird’s wing with a sun-baked mud pellet before cutting its throat and blessing it to make it halal, so his family could eat it.
As he grew older, Abdul began to venture outside Pwint Hpyu Chaung. It was not unusual for Burmese or Rakhine to insult him. “F***ing Bengali,” they would shout, echoing the Burmese belief that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Sometimes soldiers would slap him, even after he had paid the bribes they demanded. His father warned Abdul that he must not fight back because their retribution would be worse.
Disputes over whether Muslims or Buddhists were the original inhabitants of the jungles around Pwint Hpyu Chaung have continued since at least the 16th century. Despite Myanmar’s protestations to the contrary, there is strong evidence that the Rohingya have long inhabited what is today Rakhine State. In 1799, a Scottish explorer described meeting the “Rooinga” there. Most experts identify that group as the modern Rohingya.
The British Empire unified the area in the 19th century, tamping down conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists in the country that was then known as Burma (the ruling military junta only changed the nation’s name to Myanmar in 1989), but during the second world war, the Rohingya sided with their British masters, while the Rakhine and Bamar allied with the invading Japanese. Both sides committed massacres, and after the war, the populations separated. The Rohingya fled north while the Rakhine and Bamar withdrew south. When Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the new Bamar government did not recognise the Rohingya as an official minority. After a slow-burn rebellion throughout the 1950s, the Rohingya won limited recognition and self-governance, but it was short-lived.
In 1962, a military coup replaced Burma’s elected government with a cadre of Bamar generals who viciously oppressed autonomy-seeking minorities. They labelled the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bengal, and in 1978 launched the first major “immigration” enforcement campaign, driving 200,000 Rohingya over the border. Thousands starved while making the journey. In 1982, the government passed a law that effectively stripped all Rohingya of citizenship, making them stateless.
Abdul was born around 1992, when a quarter of a million Rohingya were fleeing to Bangladesh during another immigration sweep. The forced expulsion of the Rohingya was proving a messy business for Myanmar’s government. The US, flush from ideological victory over the Soviet Union, had voiced strong objections to the regime’s human rights abuses, and Islamic countries had raised an outcry over mistreatment of the Rohingya. So, instead of all-out war on the Rohingya, the government settled on a plan of covert and bureaucratic extermination.
A few years earlier, in 1988, Burma officials had begun crafting a secret programme to subjugate the Rohingya legally, and drive them out of the country. The 11-point scheme detailed in a government report was titled “Rohingya Extermination Plan”, according to documents published by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), a London-based organisation dedicated to researching state-sponsored human rights violations. “Mass killing of the Muslim is to be avoided in order not to invite the attention of Muslim countries,” the report advised. Instead, according to the first point of the plan, the Rohingya were to be labelled “insurgents” and thus denied citizen status. Next were listed restrictions that would shape Abdul’s life, limiting his ability to travel, make a living, receive an education, own property, marry and have children. The plan directed judges to rule in favour of Buddhists over Muslims, and called for Muslims to be converted to Buddhism. Myanmar’s government would be able to achieve its aims without international resistance.
Abdul grew into a muscular young farmer with a guarded smile. He prized the motorbike he had assembled from old Chinese parts. He mostly shrugged off the state’s restrictions, at least until 2010, when he turned 18 and his family arranged for him to be married. The village’s imam sanctified the union, but to comply with a law enacted in accordance with the Rohingya Extermination Plan, Abdul was required to ask permission of local administrators to marry legally. They told him that if he wanted to wed, both he and his bride would need identification cards, for which he would have to pay a bribe of about US$100. It was a huge sum (Abdul and his family earned about US$1,000 a year) but it was a standard extortion for Rohingya seeking marriage licences.
When he delivered the money, Abdul was informed that the identification cards would list him and his wife as Bengali, not Rohingya. He had no choice but to accept. He could not write, so the administrators filled out the forms for him.
