Genocide in Myanmar: Why has the United States Not Intervened?

By Delaney Hewitt (SCR)

During World War II, a Jewish man by the name of Rafael Lempkin fled his home in Poland for safety. While he survived the Holocaust, dozens of his relatives did not. As someone who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust first hand, Lempkin, who spoke many languages, took to his linguistic skills to develop the word “genocide.”[1]  He deemed genocide to be the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”[2] This includes killing people, harming them mentally or physically, preventing births, and transferring the children to different families.1 Once Lempkin’s term became official and internationally known, it was used during the Geneva Convention in order for countries to hold each other accountable for crimes against humanity, including genocide. Countries in the United Nations General Assembly signed the document to prosecute people who violate its terms and take action when a genocide is occurring.

The United States was one of the many countries to participate in the Geneva convention. At the Geneva Convention, representatives from the United States signed an oath that they would intervene should a genocide occur in another country. While many other countries signed the oath, countries generally expect the  United States, more so than any other country, to be the ones  to follow through on said commitment. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been referred to as Super Power. People deem the President of the United States the “Leader of the Free World.” The United States is also one of longest running democracies in the world, and throughout the Cold War, the United States intervened in multiple countries to promote their democratic ideals. So why does the United States not promote the initial ideals the country was founded on to other countries? If the United States was built on the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then why does the government stay silent when that is being taken away from innocent people by the masses in other countries? How can America stand idly by in the wake of a genocide, when it goes against everything the country was founded on? A genocide is occuring in Myanmar, and the United States is not taking the necessary actions to stop it.

The Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar. Since 1982 the Rohingya people have been denied citizenship in Myanmar.[3] They lack the ability to travel, to get a public education, and to have healthcare like other Myanmese, solely because they are not considered citizens.2 Treatment of the Rohingya people has only gotten worse. Beginning on April 25, 2017, the Rohingya people of Myanmar have been suffering a genocide by the Myanmar military, and, subsequently, Rohingya people have been fleeing Myanmar as refugees to neighboring countries. However, countries have began rejecting these refugees. Many of them, like Thailand, are majority Buddhist and fear an Islamist uprising.The Rohingya people have nowhere to go and have now risen up with a rebel military.3 According to a UN Refugee Agency worker, John McKissick, the Myanmar military has been “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses.”[4] It has been an appalling scenario, putting Rohingya adults and children at risk. No humanitarian aid or journalists are allowed to be in the area.4 At least 100,000 people are being detained in camps and kept from education and health care.4 It is clear that this is a genocide as understood by international law. The people are being killed in masses or forced to leave the country in order to rid Myanmar of Rohingya Muslims. The Myanmar military is trying to eradicate the entire population of Myanmar Rohingyas which is a textbook example of genocide and a direct violation of the Geneva Convention, which Myanmar ratified.

The issue is that countries who also ratified the Geneva Convention, and therefore should be intervening in the Myanmar genocide, are neglecting to address it as a genocide. Instead, they refer to it as an “ethnic cleansing.” Aung San Suu Kyi, the current State Counsellor of Myanmar, who previously received a Nobel Peace Prize, has mainly been silent on the issue.4 She has stated that people need to do more research on the issue before placing blame on the Myanmar military, as UN worker John McKissick did.4 However, conducting more research is challenging since journalists are not allowed in the areas where these atrocities are occurring. It often appears as though Aung San Suu Kyi has such limited power that she cannot do anything to prevent the military from destroying an entire ethnicity, or she is too fearful to stop them. Although, even if she is powerless, she could still speak out about the subject instead of rejecting the idea that anything is happening.

The United States government, on the other hand, has officially referred to these crimes against humanity as “ethnic cleansing.”[5] The United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, “blamed the Burmese military and security forces as well as local vigilantes for what he called ‘horrendous atrocities’ that have caused more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee Burma’s western Rakhine state for the safety of neighboring Bangladesh.”5 Tillerson recognized the issues and spoke out against them, however he did not recognize them as genocide. Tillerson criticized the Myanmar government for its lack of intervention and control of its military, and he demanded that the “security forces respect human rights and punish the guilty.”5 Tillerson stated that the United States will be holding Myanmar accountable and is considering instituting sanctions against Myanmar. It was important for the United States to recognize Myanmar’s atrocities as an ethnic cleansing because at least they acknowledged the atrocities were happening. Also, applying sanctions against Myanmar was important because the United States would be taking real action. However, ethnic cleansing is nowhere stated in the Geneva Convention as a crime that requires international interference, and Tillerson knows this. He called out Myanmar’s military and its Nobel Peace Prize winning leader’s inaction, however, he did so in a way that did not make the United States accountable to act to stop the genocide.

