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Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar – Is This Genocide?

Posted by Suzy Bartlett, Monday 27th March, 2017

opinion volunteer blog

Group of displaced Rohingya people; many of whom are children

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State

My interest in genocide prevention began through my experiences of living and working in Guatemala where I heard many first-hand accounts from witnesses of atrocities committed during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). Living in a society which is still rebuilding itself from the effects of war and genocide inspired me to learn more about the work being done globally to educate people on the issue. I decided to become a volunteer at The Wiener Library because I wanted to make my own contribution to raising awareness about the subject and to develop my own knowledge and understanding of issues related to genocide around the world.

This is my second article for The Wiener Library following my piece on Women Fighting Against Genocide which was published earlier this year.

Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar – Is This Genocide?

In recent months, the media and the international community have turned their attention towards Myanmar (known also as Burma) where there have been rising reported incidences of violence and persecution committed against the minority Rohingya Muslim community by state forces. Reports of human rights abuses include, but are not limited to, rape, murder and the burning of Rohingya villages. As a result, an estimated 21,900 Rohingya Muslims have fled within a period of two months (BBC, December 2016).

A United Nations report released at the beginning of February 2017, based on shocking first-hand accounts from 204 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh, documents incidences of gang rape, disappearances and killings, including brutal murders of children and babies. Of the 101 women interviewed in the report, half said they had been victims of sexual violence (UN, pg. 20). Although the government of Myanmar are being put under increasing pressure to thoroughly investigate such claims and put measures in place to protect the Rohingya population, little progress has been made. Journalists and humanitarian groups are currently not permitted to enter the state of Rakhine where the majority of the Rohingya people live.

What is the political situation in Myanmar?

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country which was, until recent years, ruled by a military regime who used violence and intimidation tactics to clamp down on any opposition to their rule. Efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar were famously led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of one of Burma’s most influential political parties - the National League of Democracy.  In the 1990 general elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 81% of seats in Parliament, however the military refused to hand over power and she was placed under house arrest for a total of almost 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

Aung San Suu Kyi became an international symbol for the fight for democracy in Myanmar, even winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in 1991. She now holds the newly created position of State Counsellor of Myanmar and is widely considered to be the country’s de facto leader.

Despite being considered around the world as a leading activist for peace and democracy, however, her notable silence and lack of action to defend the Rohingya people in recent months has led to heavy criticism from the media, world leaders and 23 fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousefzai.

Although the Rohingya people make up approximately one million of Myanmar’s fifty million population, they are not listed as one of Burma’s 135 official ethnic groups and therefore denied protection under Myanmar's citizenship laws. The government of Myanmar views the Rohingya people as illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

Is this genocide?

Opinions have been divided on whether or not the persecution of the Rohingya people should be classified as genocide. The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has publically stated that he believes genocide is taking place, whereas former head of the United Nations, Kofi Annan has said that accusations of genocide “should not be thrown around loosely” and that "legal review and judicial determination” are needed (BBC, December 2016). It is notable however that the aforementioned critics among Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners have drawn explicit parallels between the situation in Myanmar and genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and Kosovo saying that, “It has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies” (The Guardian, 2016).

The current crisis faced by Rohingya groups in Myanmar raises important questions. When does the singling out of a particular group and acts of violence or aggression committed against them become genocide? Is the failure of the international community to agree on whether or not the Rohingya people are being subjected to genocide the very thing which is preventing the action needed to protect them from taking place?

In a legal context, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted after the Second World War defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”:

  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

Further to the convention itself, the President of Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton produced a paper in 1996 arguing that genocide develops in eight stages: from classification through symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation and extermination to denial. He later updated his theory to include two additional stages: discrimination and persecution. Stanton’s paper provides a framework for the processes that lead to genocide taking place and is often used as a guideline and as a tool for educating people on genocide prevention.

The new UN report combined with reports from eyewitnesses, the media and grassroots NGOs certainly indicate that crimes which fall under the genocide convention are taking place in Myanmar and that a systematic process for the singling out and mistreatment of the Rohingya people as outlined in Stanton’s paper is similarly occurring. The assertion from the international community that Myanmar is on the brink of watching yet another genocide unfold without taking sufficient action to prevent it looks increasingly valid.

What must be done to tackle genocide and human rights violations more effectively?

On the 20 year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon published an article entitled 20 Years After the Genocide in Rwanda: Lessons Learned and Unlearned, in which he highlighted measures implemented by the UN to ensure that incidences of genocide were dealt with effectively in the future. Examples included the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the deployment of human rights monitors, and the endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) global political commitment, which prevents states from claiming that human rights violations are strictly domestic affairs and cannot be held accountable under international law.

While these are positive and necessary advancements, Ban Ki Moon also pointed to weaknesses in the UN’s approach to dealing with genocide, including lack of action by the international community at the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War that led to tens of thousands of deaths. Inaction from UN member states has been a consistent feature of genocides committed in recent times. Sadly, we are seeing this pattern emerge again as the Rohingya crisis worsens.

There could be a number of reasons for the hesitancy of key members of the UN to label the situation in Myanmar as genocide. Myanmar has recently undergone significant changes to its political structure and the country is still adjusting. The international community may therefore be taking a more lenient approach on the government and providing it with some sort of ‘grace period’ to get its affairs in order. Members could also fear overuse of the word ‘genocide’ to describe human rights abuses and that this overuse could in some way diminish the memory of the Holocaust and other genocides committed in recent history. Or it could simply be that other international human rights concerns, including the current situation in Syria, are being considered more of a priority.

In the case of the Rohingya people, the debate around which rhetoric we use to describe what is taking place seems secondary to the fact that human rights abuses are undoubtedly being committed against them at this very moment in time. Whether the word ‘genocide’ is applied or not, the Rohingya community in Myanmar are undoubtedly in need of powerful voices outside of Myanmar to speak out for them. Without intervention or attention, there is a likelihood that we will be talking again in 20 years from now about how lack of action in Myanmar led to the unnecessary loss of thousands more lives.

Cited Works:

Holmes, Oliver. “Nobel laureates warn Aung San Suu Kyi over 'ethnic cleansing' of Rohingya.” The Guardian, 30 December 2016.

“Kofi Annan downplays claims of Myanmar genocide.” BBC, 6 December 2016.

Ki-moon, Ban. "20 Years After the Genocide in Rwanda: Lessons Learned and Unlearned." The World Post, 7 June 2014.

Safdar, Anealla. “Who are the Rohingya?” Al Jazeera, 28 October 2016.

Stanton, Gregory H. The Eight Stages of Genocide. Genocide Watch, 1996.

Stanton, Gregory H. The Ten Stages of Genocide. Genocide Watch, 2013.

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Report of OHCHR mission to Bangladesh: Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October. 2017

Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library holds material on both the language and rhetoric surrounding the concept of genocide and on how genocide and human rights prevention can be prevented today. Some of this material is listed below:

For more related sources try searching any of the following in our Collections Catalogue; Genocide; United Nations; International Law; International Relations; Foreign Policy; War Crimes


Photo by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, via Wikimedia Commons

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Wednesday 12th April, 2017

Thank you for your thorough and judicious essay. This is certainly an alarming situation that cries out for attention--but apparently isn't getting enough of it.

Julia Hirsch

Friday 31st March, 2017

Excellent portrayal and analysis of the current situation and plight of the Rohingya people.6335

Tony Bartlett

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