Even with the papers signed, Abdul and his wife could not legally cohabit. Authorities maintained a list of who lived in each house in Pwint Hpyu Chaung, and demanded US$600 for Abdul to transfer his wife to his home. One night, police caught him staying at his father-in-law’s home, and he was taken to the local jail and beaten with a stick until his father rushed over with the family’s savings, worth US$200, knowing that to leave him there was to risk him being crippled. It took Abdul a year to collect enough money for his wife to live with him.
Abdul spent the next two years quietly farming, trying to avoid attracting attention. In 2012, he heard rumours of Rohingya villages being burned near Sittwe, the large coastal city that is the capital of Rakhine State. He stopped bird hunting, knowing it was dangerous to be outside the village at night. On May 28, 2012, some Rohingya men were accused of raping and murdering a Buddhist woman in Sittwe. Over the next week, machete-wielding Rakhine mobs torched Rohingya villages.
Soldiers and police stood by, and by the time a state of emergency was declared two weeks later, 98 people had been killed, and more than 5,000 homes burnt and 75,000 Rohingya displaced. Violence flared again in October, with 68 Rohingya killed, 3,234 homes burned and 32,000 more people displaced. In retaliatory attacks by Rohingya, 26 Rakhine were killed and more homes were burned. International investigators later found that the violence against the Rohingya had been highly directed, with busloads of Rakhine men driven in to participate, and suspicion fell on extremist nationalists allied with the military.
Because Sittwe is far south of Bangladesh, Rohingya displaced there could not flee over the border. Instead, the government interred about 120,000 in concentration camps that were described in 2014 by a UN official as “appalling”. Today, conditions have not improved, and opportunities for education and employment are severely limited. Rohingya caught by police outside camps can be imprisoned for three months. If they are discovered by Rakhine, lynching is a genuine possibility.
By 2015, thousands of Rohingya were paying smugglers to be crammed into leaky fishing boats to escape the camps and Rakhine State. When they landed in Thailand, local authorities ordered that many be towed back out to sea, leaving more than 8,000 Rohingya without food or water. The UN estimates that more than 1,000 died before Indonesia and Malaysia reluctantly accepted some.
At the end of 2015, free and fair elections were held in Myanmar for the first time in half a century, and Abdul began hoping that life might improve. He wanted to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy activist considered a saint by citizens of all ethnicities for standing up to the junta and enduring 15 years of house arrest over two decades. But Abdul could not vote because he was registered as Bengali. And although Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide, Rohingya hopes quickly faded. Under the new constitution, the military retained effective control over Rakhine State, and Suu Kyi had no formal control over the military.
In 2016, Abdul’s first child, a son, was born – the only child the government would allow him. Rakhine administrators had made Abdul’s marriage licence contingent on the couple having one child only. Regional authorities had issued population control policies for Rohingya in 1993 and 2005, the latter decreeing that jail sentences of up to 10 years could be imposed on families that had more than two children, as well as on women who gave birth out of wedlock. Abdul saw a bleak future for his son, but he also felt a new father’s thankfulness. He hoped his child might receive a basic education and one day escape from Myanmar. He could not help dreaming that were he not living in Myanmar, he would become the patriarch of a large family.
For years, experts had warned that abuse of the Rohingya could lead to extremism. After 2000, several ineffectual rebel groups, with weak ties to al-Qaeda, trained Rohingya men in Bangladeshi refugee camps, but the first major attack came soon after midnight on October 9, 2016. More than 100 Rohingya swarmed three police posts wielding knives, at least one home-made pistol and ginkali catapults that fired iron bolts. They killed nine policemen and wounded five before looting about 50 guns. A newly formed Islamist Rohingya insurgency, later called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, claimed responsibility. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO that carries out research into violent conflict, released a report suggesting the insurgents had trained hundreds of Rohingya in guerilla warfare, and the rebels claimed to be funded by individuals in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Soon after daybreak on October 10, Myanmar’s army retaliated. According to locals, they drove north on the only sealed road in the valley, arresting and torturing men by the dozens. One survivor described being bound and having his beard burned off with a cigarette lighter. The army torched the village nearest to the overrun outpost, and environmental satellites designed to detect forest fires tracked conflagrations in other Rohingya villages. Using these images, Human Rights Watch tallied more than 1,500 buildings destroyed over the two months, and warned that the true number was likely higher as tree cover hid other settlements.
