The U.S. Has Recognized Myanmar’s Genocide. But Is That Enough?

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News Desk

The United States formally declared this week that the atrocities and ethnic violence Myanmar’s military has committed against the country’s Rohingya minority constitute a “genocide,” following a yearslong campaign by advocates of the minority group and global human rights organizations urging the United States to do so.

International attention on Myanmar’s offensive against the Rohingya intensified when violence against the ethnic group peaked in 2017, following years of repression. The five-year gap between the surge in violence and the U.S. genocide declaration led some human rights activists to criticize Washington for taking too long to make the determination, and they have called on the Biden administration to step up efforts to protect the Rohingya.

“For five years now, the Rohingya community has been asking for the U.S. government to recognize their suffering for what it was,” said Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “For many Rohingya, they feel that this prolonged period of time has enhanced their suffering and enhanced the risks that they have faced.”

Who are the Rohingya, and how have they been persecuted?

The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, representing just about 1 million of Myanmar’s total population of 55 million. Most Rohingya live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where more than 69 percent of the population lives in poverty.

On Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, ousted the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her ruling National League for Democracy party, seizing full control of the government. Since then, a military junta led by Gen. ​Min Aung Hlaing has consistently targeted Rohingya and other anti-military protesters, though the junta denies this. But Myanmar’s path to genocide began years earlier.

Though the roots of ethnic and religious conflict in Myanmar go back decades, to the British colonial era, it helps for our purposes here to start the story in 1962, when the Myanmar military launched a successful coup against the country’s civilian-led government, beginning the dictatorship of military commander Ne Win.

Under Ne Win’s leadership, scorched-earth campaigns were launched against a number of armed groups seeking greater autonomy for the various ethnic and religious minorities in the country’s borderlands. Over time, these efforts and discriminatory laws coalesced around the Rohingya specifically. By 1978, Rohingya were forced to register as “foreigners,” marking the community’s first mass migration to neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law only worsened the Rohingya’s treatment, as it formally denied all Rohingya political rights and citizenship status.

The end of Ne Win’s reign did not end the cycle of systemic abuse. In 1991, Myanmar’s “Clean and Beautiful Nation” campaign—meant to expel so-called foreigners from Rakhine state and prevent the expansion of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, a political insurgency group—led to the mass destruction of Rohingya communities, forcing 250,000 more people to flee to Bangladesh.

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