Doug Bock Clark | Longreads | November 2017 | 6,868 words
From his tent in the illegal shantytown carved out of a Bangladeshi forest, 25-year-old Abdul watched as men, women, and children limped into the refugee camp, gaunt from not eating for days. They were his people, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority that has been widely called the world’s most persecuted people. Abdul had arrived in the camps ten months earlier, when 66 thousand refugees fled the neighboring country of Myanmar in the last months of 2016. Nearly a year later, the Rohingya were once again on the run, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh through grooves worn in the swamps made by the more than 1 million refugees who had preceded them over seven decades.
The most recent violence began on August 25, 2017, when armed Rohingya groups attacked as many as 30 Burmese police and military posts near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The army’s retaliation had been swift, with soldiers razing more than 200 villages, causing about 600 thousand Rohingya to flee. The refugees told stories of Burmese soldiers ambushing their villages, raping the women, and shooting the men or decapitating them with knives. They described landmines being laid along the well-known escape routes. Each morning, corpses of Rohingya who had drowned trying to cross the mile-wide Naf River, which divides Myanmar from Bangladesh, washed onto the shore where they had once sought safety.
Abdul called the new arrivals into his shelter, which was made of discarded plastic stretched over bamboo slats, though all he could offer them was a spot on the red-clay floor. Soon, 30 people were occupying just 80 square feet. But they counted themselves lucky: Most new arrivals slept under monsoon-season skies. Nearly a million Rohingya now crammed into a narrow peninsula on the southern tip of Bangladesh, almost all of them in squatter settlements ringing the U.N.-run camps, which have been at capacity for decades. Eventually, Abdul’s tent became so crowded that he had to bed down at a nearby mosque. But having made a similar escape with shrapnel embedded in his shoulder just 10 months earlier, Abdul felt he had to help.
I had met Abdul in February, at the end of the wave of attacks that began in October 2016. I’d come to investigate the story of a single village — Pwint Hpyu Chaung, his home — to establish a clear narrative in what had been a messy war. At the time, violence against the Rohingya had been an underreported story, downplayed by the Myanmar government as a justified response to a small-scale insurgency. The Rohingya, they said, were burning down their houses to win international sympathy. For years, Myanmar’s military has refused to let outsiders into the region, making refugees’ stories almost impossible to independently verify. I hoped that by cross-referencing the accounts of dozens of witnesses in the camps with the testimony of sources inside Myanmar, I would be able to establish what had happened in Pwint Hpyu Chaung.
Getting into the unofficial refugee camps wasn’t a problem: The miles of tumbledown shacks lining the road proved too much space for the Bangladeshi military to patrol. Once I was inside, everyone wanted to tell their story. In a stifling tarp tent, a 12-year-old boy told me of watching his mother be raped by soldiers while he hid in a paddy, and then later finding his father’s bound and charred corpse among the ashes of his house. Men pulled up shirts to reveal crater-like bullet wounds, and women unraveled headscarves to show off raw burns. Ultimately, I managed to track down 21 Rohingya from Pwint Hpyu Chaung and neighboring villages, including Abdul, who I’ve given a pseudonym to protect his safety. They presented a consistent and detailed narrative of a harrowing November 2016 massacre.
Their stories represent just a fraction of the atrocities that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has said seem “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and which other observers have labeled genocide. What to call this violence remains a matter of debate. Under international law, the words “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” have slightly different meanings. “Ethnic cleansing” was coined during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s to describe Serbians employing mass murder and rape to drive non-Serbians from their nascent “ethno-state,” and as such describes the forced exile of a people. In contrast, “genocide” is a legal term that describes “acts committed with intent to destroy [italics mine], in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group,” according to the United Nations Genocide Convention.
The Genocide Convention was established in 1948, when the members of the newly established United Nations declared that “never again” would they allow the systematic slaughter of whole peoples like they had during World War II. The Convention created a legal definition of genocide that includes acts of killing, prevention of births, and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction,” among a long list of other violations. Genocide was now an international crime, punishable by international law. Most importantly, the convention required that all signatories act to “prevent and punish” any in-progress genocide. It was a utopian response to a seminal horror, an expression of the belief that by working together nations might prevent the gravest of tragedies. Today, more than 140 nations have ratified the document, including Myanmar and the United States of America.
