Editorial: Call it what it is – call it genocide

  • Noor Aysha, a pregnant Rohingya Muslim woman who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, holds her 10-month-old son inside a refugee camp on Saturday. AP

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and her fellow members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are in agreement on the nightmare unfolding in Myanmar: The persecution of the Muslim minority Rohingya by the Buddhist majority is a global crisis that demands U.S. action.

But first Congress and the Trump administration must agree on just what kind of atrocity the world is witnessing.

During a committee hearing on Tuesday to “assess U.S. policy” toward the Asian nation still referred to as Burma by the U.S. government, senators described the situation as a “systematic campaign of brutality,” a “humanitarian catastrophe” and “ethnic cleansing.” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland called it “genocide.”

The story of the Rohingya is that of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Nazi Germany and the Tutsis of Rwanda. While every slaughter has its unique aspects, the basic plot is always the same: hatred and dehumanization, followed by extermination.

The seeds of the current crisis were planted in the early days of Myanmar’s independence in 1948, with key flashpoints in 1962, when the military took control, and 1982, when the Rohingya were denied citizenship rights. The latest came on Aug. 25 of this year, when a small group of Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar security forces, killing 12. The response to those attacks has been the very definition of disproportionate. Government soldiers and vigilante groups led by Buddhist monks have burned entire Rohingya villages and forced more than half a million Rohingya over the border into neighboring Bangladesh, creating a desperate refugee crisis in one of the poorest nations in the world. Hundreds of Rohingya have been murdered in the past two months alone.

As Shaheen, the lone female senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, made clear during the hearing, the unfolding tragedy is exponentially worse for Rohingya women. She referenced widespread reports – confirmed by refugees and non-governmental organizations – of security forces raping Rohingya women and children, and she expressed concerns that the estimated 69,000 pregnant refugees in Bangladesh were not getting the care they need. It may be of little solace to women focused solely on survival in Rohingya villages or refugee camps, but they do have a voice in Washington.

For many who have paid at least some attention to what’s happening in Myanmar, one of the most perplexing aspects of the crisis is the behavior of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and de facto leader of Myanmar. Her failure to say or do anything at all in support of the Rohingya has been disappointing and frustrating, even after taking into consideration the limits Myanmar’s complex system of government places on her power.

In the eyes of compassionate leaders like Malala Yousafzai, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi had always been a fellow champion of human rights. But what seems clear now is that she, like so many others in Myanmar, never considered the Rohingya to be human at all.

There are no easy paths for Congress and the Trump administration. Renewed sanctions, even those targeted at Myanmar’s military, are unlikely to dissolve an irrational hatred decades in the making, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity in the humanitarian crisis removes her as an internal force for reform. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis in Bangladesh grows more dire by the hour.

As they debate what to do next, U.S. officials should choose their words very carefully. And so they should call this genocide, because that’s exactly what it is.