Abdul told me that Pwint Hpyu Chaung lay on a dirt track off the main road, so it was days before the army entered the village. He and the other young men fled into the hills, fearing they would be arrested. Village leaders swore to soldiers that there were no insurgents there, and they did not know where the young men had gone. Normally, the army demanded small gifts such as goats, but on this occasion they wanted US$500. Each family in the village pitched in to raise the money.
Every few days, the army would return, along with paramilitaries from model villages, to extort money from the Rohingya. By early November, the villagers had run out of cash. When they could not pay, soldiers drove off their livestock, including Abdul’s seven cows and eight goats. That night, villagers slaughtered three cows that the army had missed and divided the meat, distributing about half a kilogram to each family. With nothing left to be stolen, they prayed that the army would leave them alone.
When Abdul heard distant machine-gun fire and saw smoke over the hills to the south on November 12, he told his parents and wife to run to a nearby village with his infant son. Village leaders asked some men to stay behind and stand watch, so Abdul huddled with friends in his house on a hill above Pwint Hpyu Chaung.
An hour passed before Abdul again heard gunfire. He ran outside to see a half-dozen projectiles, glowing pink, rain down on the village. The mortar shells bowled over bamboo houses, setting many aflame. Then he saw perhaps 20 troops advancing through the rice paddies and betel nut fields, displaying the red bandanas that Myanmar commandos wear on front lines. When he rushed to get back inside his house, a mortar round exploded next to him, knocking him unconscious.
Abdul eventually came to in the ruins of the house, his ears ringing. An ankle-deep crater smouldered outside. His stepbrother was tearing strips from his own black sarong to bind Abdul’s bleeding shoulder. Abdul could not move his right arm; a metal spike protruded from the joint. Someone told him, “You’re only hit in the shoulder. You’re lucky. Some were hit in the chest and died on the spot.” His stepbrother dragged Abdul to his feet and helped him to stagger away. He was bleeding profusely and feared he would die.
Soldiers were shooting down Rohingya fleeing the village. Rather than using rocket-propelled grenades, as they had in neighbouring settlements, the commandos saved their ammunition and ignited thatched roofs with bamboo torches. One survivor described watching soldiers attack the town’s elderly religious leader, knocking down his son who was carrying him from the flaming village on his back, and then four of them grabbing the imam by his arms and legs. They rocked back and forth to start the old man swinging, and then hurled him into the inferno.
Three villagers I spoke to confirmed this account, while other survivors told of gang rapes, babies thrown into fires and families locked inside burning homes. The stories echoed those of similar atrocities documented in a report published by the UN in February 2017, and compiled from more than 220 interviews. Satellite images would later confirm that Pwint Hpyu Chaung had been levelled. A senior village official would count dozens of buildings burned, with only a fraction of houses remaining.
Abdul was still bleeding when he reached the nearby village of U Shey Kya, where his parents, wife and son had taken refuge. There, he was taken to a local healer, who was unable to extract the shrapnel in his shoulder or provide medicine to ease the pain. There were no licensed doctors in Rohingya villages, but Abdul knew that Doctors Without Borders ran a clinic in Bangladesh. The next morning, he wept as he said goodbye to his family. They would remain in U Shey Kya, hoping – as Rohingya have hoped for decades – that the conflict would eventually come to an end.
After two days of walking, careful to keep his arm protected in its sling, avoiding scorched ruins filled with newly feral dogs, Abdul reached the Naf River. He had only his clothes and a Nokia cellphone, but a sympathetic boatman smuggled him across the water without payment. In the refugee camp, a faith healer cut two fragments of shrapnel from his shoulder without using anaesthetic. Soon, his family called with news that U Shey Kya had been attacked, his father had been beaten and soldiers had ripped out his sister’s nose rings and earrings, tearing her nostril and ear lobes, and slashed her cheek. A few days later, his family arrived in the city of tattered tents. Abdul held his infant son and wept. The family agreed that their life in Myanmar was over.