To Abdul and other Rohingya I spoke with in the refugee camps, the injustice being perpetrated on them is self-evidently genocide. When Abdul arrived in Bangladesh in late 2016, he was sure that the community of nations would not allow the violence to continue. But as months passed, diplomats and experts argued over semantics: Was it an ethnic cleansing or genocide? Actions at the United Nations that could have helped address the crisis were jammed by the bureaucratic machinations of Myanmar’s allies. In 2017, the Trump administration proposed several travel bans targeting Muslim refugees and began a slow and deliberate dismantling of American diplomacy, withdrawing the State Department from its traditional role defending human rights worldwide, including for the Rohingya. In March, the United States failed to support a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into the violence that had displaced Abdul.
Ultimately, the factors paralyzing the international response to the Rohingya crisis are complex. But what matters to Abdul is a simple question: Why has the international community allowed the Rohingya to be slaughtered and expelled from their land when a legal framework exists that compels them to act?
Abdul was seven years old when he began to understand his government wanted to exterminate him. The realization came slowly, over the nights he stood watch as a sentry for his hometown, Pwint Hpyu Chaung — a string of three hamlets that sheltered more than 1 thousand Rohingya in a marshy river valley in Rakhine State, in the northwest corner of Myanmar. The year was 1999. Abdul was supposed to watch the roads for trouble from Buddhists settled in nearby “model villages,” a program conducted by the Myanmar government to essentially drive the Rohingya out of their homes.
The clash between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhists in control of Myanmar’s government had been going on for decades, fueled by religious and ethnic tensions. In the early 1990s, the government continued a policy of confiscating Rohingya land and building these model villages: basically, Buddhist outposts in Muslim territory. Model villages were populated with the Rohingya’s age-old adversaries — the Bamar, the dominant Buddhist ethnic majority that controls Myanmar, and the Rakhine, a local Buddhist ethnic group — to help the government control the Rohingya.
First-hand descriptions of model villages are rare because the government exercises authoritarian control over areas where the Rohingya live. But a previously unpublished U.N. report describes the program in detail: Model villagers were often convicts and marginalized people like the homeless, relocated from overcrowded parts of Myanmar. The government moved the settlers into houses on Rohingya farms, dispossessing them of both home and income. Sometimes the Rohingya were even forced to build the model villages that displaced them. In one case, Burmese authorities conscripted more than 1 thousand Rohingya from 17 nearby villages, including hundreds of minors, to work until 11 at night, beating anyone who worked too slowly. Model villagers regularly set up checkpoints to extort money from their Rohingya neighbors, stole crops and animals with impunity, and formed paramilitary units that assaulted them
Why has the international community allowed the Rohingya to be slaughtered and expelled from their land when a legal framework exists that compels them to act?
But during Abdul’s sentry shifts, the danger from the model villages never materialized. Instead, he spent the lonely hours looking at the glow from electrified Bangladeshi towns across the Naf River. Pwint Hpyu Chaung, with its wood huts thatched with dried palm leaves, and the surrounding Rohingya villages remained dark. Little that was modern had reached Abdul’s home, which lay in the most tightly controlled corner of the country. In 1999, Myanmar was one of the earth’s most isolated countries, ruled by a notorious military dictatorship. There were no TVs, and Abdul had learned only basic Burmese at school, so he could not understand Burmese radio or newspapers. He knew almost nothing about the outside world — except that across the river lights shone.
Abdul had left the local Islamic school around the fourth grade to work in his father’s paddies, expecting to spend his whole life as a rice farmer like the rest of his male relatives. His favorite pastime was stalking egrets with his slingshot at night in jungle streams, breaking a bird’s wing with a sun-baked mud pellet, cutting its throat, and then blessing it to make it halal so his family could eat it.
As he grew older, Abdul began to venture outside of Pwint Hpyu Chaung. It was not unusual for Burmese or Rakhine to catcall him, “Fucking Bengali!” — a reference to the Burmese belief that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — or for soldiers to slap him, even after he paid the mandatory bribes. His father warned Abdul that if he was struck, he must not fight back. The retribution would only be worse.
