The Rohingya Crisis: Ethnic Cleansing or Genocide?

By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explicitly and officially labeled the Myanmar government’s actions against the Rohingya, a minority Muslim population, as ethnic cleansing this month. In accompaniment, U.S. lawmakers are proposing targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on individual military officials involved in the infractions committed against the Rohingya. This move is supported by the international community—the United Nations, for example, had already began using the term of ethnic cleansing to describe the situation in September. Furthermore, there is discussion of whether the situation of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar is crossing into genocide. An analysis of the international standards of genocide can help the international community decide on this categorization.

The Rohingya have historically faced persecution in their home country. As a Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority country, the Rohingya are victims to a nationalist-fueled racism. Extremist Buddhist monks, for example, have dehumanized the Rohingya, comparing their elimination to mere pest-control. After Myanmar achieved independence in 1948, the Myanmar government began to take steps to deprive the Rohingya of citizenship. The Union Citizenship Act identified specific ethnicities that were allowed to gain citizenship and excluded the Rohingya. General Ne Win established the 1982 Citizenship Law on grounds of national security, calling for less leniency for ethnic minorities in participation in affairs of the state. This has consequently prohibited the Rohingya from obtaining equal access to full Myanmar citizenship and effectively rendered a majority of Rohingya population stateless, restraining their standing in courts, job and educational opportunities. As all land is owned by the Myanmar government and only allowed for citizens, the government has also confiscated Rohingya land, leading to internal displacement. Rohingya have also been subjected to mass killings, often involving lethal force from state security forces, as well as sexual violence.

There exists no precise or official definition for ethnic cleansing under current international law, although it is commonly understood to be the expulsion of a group from a given area. As such, ethnic cleansing is not a crime in itself, although the individual measures that lead to its labeling are often violations of international humanitarian law. For example, internal displacement and massacres of the Rohingya stand as immediate violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which details right to life, nationality, privacy in family and home, and freedom of movement and residence. Human Rights Watch has already accused Myanmar of being guilty of crimes against humanity, defined under international law as specified premeditated criminal acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.” These points bring into question the legal difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide, as ethnic cleansing can be viewed as part of the build-up leading to genocide.

Genocide, as defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, must involve provable intent to eliminate a group of people; ethnic cleansing, in opposition, does not necessitate the element of intent. Upon inspection, the qualifications of genocide parallel the situation at hand in Myanmar. The enumerated clauses describing the actions constituting genocide are five-fold, including killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberating inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring destruction in part or whole; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and transferring children of the group to another. These reflect actions that Myanmar has actively taken against the Rohingya. The measures of population control and marriage restrictions in particular have had a severe and intentional effect on the reproductive practices of the Rohingya. Defense Lieutenant-General Hla Min stated in Parliament in 2011 that the “[Rohingya] birthrate outnumbers the international standard at a breakneck speed.” The use of discriminatory language against the Rohingya as justification for future policies may reflect the targeting of a specific group; this in turn carries an awareness of and intent for the consequences the policies promote. Through regional orders, the towns Maungdaw and Buthidaung have imposed a strict two-child policy applying exclusively to Rohingya that has been acknowledged and approved of by the national government. Also, it is important to note is that psychological damage from rape could indirectly play a role in reducing birth rates among the Rohingya. All these measures constitute as forms of reducing the Rohingya population by regulating the development of new generations. These policies represent a systematic restraint on future growth, and along with the arbitrary killing of the present Rohingya population, may very well fall into the legal definition of genocide.

For the United Nations to determine genocidal intent, it will require an independent commission of inquiry or fact-finding procedure approved by the Security Council. The Myanmar government, however, has refused cooperation. It states that it will deny any investigator into the country and has rejected allegations of systematic atrocities against the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counselor, announced that a fact-finding mission would lead to greater hostility between different communities. Furthermore, even if the Myanmar state is not directly responsible for committing genocide, it is still legally obligated to prevent genocide. The 2005 World Summit Outcome, a General Assembly resolution, records that “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The absence of accountability for those involved in the crackdown against the Rohingya itself represents a failure to the commitment of international standards and principles. Additionally, the Summit Outcome states that the international community also holds a responsibility to help protect populations from violence. The U.S.’s use of the term “ethnic cleansing” will thus contribute to a pressure for an international campaign, leading the way for actions and condemnation from other nations as well, and potentially the UN forming a commission to investigate the genocidal intent of the situation.


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