The official UN refugee camps had no space for them, however, so Abdul walked into the woods, cut down a tree and made a tent of his own. He used black plastic tarpaulins that had been used to evaporate seawater and harvest salt, so the tent had the appearance of being covered with giant tear stains. Abdul’s tent stood at the edge of the improvised camps, but within weeks, the nearby forest had been felled for construction materials and firewood, and new shanties surrounded his makeshift home. During my visit, I watched an entire neighbourhood spring up in an afternoon.
As months passed, Abdul’s wound healed. He would massage the scar unconsciously, pain shooting down his arm whenever he lifted it, leaving him unable to work in the Bangladeshi paddies for the slave wages being paid there. Instead, he occasionally sold vegetables in the market, earning about US$30 a month. The family’s only food was 25 kilograms of rice that the World Food Programme provided twice monthly. There was no water and little sanitation. Abdul, his wife and their son were losing weight; the child cried constantly. There was nothing for Abdul to do except loiter, retelling his story to other men as they, in turn, recounted their own traumas.
One morning, after listening to refugees recount their escapes, I walked to the top of a hill and was confronted with a panorama of ragged tents that stretched to the horizon. It seemed that an element of the tragedy was that each person’s grief had become almost indistinguishable from the affliction of an entire people. Those already deprived of everything did not even own their individual stories.
Abdul hoped desperately that the international community would somehow restore his home. But older refugees, some who had been in the camps since the 1970s, were cynical. They had become fathers and grandfathers through the cycles of violence, watching as fleeting international attention was followed by inevitable return to the status quo. The only way it would end, some said, was if the army erased the Rohingya from Myanmar.
At the beginning of 2017, something could have been done. By February that year, diplomats from the European Union (EU) were pushing for the creation of a UN Commission of Inquiry (known as a COI) as the first step towards international action. COIs are the most powerful class of investigation the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) can commission, and they can lead to prosecution by the International Criminal Court. A month later, the EU began pressing for a UNHRC resolution to propose a COI, but behind the scenes, Myanmar, China and several Southeast Asian countries were lobbying hard in opposition.
In mid-March, China blocked a statement by the UN Security Council, the most powerful body in the organisation, voicing concern over the situation in northern Rakhine State. Many Asian nations, China in particular, do not want to jeopardise their access to Myanmar’s substantial reserves of timber, gemstones and gas.
China also has a geostrategic interest in keeping Western nations from exerting influence on its neighbour. When I spoke to Roland Kobia, the EU’s ambassador to Myanmar, during the COI negotiations, he explained that “some countries have taken a much more pragmatic position towards the events in Rakhine State to promote their economic and political agendas”. China’s pragmatism has been reflected in its efforts to promote likely infective talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh instead of a COI, and its consistent threats to veto UN action against Myanmar; China has a permanent seat on the Security Council, and a UN resolution imposing sanctions is a virtual impossibility in the face of its opposition.
This was not the first time the Rohingya had been sacrificed to diplomatic expediency. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights to Myanmar during the violence of 2012, told me of his frustration trying to address the crisis. “I felt that some nations did not push Myanmar as hard as they could have for fear of endangering their economic interests or hampering the democratic transition,” he said. One week before the end of the session to debate whether a COI should be established, the EU allowed a significantly less robust investigation to be proposed in its place. Uproar followed from human rights advocates and UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee, Quintana’s replacement. But they lacked a key supporter – the United States of America.
Trump had recently assumed the presidency and his administration had begun shifting US foreign policy. I was in the refugee camps, where Rohingya men and women were desperately asking if America would help them, when Trump signed an executive order to halt indefinitely the entry of Syrian refugees, describing their presence as “detrimental to the interests of the United States”. The Rohingya were incredulous. How could anyone consider refugees a threat?
Over months that followed, the US State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson scaled back operations, cutting budgets, laying off career foreign service bureaucrats and leaving high-level positions vacant. The new administration continued to enact its “America first” policy, which would have the country take a less active role in world affairs and instead focus inwardly.