Conflict over whether Muslims or Buddhists were the original inhabitants of the jungles around Pwint Hpyu Chaung has been going since at least the sixteenth century, when Islamic and Buddhist kingdoms were in conflict over the land. But despite Myanmar’s protestations to the contrary, there is strong evidence that the Rohingya have long inhabited what is today Rakhine State. In 1799, a Scottish explorer described meeting the “Rooinga” there. Though there has been some debate, most experts identify this group as the modern Rohingya.
The British Empire unified the area in the 1800s, tamping down conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists, but during World War II, the Rohingya sided with their colonial British overlords, while the Rakhine and Bamar allied with the invading Japanese. Both sides committed massacres. After the war, the populations separated. The Rohingya fled north while the Rakhine and Bamar withdrew south. When Myanmar became independent from the British Empire in 1948, the new Bamar Buddhist government did not recognize the Rohingya as an official minority. After a slow-burn rebellion throughout the 1950s, the Rohingya won limited recognition and self-governance, but it was short-lived.
In 1962, a military coup replaced Myanmar’s elected government with a cadre of Bamar generals who viciously oppressed the country’s autonomy-seeking minorities. They labeled Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bengal, and in 1978 launched the first major “immigration” enforcement campaign, driving 200,000 Rohingya over the border, a journey on which thousands starved. In 1982, the government passed a law that effectively stripped all Rohingya of citizenship, making them stateless.
Abdul was born around 1992, when about a quarter of a million Rohingya were fleeing to Bangladesh during another immigration sweep. The forceful expulsion of the Rohingya was proving a messy business for Myanmar’s government. The United States, flush from its ideological victory over the Soviet Union, had voiced strong objections to the regime’s human rights abuses, and Islamic countries had raised an outcry over the mistreatment of the Rohingya. So instead of all-out war against the Rohingya, the government decided to covertly and bureaucratically exterminate them.
A few years earlier, in 1988, Myanmar officials had begun crafting a secret program to legally subjugate the Rohingya and eventually drive them out of Myanmar. The eleven-point scheme detailed in a government report was titled “Rohingya Extermination Plan,” according to documents published by the International State Crime Initiative, a London-based organization dedicated to researching state-sponsored human rights violations. “Mass killing of the Muslim is to be avoided in order not to invite the attention of Muslim countries,” the report explained. Instead, according to the first point of the plan, the Rohingya were to be labeled “insurgents” and thus denied status as citizens. Next were listed the restrictions that would define Abdul’s life, limiting his ability to travel, make a living, get an education, own property, and even marry and have children. The plan ordered judges to rule for Buddhists over Muslims, and it suggested that Muslims should be converted into Buddhists. Myanmar’s government would be able to get exactly what it wanted without international pushback.
Abdul grew into a handsome, muscular young farmer with a guarded smile. He prized the motorbike he had assembled out of second-hand Chinese parts. He mostly shrugged off the state’s restrictions, at least until 2010, when he turned 18 and his family arranged for him to be married. The village’s imam sanctified the union in the Rohingya community, but in order to comply with a law enacted in accordance with the Rohingya Extermination Plan, Abdul then had to ask permission of local administrators to legally marry. The administrators told him that if he wanted to wed, both he and his wife would need identification cards, for which he would have to pay a bribe of about $100. It was a massive sum — Abdul and his family earned only about $1,000 a year selling rice — but it was a standard extortion for Rohingya seeking marriage licenses. When he brought the money, Abdul was informed that the identification cards would list him and his wife as Bengali, not Rohingya. He had no choice but to agree. He could not write, so the administrators filled out the forms for him.
Even with the papers signed, Abdul and his wife still could not legally cohabitate. Authorities maintained a list of who lived in each house in Pwint Hpyu Chaung, and they demanded $600 for Abdul to transfer his wife to his home. One night, police caught him staying at his father-in-law’s, and he was taken to the local jail and beaten with a stick until his father rushed over with the family’s savings, $200, knowing that to let him languish was to risk him becoming crippled. It took Abdul a year to collect enough money so his wife could live with him.
