Four years on, there is an urgent need for international action to tackle the Myanmar military’s culture of impunity.
By Wai Wai Nu and Khin Ohmar
On August 25, 2017 – four years ago today – the Myanmar military launched a campaign of genocide against the Rohingya. In the weeks that followed, the military systematically attacked Rohingya villages in western Myanmar, committing mass killings, rape, and gang rape. Soldiers destroyed villages and drove about 800,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, in an act that irreparably changed the demography of Rakhine State.
Of the more than 600,000 Rohingya who have remained in western Myanmar, many have been subject to strict movement controls and confined to prison-like camps – acts that amount to the crime of apartheid.
For the past four years, the Myanmar military has escaped accountability for the horrific and meticulously documented international crimes it has committed against the Rohingya. Emboldened by this impunity, the military has continued to attack ethnic minority communities in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin and Shan States, committing killings, arbitrary detention, and torture, as well as destroying property.
The military’s criminal conduct culminated in this year’s attempted coup. Since February, the campaign of terror that was experienced by the Rohingya in 2017 has now been unleashed across the country. More than 1,000 have now been murdered by junta forces, including 75 children, and over 7,000 civilians have been detained. Family members of protesters are being abducted and their homes and villages set ablaze. Nobody is safe.
The military currently committing egregious crimes is the same military that committed genocide four years ago, under the same commander, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. It is precisely the lack of international action in 2017 that has enabled the terror the people of Myanmar are experiencing today.
What could the international community have done differently? In 2019, the United Nations commissioned an independent report into its failures to preempt and respond to the Rohingya genocide. “Without question serious errors were committed and opportunities were lost in the U.N. system following a fragmented strategy rather than a common plan of action,” wrote Gert Rosenthal, a former Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister and U.N. Ambassador.
The report concluded that the tragedy could have been prevented by the dispatching of U.N. Security Council-mandated observers to Rakhine State. But then, as now, the Council has not moved beyond platitudes. Alarmingly, U.N. Security Council members have prevented any action that could seriously challenge the junta’s legitimacy, its negligence laid bare to the Myanmar people in their most desperate hour.
Then, as now, the U.N.’s “Human Rights Up Front” initiative has not resulted in any meaningful response to stop the killings and ensure respect of the will of the Myanmar people, who are literally dying for democracy.
Myanmar’s Spring Revolution provides a historic opportunity for us to build an inclusive and democratic society and achieve long-overdue justice and accountability for the victims and survivors of atrocity crimes. As the Myanmar military conducts its terror campaign against civilians nationwide, many members of the Bamar Buddhist ethnic majority have finally come to realize the extent of the terror experienced by the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities. Some people have taken to social media platforms to apologize for their complicity in the denial of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
If there is a silver lining to these months of immense suffering, it may be that the seeds of justice for the long-running ethnic and religious persecution of Rohingya are finally being sown. Rohingya have been and are part of Myanmar and must be recognized as a part of the just federal democratic society that we are trying to build.
The National Unity Government (NUG), formed by elected members of parliament, general strike leaders, and ethnic and civil society leaders, has taken a positive step in adopting a policy that seeks an end to the systemic exclusion of Rohingya and denial of the genocide committed against them.
The NUG has begun officially using the name “Rohingya” and pledged a commitment to Rohingya human rights. These are only initial steps, but represent hope. The NUG must still conduct meaningful consultations with Rohingya and other ethnic minority communities to address the root causes of their generations-long suffering and ensure that Rohingya representatives are included in all political processes undertaken by the NUG. The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which represents the parliamentarians overthrown by the Tatmadaw in February, must immediately move to repeal the racist laws, namely the 1982 Citizenship Law, that are a critical component of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The military’s attempted coup is failing. The junta has limited control on the ground and lacks international recognition. If the generals’ desperate attempts to gain legitimacy on the world stage succeed, they will be emboldened to intensify the deadly wave of violence.
At the U.N., the junta is trying to unseat Myanmar’s U.N. representative, a democratic representative of the people who has pledged his support to the NUG. U.N. member states must stand with the people of Myanmar and ensure that U.N. credentials are awarded to Myanmar on the principles of democratic representation. After failing to respond to the Rohingya genocide and dragging its feet to take concrete action against the military following the attempted coup, the international community now has an opportunity to turn things around.
Outside the U.N., governments must do more to reject the military for its brutal unlawful attempted coup. In 2019, the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission uncovered a web of military-owned businesses and their international partners that underpinned the 2017 campaign of genocide and subsequent crimes.
The junta’s criminal conduct today continues to be enabled by these international business links. Targeted sanctions need to be urgently strengthened to stop the flow of funds, including against Myanmar’s lucrative gem, and oil and gas enterprises. The Fact-Finding Mission also recommended the imposition of an arms embargo against the military. Yet their recommendations still need to be met with further concrete actions by the international community.
Today, we remember the sacrifice of our Rohingya brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, our mothers and fathers, who were brutally murdered by the Myanmar military. We honor the bravery of the many survivors who are waiting for their killers, rapists, and torturers to be held accountable and for their pain to be recognized.
How many more are fated to become victims of the Myanmar military? On this fourth anniversary of the Rohingya genocide, we demand the international community learn the mistakes of the past and act now.
Wai Wai Nu is a member of ethnic Rohingya, a human rights and democracy activist, a former political prisoner, and the founder and executive director of the Women’s Peace Network in Myanmar.
Khin Ohmar is a Burmese activist and founder of Progressive Voice, a Myanmar human rights organisation. As a student activist in 1988, she took part in organising the 8888 pro-democracy uprising in Myanmar.