Rather than supporting calls for a COI, the US suggested lending international assistance to a Myanmar-led investigation, which had been widely slammed as a whitewash. Experts believe many Western diplomats are nervous about undermining Suu Kyi’s government, which has made progress on other human rights issues, and which is viewed as fragile. Because of the country’s constitution, Suu Kyi’s civilian government has little control over Rakhine State, which is administered by the military. As Scot Marciel, US ambassador to Myanmar, explained to me, “Sometimes what sounds morally good is not the most effective way to help the Rohingya on the ground.”
As the COI vote approached in late March, 2017, it looked like any hope for a substantial UN-led investigation had been lost. But following intense lobbying by Lee and human rights advocates, the resolution was strengthened at the 11th hour to include an independent, multinational fact-finding mission, which was adopted at the end of the month. However, such an investigation provides less scope and resources than a COI. As Matthew Smith, CEO of human rights watchdog Fortify Rights, told me soon afterwards, “This was quite literally the least the international community could do.”
The establishment of a fact-finding mission is no guarantee anything will be done for the Rohingya. The UN was set up in response to the Holocaust and other horrors of the second world war, but after 72 years in existence, accountability within the organisation is a grand, geopolitical game of buck passing. If the Human Rights Council ever does deliver its report, it will lack the power to enforce any recommendations; that responsibility lies with the UN Security Council. Should the Security Council consider the use of peacekeepers or sanctions, or the establishment of an international criminal tribunal, permanent members allied with Myanmar, such as China, would surely use their veto.
When the UN was established as a diffuse system of checks and balances, it was to persuade the world’s nations to buy into a new kind of international law, despite their conflicting interests. But because power is spread so thin, it is often impossible for the organisation to prevent genocide. Political logjams have kept the international community from acting effectively since the Genocide Convention in 1948. One scholarly estimate suggests that during the 60 years between 1956 and 2016, 43 genocides took place, causing the deaths of about 50 million people and displacing the same number again. Only three cases of genocide have been prosecuted since 1948 – in Rwanda, Serbia and Cambodia – and then, only long after the killing had stopped.
Some experts view the Rohingya’s plight as just one more case of the UN failing to recognise a genocide as defined by the convention. In 2015, before the last two cycles of violence in Myanmar, an international human rights clinic at Yale Law School released a report suggesting that persecution of the Rohingya fits the legal definition of genocide. That year, the ISCI issued a report based on months of undercover investigative work in Myanmar that also concluded the Rohingya situation constituted genocide, though it used a definition wider than the legal one. Both reports made their cases not just by documenting military attacks, but also by investigating the legal controls Myanmar has put in place over decades to impoverish, disenfranchise and limit population growth of the Rohingya, in accordance with the Rohingya Extermination Plan.
Under the Genocide Convention, it is not only outright murder that constitutes genocide, but actions such as preventing births and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction”. According to Penny Green, co-director at the ISCI, “It’s clear that what’s being inflicted upon the Rohingya is genocide.”
But even if it does fall under the legal definition of genocide, it is unlikely that the international community will acknowledge that and act. David Simon, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, explained, “A genocide is taking place, but there is little chance that the international community will mobilise effectively to stop it. Questions of national sovereignty and self-interest have almost always trumped international concerns about human rights.”
The problem for most nations in calling out genocide is a clause in the convention that requires them to “prevent and punish” it. “To use the word ‘genocide’ to describe a situation may create a legal obligation under the Genocide Convention to take preventive action,” said James Silk, a professor of international human rights law at Yale Law School who oversaw its report on the Rohingya crisis. “Many nations, including the United States, have shown themselves to be reluctant to commit to such a complicated and politically difficult course.” Were the US to label attacks on the Rohingya as genocide, it could commit the Trump administration to using the US military to defend Muslim refugees, even while it attempts to ban them from entering the country. Previous administrations, that of President Barack Obama included, were no keener to commit resources to the situation.
Ultimately, most nations have failed to call the situation genocide, although a small number of Islamic countries, including Malaysia, have adopted the term, and French President Emmanuel Macron used the label to describe the most recent wave of violence. The US, which has in the past shown great concern over human rights abuses in Myanmar, has pointedly avoided the word. On October 26 last year, in a phone call to the chief of Myanmar’s army, Tillerson expressed “concern about the continuing humanitarian crisis and reported atrocities in Rakhine State”, and the administration said it would push for sanctions against army officers who participated in the violence. During a brief visit to Myanmar on November 15, where he met with Suu Kyi, Tillerson told reporters he believed there had been “crimes against humanity”, but was against “broad-based economic sanctions”.