Abdul spent the next two years quietly farming, trying to avoid attracting attention. In 2012, he heard rumors of Rohingya villages being burned near Sittwe, a large coastal city that is also the capital of Rakhine State. He decided to stop his bird hunting, knowing it was too dangerous to be outside the village at night. On May 28, 2012, a group of Rohingya men were accused of raping and murdering a Buddhist woman in Sittwe. Over the next week, machete-wielding Rakhine mobs torched nearby Rohingya villages. Soldiers and police stood by, and by the time a state of emergency was declared two weeks later, 98 people had been killed, more than 5,000 homes burnt, and more than 75,000 Rohingya were displaced. Violence flared up again in October, during which 68 Rohingya were killed, 3,234 homes burned, and 32,000 more people were displaced. In retaliatory attacks by Rohingya, 26 Rakhine were killed and 42 of their homes were burned. International investigators later found that the violence against the Rohingya was highly directed, with busloads of Rakhine men driven in to participate, and suspicion fell on extremist nationalists allied with the military.
Because Sittwe is far south of Bangladesh, Rohingya displaced there could not flee over the border. Instead, the government interred about 120,000 of them in concentration camps that were described in 2014 by a U.N. official as “appalling.” Today, conditions have not improved, and opportunities for education and employment are severely limited. Rohingya caught by the police outside the camps can be imprisoned for three months. If they are discovered by Rakhine, they could be lynched.
By 2015, thousands of Rohingya were paying smugglers to cram them by the hundreds into leaky fishing vessels to escape the camps and Rakhine State. When the boats landed in Thailand, the government towed many of them back out to sea, leaving more than 8,000 Rohingya stranded without food or water. The United Nations estimates more than 1,000 people died before Indonesia and Malaysia reluctantly accepted some refugees.
At the end of 2015, free and fair elections were held in Myanmar for the first time in half a century, and Abdul began hoping that life might improve for the Rohingya. He wanted to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy activist, who was considered a saint by citizens of all ethnicities for standing up to the junta and enduring 15 years of house arrest over two decades. But Abdul could not vote because he was registered as a Bengali. And although Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory, Rohingya hopes quickly faded. Under the new constitution, the military retained effective control over the Rakhine State, and Aung San Suu Kyi had no formal control over the military, so almost nothing changed.
In 2016, Abdul had his first child, a son. It was the only child the government would allow. Rakhine administrators had made Abdul and his wife’s marriage license contingent on the couple only having one child. Regional authorities had issued population control policies for Rohingya in 1993 and 2005, the later of which decreed that families that had more than two children — and women who gave birth out of wedlock — could be jailed for up to 10 years. Abdul saw a bleak future for his son, but he also felt a new father’s thankfulness. He hoped his child might get a basic education and one day escape from Myanmar. He could not help dreaming that if he did not live in Myanmar, he would become the patriarch of a large family.
For years, experts had warned that the disenfranchisement and abuse of the Rohingya could lead to extremism. After 2000, several ineffectual rebel groups with weak ties to al-Qaeda trained Rohingya men in the Bangladesh refugee camps, but the first major attack came shortly after midnight on October 9, 2016. More than 100 Rohingya swarmed three police posts wielding knives, at least one homemade pistol, and ginkali, slingshots that fired iron bolts. They killed nine policemen and wounded five more before looting about 50 guns. A newly formed Islamist Rohingya insurgency, later called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, claimed responsibility for the attack. The International Crisis Group released a report suggesting the group had trained hundreds of Rohingya in guerrilla warfare, and the rebels claimed to be funded by individuals in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Shortly after daybreak on October 10, Myanmar’s army retaliated by burning the village nearest the overrun outpost. Then, according to local inhabitants, they drove north on the only paved road in the valley, arresting and torturing men by the dozens. One survivor described to me being bound and having his beard burned off with a lighter. Environmental satellites designed to detect forest fires began to track conflagrations in Rohingya villages. Using these images, Human Rights Watch tallied more than 1,500 buildings destroyed over the next two months, though they warned the true number was likely higher, as tree cover made it difficult to see every structure.
Abdul told me that Pwint Hpyu Chaung lay on a dirt track off the main road, so it took a few days before the army entered the town. He and the other young men fled into the hills fearing they would be arrested. Village leaders swore to officers that there were no insurgents in the village and they did not know where the young men had gone. Normally, the army demanded small gifts like goats, but this time they insisted on $500. Each family in the village pitched in to assemble the money.