Rex Tillerson went on to state that “The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area.”[6] This statement is wildly accurate, as an entire ethnicity is being persecuted, and because all of Myanmar’s bordering countries are being inundated with Rohingya refugees and are struggling to support them. The need for help and interference is obvious, however no one is taking action. International actors are unfortunately too fearful to substantially intervene. In truth, there are ample reasons for American inaction. In previous genocides, like in Rwanda and Cambodia, the United States recognized that they were occurring however neglected to stop them for fear of getting wrapped up in another invasion similar to the Vietnam War. The United States is incredibly fearful of the repercussions of a “boots on the ground” attempt to stop Myanmar’s military, and rightfully so.

The State Department has also offered other reasons for why the US should not get involved. Myanmar is an extremely new democracy, and it is in the United States’ interest to see it improve and prosper. The State Department has considered “punitive measures aimed specifically at top generals” but it is “wary of action that could hurt the wider economy or destabilize already tense ties between Suu Kyi and the army.”6 While this concern appears valid, in actuality it is filled with holes. Suu Kyi, although technically the leader of Myanmar, obviously has no power over the Myanmar military. Despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize and being viewed as a hero of Myanmar who brought them democracy, she has not done anything to stop the genocide, and, in fact she denies its occurrence. If she had power over the military, she should have attempted to put a stop to these atrocities by now. The State Department does not want to get involved in Myanmar’s genocide because it is concerned that intervention will threaten the ties between Suu Kyi and the military, but those ties have been severed. She either has no power to stop the genocide, or does not care to.

The United States also mentioned being “wary” of hurting Myanmar’s economy should it punish Myanmar’s top generals. This is  ridiculous given that there is a genocide going on, which has obvious, widespread, and cataclysmic impacts on an economy. While Myanmar had a quickly growing economy, it is still relatively poor and has such a new, and weak, democratic government. However, now that there is a genocide occurring, it will take Myanmar a long time to recover. Cambodia is still recovering economically from a genocide that occurred over forty years ago, and while the Cambodian genocide was arguably far worse, that does not mean that the current ethnic cleansing will not leave lasting repercussions on the country. There will be trade sanctions put on the country for its actions, which will be harmful to the economy. Part of the country’s workforce will have been murdered or fled the country. There is typically a large amount of orphaned children needing governmental support after such ethnic cleansing. Finally, the refugee crisis caused by genocide will disrupt surrounding countries’ typical economic functions. The genocide alone will destroy the economy; the United States’ punishment of Myanmar’s military generals is not what will take down the economy. Therefore, the State Department’s arguments for why it cannot punish Myanmar’s military are extremely flawed.

If the United States were to refer to the atrocities in Myanmar as a genocide, it would not be alone in doing so. On September 13 of this year, the “United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, designated the atrocities as ethnic cleansing.”[7] Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, “called Myanmar’s actions a genocide on September 20.”7 Finally, weeks prior to the United States’ Secretary of State referring to Myanmar’s genocide as ethnic cleansing, “Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch [had] both called the atrocities crimes against humanity.”7 The United States has taken far longer to address the situation than it should. Individuals within the United States government have started to make statements on the matter. In a statement to Vox, Ed Markley, the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, called the actions of the Myanmar military genocide.7 While individuals making these statements are important, the government itself must recognize these atrocities as genocide. If it eventually does, according to international law, the United States would be required “to make a move to protect the population at risk and penalize the perpetrators.”7 The United States simply will not use the correct terminology in addressing the issues in Myanmar because that would hold the US accountable. Instead it uses terms without the legal connotation of responsibility, like ethnic cleansing, to make it appear that it is taking an active stand.

