“Kill all you see, whether children or adults.” That was the instruction one Burmese soldier recalled receiving from his superior as the Burmese military destroyed approximately 20 villages, dumping the bodies of their victims in mass graves. It’s a grotesque scene that was replicated across Burma’s Rakhine State during a massive 2017 campaign against the Rohingya people, an ethnic and religious minority in Burma. Last week, the United States government officially recognized this atrocity for what it was—genocide.
The genocide determination issued by the Biden administration has been a long time coming, but it’s never too late to do the right thing. The determination should now act as a catalyst for global momentum to hold the perpetrators accountable.
The atrocities committed against innocent Rohingya people are difficult to fathom—infants pulled from their mother’s arms and thrown into fires, men corralled into a straight line to be shot, women brutally raped and tortured, and homes and villages burned to the ground. At the time, Burmese authorities labeled these atrocities “clearance operations.” The violence sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing into Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 Rohingya still live in refugee camps. Conservative estimates suggest around 6,700 Rohingya died.
The genocide might be over, but the consequences are not. That makes the US genocide determination deeply meaningful, especially for the survivors. The words we use to describe world events are important, and it’s good and right to accurately describe what happened in Burma as genocide. Rohingya human rights activist Wai Wai Nu highlighted the “moral and emotional impact” of the designation in The Washington Post, writing, “For many of us, it feels as though the pain and trauma of a generation are now being recognized in their entirety.”
Genocide determinations by the US government carry a lot of weight, both symbolically and practically. The United States is party to the 1948 Genocide Convention, which was drafted as a response to the Holocaust at a time when countries around the world were committing to “never again” allow the types of evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime to take place. According to the convention, countries have a two-fold responsibility to prevent and punish genocide. Sadly, the genocide in Burma has already occurred, but American leaders can work to punish the perpetrators.
Issuing a genocide determination should spur international momentum for action to hold the perpetrators accountable. The Biden administration should identify responsible individuals to be sanctioned. Additional economic sanctions and penalties against Burma’s military should also be put in place.
The Burmese military is still committing atrocities across the country. Currently, Burma’s decades-long civil war is still flaring up in other parts of the country, this time affecting other ethnic and religious minority groups. David Eubank, director of the humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers, says that there is currently the worst level of violence from the Burmese army against civilians from ethnic minority groups since World War II. The marginalized place of these groups along the border of China has put young girls at particular risk for human trafficking into China. Responding to the genocide determination with anything less than the most robust punishments the US government can offer will only encourage and enable the Burmese military to continue its abuses.
The reality is that the Rohingya genocide should have been officially recognized earlier. It is believed that some in the US government were hesitant to alienate Burma because they wanted to keep allies in the region to counterbalance China. Furthermore, US officials wanted to foster the fledgling democracy in Burma despite the military’s atrocities. The history books will likely judge these reasons to withhold a genocide determination as insufficient. Regardless, now that the United States has made the determination, it should enforce serious consequences.
During his remarks at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Secretary of State Antony Blinken correctly stated, “The passage of time does not diminish this responsibility; if anything, it only makes our quest more urgent.” Let us hope that this determination is the catalyst for a global movement to hold the perpetrators of genocide against the Rohingya accountable.