Abdul had his first child, a son. It was the only child the government would allow. Rohingya that had more than two children could be jailed for up to 10 years.
Every few days, the army returned along with model villager paramilitaries and extorted the Rohingya again. By early November, the village had run out of money. When the village could not pay, soldiers drove off the village’s livestock, including Abdul’s seven cows and eight goats. That night, the villagers slaughtered three cows that the army had missed and divided the meat, a pound a family. They prayed that since they had nothing left to steal the army would finally ignore them.
When Abdul heard distant machine gunfire and saw smoke towering over the hills to the south on November 12, he ordered his parents and wife to run to a nearby village with his infant son. Village leaders asked some men to stay behind and stand watch, so Abdul huddled with several friends in his house on a hill above Pwint Hpyu Chaung.
About an hour passed before Abdul again heard the gunfire. He sprinted outside just in time to glimpse a half dozen projectiles, glowing pink, rain down on the village. The mortar shells bowled over bamboo houses, setting many aflame. Then he saw about 20 Burmese troops advancing through the rice paddies and betel nut fields, displaying the red bandanas Myanmar commandos wear on the frontlines. He rushed inside his house just as a mortar round exploded right next to him, knocking him out.
Abdul regained consciousness in the smoldering ruins of the house. His ears rang. An ankle-deep crater smoldered just outside. His stepbrother was tearing strips from his own black sarong to bind Abdul’s bleeding shoulder. Abdul could not move his right arm. A metal spike protruded from the joint. Someone told him, “You’re only hit in the shoulder. You’re lucky. Some were hit in the chest and died on the spot.” His stepbrother dragged him to his feet and supported him as they staggered away. He was bleeding so much he feared that he would die.
All across the village, soldiers were gunning down fleeing Rohingya. Rather than using rocket-propelled grenades as they had in neighboring villages, the commandos preserved ammunition by igniting the thatched roofs with bamboo torches. One survivor described watching an attack on the town’s elderly religious leader as he was being carried from the flaming village on his son’s back. Soldiers knocked the son down, and then four of them grabbed the imam by his limb. They rocked back and forth to start the old man swinging and then hurled him into the inferno. Three villagers I spoke to confirmed this account of his death. Other survivors told of gang rapes, of babies hurled into fires, of families locked into their burning homes. Their stories echoed those of similar atrocities described by survivors in a report released this past February by the United Nations, compiled from more than 220 interviews with refugees. Satellite images would later confirm that Pwint Hpyu Chaung had been leveled. A senior village administrator would count dozens of buildings burned, with only a fraction of houses remaining.
Abdul was still bleeding when he reached the nearby village of U Shey Kya, where his parents, wife, and son had taken refuge. There, he was taken to a local healer who was unable to extract the shrapnel or provide medicine to lessen the pain. There were no licensed doctors in the Rohingya villages, but Abdul knew that Doctors Without Borders ran a medical clinic in Bangladesh. The next morning he wept as he said goodbye to his parents, wife, and infant son. They would remain in U Shey Kya, hoping as Rohingya have hoped throughout the decades that the conflict would eventually blow over.
After two days of walking, careful to keep his arm from jostling in its sling, avoiding scorched ruins filled with newly feral dogs, Abdul reached the Naf River. He had only his clothes and a Nokia cellphone. A boatman took pity on him and smuggled him across for free. In the refugee camps, a faith healer excised two fragments of shrapnel from his shoulder without anesthesia. Soon his family called. U Shey Kya had been attacked. His father had been beaten. Soldiers had ripped out his sister’s nose rings and earrings, tearing her nostril and earlobes, and knifed her cheek to make her ugly. Several days later, his family arrived in the city of tattered tents. Abdul held his infant son again and wept. The family agreed their life in Myanmar was over.
The official U.N. refugee camps had no space for them, so Abdul walked into the woods, cut down a tree, and constructed a tent of his own. He used black plastic tarps that had been used to evaporate seawater and harvest the remaining salt, so the tent looked like it was covered with giant tear stains. At the beginning, Abdul’s tent stood at the edge of the improvised camps, but within a few weeks, the nearby forest had been felled for construction material and firewood, and newly built shanties surrounded his home. During my visit, I watched a whole neighborhood spring up in an afternoon, its tents roofed with teak leaves until their inhabitants could get tarps.
