It is past time to call the violence against Rohingya genocide

The US and the international community have to officially declare the events of August 2017 genocide to help prevent further crimes by the Myanmar military.

Rohingya refugees border Myanmar Reuters
A Rohingya woman who crossed the border from Myanmar carries her daughter, as she waits to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue her way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh [File: October 17, 2017]

Today marks four years since the Myanmar military launched a campaign of violence against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority. Under the banner of a “clearance operation”, Rohingya communities were attacked, Rohingya women were abused and raped, and men, women and children were ruthlessly killed.

Soon after the brutal military campaign against the Rohingya started, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 200 Rohingya villages were destroyed and burned by the military, and an estimated 13,000 Rohingya were killed.

Today, more than 890,000 Rohingya refugees are sheltering in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region: the biggest cluster of refugee camps in the world. Some 92,000 Rohingya refugees reside in Thailand, 21,000 in India, and 102,000 in Malaysia. The Rohingya also make up a portion of Myanmar’s 576,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

As we mark the fourth year since the events of August 2017, it is important to remember that the suffering of the Rohingya has not ended. The community continues to face various forms of violence and tragic death due to their forced displacement. Many suffer under horrendous living conditions at refugee and IDP camps, some have drowned in an attempt to escape and find shelter in other countries. Local authorities at host countries have also sometimes been responsible for the victimisation of Rohingya refugees, with Bangladesh, for example, moving tens of thousands of them to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, where camps are unlivable.

While the US government has paid some attention to the military coup in Myanmar, condemned it and issued sanctions, it has done little to address the violence against the Rohingya. The State Department is yet to declare the human rights abuses and mass atrocities against the Rohingya a genocide, despite clear and mounting evidence of the crime.

It is important to note that, even before the August 2017 violence, the Rohingya suffered from extreme forms of discrimination, notably being denied citizenship under Myanmar’s Citizenship Law and being segregated from other civilians to create “Muslims-free” spaces. These targeted campaigns and systematic violence by the military resulted in the Gambia filing a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice. There is ample evidence that genocide is being committed against the Rohingya, and it is past time that the US names it as such.

Now more than ever, a genocide declaration is necessary as the Myanmar military cracks down on civilian dissent amid an ever-growing death toll and continuing atrocities against the nation’s ethnic minorities. In August alone, the military has indiscriminately shot ethnic Chin civilians, shelled villages in Shan state, and attacked clinics and health centres amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Refusing to call the crimes of the Myanmar military what they are allows the regime to continue undisturbed its campaign of violence across the country.

A report published in 2002 by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women’s Action Network detailed the extent to which the military raped and committed sexual violence against women from 1996 to 2001. Because no serious international action was taken following these crimes, this same targeted and systematic abuse occurred again in 2017 against Rohingya women.

The lack of serious international action on the junta’s crimes against the Rohingya has only emboldened it and worsened conditions for all ethnic minorities. As we mark the fourth anniversary of the August 2017 violence, the US government must reflect on its failure to name the crimes of the Myanmar military a genocide and take action. A genocide declaration could spring the international community to action and help protect the rights of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and its democratic development.

As a refugee from Myanmar, I call on the international community and the US to recognise the violence against the Rohingya as a genocide. While simply naming the crime will not bring immediate peace and justice, acknowledging what happened four years ago is a step closer to holding the Myanmar military accountable and putting a stop to further human rights violations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.