It would be a success for Rex Tillerson to either call the actions against the Rohingya people “genocide” or “crimes against humanity.” If he uses either term, the United States would be required by international law to take action. This is essential, as the United States not only has the resources to take action but is a strong power within the United Nations to encourage other countries to get involved. One possible action for the US is to put General Min Aung Hlaing, who leads Myanmar’s military, on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. This would prevent Hlaing from traveling and utilizing his assets.7 Another option would be to put the military leaders in front of the International Crimes Tribunal and let them face their punishment for commiting crimes against humanity. Also, the United States can encourage sanctions from all countries within the United Nations against Myanmar.

The current situation for the Rohingya people in Myanmar and its surrounding countries is dire, and the United States needs to act now. In the first month after these atrocities started, 6,700 Rohingya people were murdered.[8] In search of safety, nearly 650,000 people have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, creating a refugee crisis there.8 The facts are all there. Countless journalists have reports from Rohingya people that barely escaped death and are explaining what is happening in Myanmar. This is not something the world has never seen before. It happened in the Armenian genocide, the Bosnian genocide, the Cambodian genocide, and the Rwandan genocide, to name a few. Not only has the world seen these atrocities repeatedly, but countries like the United States have continuously acted the same: they have not acted at all. A 1990s Commander of UN Peacekeeping Forces in Rwanda stated, about the Myanmar genocide and its similarities to the Rwandan Genocide, “it’s as if [the Myanmar military] wrote the same book that the hardliners did in Rwanda and how the international community is reacting is following the same book.”[9]

In Myanmar there has been a series of  “killings, mass rape, forcible displacement and the systematic burning of Rohingya villages. As many as a million Rohingyas have been forced to flee.”9 This is clearly wrong and it is time the United States takes action instead of sitting back as it did with previous genocides. After the Rwandan genocide, Bill Clinton flew to Rwanda to give an apology speech for the events that occurred and the United States’ non-intervention. He stated, “the international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began….We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”[10] In months to come, Donald Trump could give the same exact speech to the Rohingya people. The most unfortunate thing is that Clinton even said that “We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope…We owe to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere.”10 Bill Clinton’s promise has not been kept, and the world continues to ignore genocide. The cycle of seeing genocide occur, ignoring it, and then offering empty apologies afterwards must end. The United States needs to help the Rohingya people and to stop these atrocities from continuing. After Bill Clinton gave his speech in the airport, he hopped back on his plane and left the country, without stepping foot on Rwandan soil, as if it never happened. The important thing to remember however, is that the genocide did happen, and an apology did not fix it. Intervention could have.

[1] Power, Samantha. “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

[2] “What Is Genocide?” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed December 06, 2017.

[3] Fiza Pirani The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 10:43 A.m. Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 National/World News. “Who Are the Rohingya Muslims? 7 Things to Know about The ‘world’s Most Persecuted Minority’.” Ajc. Accessed December 06, 2017.

[4]  “UNHCR: Burma Pursuing ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ of Rohingya.” Time. Accessed December 06, 2017.

[5] Morello, Carol, and Max Bearak. “U.S. Declares Attacks on Burmese Rohingya Muslims ‘ethnic Cleansing’.” The Washington Post. November 22, 2017. Accessed December 07, 2017.

[6]Brunnstrom, David, Jonathan Landay, and Additional Matt Spetalnick;. “U.S. Says Holds Myanmar Military Leaders Accountable in Rohingya Crisi.” Reuters. October 18, 2017. Accessed December 13, 2017.

[7] Wildman, Sarah. “The US Is on the Verge of Calling out Myanmar for Ethnic Cleansing.” Vox. October 30, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017.

[8] “MSF Estimates More than 6,700 Rohingya Killed in Myanmar.” BBC News. December 14, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017.

[9] Dominic Waghorn, Diplomatic Editor – Exclusive. “Rohingya Crisis Is ‘very Deliberate Genocide’, Former UN General Romeo Dallaire Says.” Sky News. December 13, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017.

[10] Staff, Staff “Text Of Clinton’s Rwanda Speech.” CBS News. March 25, 1998. Accessed December 14, 2017.

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