As the months passed, Abdul’s wound healed. Unconsciously, he massaged the scar. Pain shot down his arm whenever he lifted it, leaving him unable to work for slave wages in the Bangladeshi paddies. Instead, he occasionally sold vegetables in the public market, earning about $30 a month. The family’s only food was the 25 kilograms of rice the World Food Program provided twice a month. There was no water and little sanitation. Abdul, his wife, and son were all losing weight. His son cried constantly. He had nothing to do except loiter, retelling his ordeal to men who recounted their own traumas.
One morning, after listening to refugees recount their escape, I walked to the top of a hill and was confronted with a panorama of ragged tents that stretched to the horizon. It seemed to me that part of the tragedy was that each person’s individual grief had become almost indistinguishable from the affliction of an entire people. Those already deprived of everything did not even seem to own their singular despairing stories.
Abdul hoped desperately that the international community would somehow restore his home. But older refugees, including some who had been in the camps since the 1970s, were cynical about the possibility of return. They had become fathers and grandfathers during the cycles of violence, watching the fleeting international attention and the inevitable return to the status quo. The only way it would end, some of them thought, was if the government completely erased the Rohingya from Myanmar.
At the beginning of 2017, something could have been done. By February, diplomats from the European Union were pushing for the creation of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry (CoI) as the first step toward international action. CoIs are the most powerful type of investigation that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) can commission and can lead to prosecution by the International Criminal Court. After a month, the E.U. began pressing for a UNHRC resolution proposing a CoI, but behind the scenes, Myanmar, China, and several Southeast Asian countries were lobbying hard against it.
In mid-March, China blocked a statement by the U.N. Security Council, the most powerful body in the organization, voicing concern about the situation in northern Rakhine State. Many Asian nations, especially China, do not want to endanger their access to Myanmar’s large reserves of timber, gemstones, and gas. China also has geostrategic interests in keeping Western nations from exerting too much influence on its neighbor, which it has long regarded as a “little brother.” When I spoke to Roland Kobia, the E.U. Ambassador to Myanmar during the negotiations over the CoI, he explained that “some countries have taken a much more pragmatic position towards the events in Rakhine State to promote their economic and political agendas.” China’s pragmatism has been expressed in its efforts to promote likely infective talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh instead of a CoI, and its consistent threats to veto U.N. action against Myanmar. Because of China’s permanent seat on the Security Council, a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions is virtually impossible in the face of its opposition.
This was not the first time the Rohingya had been sacrificed for diplomatic expediency. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights to Myanmar during the violence in 2012, told me about his frustrating experience trying to effectively address the crisis. “I felt that some nations did not push Myanmar as hard as they could have for fear of endangering their economic interests or hampering the democratic transition,” he said. One week before the session debating whether to establish a CoI ended, the E.U. allowed a significantly less powerful investigation to be proposed instead. An uproar followed from human rights advocates and Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, Quintana’s replacement. But they lacked a key supporter — the United States.
The Trump administration had recently come into power and had rapidly begun shifting U.S. foreign policy. I was in the refugee camps, listening to Rohingya men and women desperately ask if America would help them, when President Trump signed an executive order to indefinitely halt the entry of Syrian refugees, describing their presence as “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” The Rohingya were incredulous that anyone could think of refugees as a threat.
Over the next few months, the State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson scaled back its operations, cutting budgets, laying off career foreign service bureaucrats, and leaving high-level positions intentionally vacant. The Trump administration continued to enact its “America First” policy, which would have the country take a less active role in world affairs and focus on its self-interest.
Instead of supporting the CoI, the United States suggested offering international help to a Myanmar-led investigation, which had been widely panned as a mouthpiece for the government. Experts believe that many Western diplomats are nervous about undermining Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which has been making progress on other human rights issues and which is viewed as a fragile democracy. Because of the structure of the country’s constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government has little effective control of Rakhine State, which is instead administered by the military. As Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, explained to me earlier this year, “Sometimes what sounds morally good is not the most effective way to help the Rohingya on the ground.”