“Genocide” can only be legally declared following litigation at the International Criminal Court. While working on this article, government sources from the US and Europe I spoke to referred to genocide as the “G-word” – unwilling to speak it even in informal conversations – because of the potential consequences should a legal case be set in motion. And yet, even though the word is so powerful that senior diplomats cannot utter it, it had effectively been neutered by the fear nations have of harming their interests and by bureaucratic manoeuvring within the UN.
With no risk of effective legal action, Myanmar flouted the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, continuing to deny access to Rakhine State throughout the summer and into the autumn. And it was not the only UN investigation into a possible genocide that was downgraded during this period: a COI examining the civil war in Syria was also unravelling as its high-profile lead prosecutor quit, declaring, “I give up. The states in the Security Council don’t want justice.”
But the brutal response of Myanmar’s army to the attacks on their outposts in August 2017 obviated the fact-finding mission. As more than half a million Rohingya fled into Bangladesh, the UN Security Council unanimously expressed concern about what was happening in Myanmar for the first time in nine years – but it was no more than a slap on the wrist; there were no associated peacekeeping actions or sanctions. When Egypt tried to introduce language to the resolution guaranteeing the Rohingya the right of safe return to Myanmar, it was blocked by China. A senior Myanmar national security official explained to an international news conference that Myanmar was coordinating with China and Russia to block any sanctions that had teeth, saying, “China is our friend and we have a similar friendly relationship with Russia, so it will not be possible for that issue to go forward.”
In early September, Suu Kyi, who Abdul had hoped would save the Rohingya, refused to condemn the military, instead describing the international outcry as caused by “a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems […] with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists”. In doing so, she echoed the words of generals who had once imprisoned her. Several of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners openly criticised Suu Kyi, and there were calls for her to be stripped of the award.
In the camps, all was chaos. One translator there told me that only 30 per cent of new arrivals were getting rice from the World Food Programme, the rest were starving or scavenging. In mid-September, a woman and two children died in a stampede for aid. Though Abdul tried to focus on sheltering newcomers in his overcrowded tent, his belief in the international community had faded.
When I first interviewed him in February 2017, I had arranged for Abdul to be smuggled out of the camp to a Best Western hotel in the dingy but nearby resort town of Cox’s Bazar, where most aid workers stayed. I wanted him to have the privacy and focus that was impossible in the overcrowded plastic tents. After seven hours of talking over two days, Abdul was nearly giddy with hope. On the internet, I had shown him how stories about the Rohingya were spreading, and he said, “I want you to tell my story so that everyone in America knows what’s happening, and the international community can do something about it.” He had been awed by the multi-storey hotel and its air conditioning, and was convinced that people with such wealth and power could not fail to save the Rohingya. But when I made contact with Abdul in October, after he had spent nearly a year in the camps, his optimism for a diplomatic solution had waned. “If we don’t fight for our freedom, who will?” he asked. “I’d consider joining the rebels if we had sufficient guns and bombs to fight back.”
What has never faded is Abdul’s desire to return to the rice paddies that his ancestors tilled, that he once expected his son to plant after he was buried beneath them. There is little chance of forging a happy life in Bangladesh. One of the world’s poorest and most overpopulated countries, it denies the Rohingya citizenship because it cannot support them. Bangladesh’s reluctant response to the crisis was to announce plans in mid-October to force the million or so refugees into a new camp, which they would not be allowed to leave, making it effectively a prison. Sometimes, to dull the hunger, or to lessen the pain in his shoulder wound, Abdul imagines rebuilding Pwint Hpyu Chaung. Freed from the restrictions imposed on him by Myanmar’s government, he recently had a second child. He wants one day to show the newborn his home.
© Doug Bock Clark. First published in Longreads, www.longreads.com.