As the vote on the CoI approached in late March 2017, it looked as if any hope for an impactful U.N.-based investigation had been lost. But after an intense lobbying effort from Special Rapporteur Lee and human rights advocates, the resolution was strengthened at the eleventh hour to include an independent multinational fact-finding mission, which was adopted at the end of the month. However, a fact-finding mission has less scope and resources than a CoI. As Matthew Smith, the CEO of the human rights watchdog group Fortify Rights, told me shortly after the approval of the fact-finding mission, “This was quite literally the least the international community could do.”
Part of the tragedy is that each person’s individual grief has become almost indistinguishable from the affliction of an entire people. Those already deprived of everything do not even seem to own their singular despairing stories.
The establishment of a fact-finding mission is no guarantee that anything will be done for the Rohingya. The United Nations was created as a response to the genocide of the Holocaust and other horrors of World War II, but after 72 years in existence, accountability within the organization has become a grand, geopolitical game of passing the buck. If the Human Rights Council ever does deliver its report, it will lack the power to enforce its recommendations; that responsibility lies with the Security Council. If the Security Council were to consider suggestions of peacekeepers, sanctions, or the establishment of an international criminal tribunal, permanent members allied with Myanmar, like China, would almost certainly veto them.
The United Nations was created as a diffuse system of checks and balances in order to persuade the world’s diverse nations to buy into a new kind of international law, despite their competing interests. But because power is spread so thin, it is often impossible for the organization to prevent genocide — even when that’s what many of its constituents want. Political logjams have kept the international community from acting effectively since the Genocide Convention in 1948. One scholarly estimate suggests that in the half-century between 1956 and 2016, 43 genocides took place, killing about 50 million people and displacing the same amount. But only three cases of genocide have been prosecuted since 1948 — in Rwanda, Serbia, and Cambodia — and even then only long after the killing had stopped.
Some experts feel the Rohingya’s plight is another case of the United Nations failing to recognize a genocide as it is defined by the Convention. In 2015, before the last two cycles of violence in Myanmar, an international human rights clinic at Yale Law School released a report suggesting the persecution of the Rohingya fit the legal definition of genocide. That same year, the International State Crime Initiative issued their report based on months of undercover investigative work in Myanmar that also concluded that what was happening to the Rohingya constituted genocide, though it used a wider definition than the legal one. Both reports made their cases not just by documenting military attacks, but also by investigating the legal controls that Myanmar has built up over decades to impoverish, disenfranchise, and limit the population growth of the Rohingya, in accordance with the Rohingya Extermination Plan.
Under the Genocide Convention, it is not just outright murder that constitutes genocide, but actions such as preventing births and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.” As Penny Green, the International State Crime Initiative’s director, told me, “It’s clear that what’s being inflicted upon the Rohingya is genocide.” But even if what is happening to the Rohingya falls under the legal definition of genocide, chances are slim that the international community will call it that or act. David Simon, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, explained, “A genocide is taking place, but there is little chance that the international community will mobilize effectively to stop it. Questions of national sovereignty and self-interest have almost always trumped international concerns about human rights.”
The hang-up for most nations in calling out genocide is a clause in the Convention that requires them to “prevent and punish” it. “To use the word ‘genocide’ to describe a situation may create a legal obligation under the Genocide Convention to take preventive action,” said James J. Silk, a professor of international human rights law at Yale Law School who oversaw the school’s report on the Rohingya crisis. “Many nations, including the United States, have shown themselves to be reluctant to commit to such a complicated and politically difficult course.” If the United States were to label the attacks against the Rohingya as genocide, it could potentially commit the Trump administration to using the American military to defend Muslim refugees at the same time it is trying to ban them from entering the country. (Previous administrations, including the Obama administration, were no more enthusiastic about committing large-scale resources to the situation.)
Ultimately, most nations have failed to call what is happening genocide, though a small set of Islamic countries, including Malaysia, have adopted the term, and French president Emmanuel Macron used the label to describe the most recent wave of violence. The United States, which has previously shown great concern for other human rights abuses in Myanmar, has pointedly avoided calling it genocide. On October 26, in a phone call to the chief of Myanmar’s army, Secretary Tillerson expressed “concern about the continuing humanitarian crisis and reported atrocities in Rakhine State,” and the administration said it would push for sanctions against particular army officers who participated in the violence. During a brief visit to Myanmar on November 15, where he met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the secretary told reporters at a press conference he thought there had been “crimes against humanity,” but was against “broad-based economic sanctions.”
“Genocide” can only be legally declared after litigation at the International Criminal Court. While reporting this article, governmental sources I spoke to from the United States and Europe referred to genocide as the “g-word” — often unwilling to even speak it fully in informal conversations — because of the potential consequences of using it should a legal case be set in motion. And yet, even though the word was so powerful that senior diplomats could not utter it, it had been effectively neutered by many nations’ fear of harming their self-interest and by the United Nations’ bureaucratic maneuvering.
Without any danger of effective legal action, Myanmar flouted the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, continuing to deny it access to Rakhine State through the summer and into the fall. The fact-finding mission wasn’t the only United Nations investigation into a possible genocide that was downgraded during this time: A CoI examining the civil war in Syria was unraveling as its high-profile lead prosecutor quit, saying, “I give up. The states in the Security Council don’t want justice.”
But Myanmar’s army’s brutal response to the attacks on their outposts at the end of August 2017 obviated the fact-finding mission. As more than half a million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, the U.N. Security Council unanimously expressed concern about what was happening in Myanmar for the first time in nine years — but it was just a slap on the wrist without any peacekeeping actions or sanctions associated with it. When Egypt tried to introduce impactful language to the resolution guaranteeing the Rohingya the right of safe return to Myanmar, it was blocked by China. A senior Myanmar national security official explained to an international news conference that Myanmar was coordinating with China and Russia to block any sanctions with teeth, declaring, “China is our friend and we have a similar friendly relationship with Russia, so it will not be possible for that issue to go forward.”
In early September, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader whom Abdul had hoped would save the Rohingya, refused to condemn the military, instead describing the international outcry as caused by “a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems … with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.” In doing so, she was echoing the words of the generals who had imprisoned her for years. Several of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners openly criticized her, and there were calls for her award to be rescinded.
In the camps, all was chaos. One translator there told me as few as 30 percent of the new arrivals were getting rice from the World Food Program, and the rest were starving or scavenging off others. In mid-September, a woman and two children died in a stampede for aid. Though Abdul tried to focus on sheltering newcomers in his already overcrowded tent and to remain hopeful, his belief in the international community had faded.
When I first interviewed Abdul in January 2017, I had arranged for him to be smuggled out of the camps to a nearby Best Western hotel in the dingy resort town of Cox’s Bazar, where most aid workers stayed. I wanted him to have the privacy and focus that was impossible in the overcrowded plastic tents. After seven hours of talking over two days, Abdul seemed nearly giddy with hope. On the Internet, I had shown him how stories of the Rohingya were spreading across the world, and he said, “I want you to tell my story so that everyone in America knows what’s happening and the international community can do something about it.” He had been awed by the multistory hotel and its air conditioning, and he was certain that people with such unimaginable power and wealth could not fail to save the Rohingya. But when I got in touch with Abdul in October, after he had spent nearly a year in the camps, his support for a diplomatic solution had waned. “If we don’t fight for our freedom, who will?” he asked. “I’d consider joining the rebels if we had sufficient guns and bombs to fight back.”
What had never faded was Abdul’s desire to return to the paddies that his ancestors had tilled, that he had once expected his son to plant after he was buried beneath them. There was little chance of forging a happy life in Bangladesh. One of the world’s poorest and most overpopulated countries, it denies the Rohingya any chance at citizenship because it cannot support them. Bangladesh’s reluctant response to the crisis was to announce plans in mid-October to force the million or so refugees into a new camp, which they would not legally be allowed to leave, making it effectively a prison. Sometimes to dull the hunger or lessen the pain in his scarified wound, Abdul imagined rebuilding Pwint Hpyu Chaung. Freed from the restrictions imposed by Myanmar’s government, he had recently had another child. He wanted to one day show the newborn his home.
Doug Bock Clark’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, WIRED, The New Republic, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, and other publications. His first book, about a hunter-gatherer whaling tribe, will be published next year by Little, Brown.
This article was written with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.