On the night of August 25, an attack on Myanmar security forces by a handful of Rohingya militants in Northern Rakhine State prompted a brutal government counteroffensive that has, in turn, led to the greatest refugee crisis of the 21st century. Since then, more than 500,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, with some estimating that as many as 15,000 continue to make the dangerous journey each day. In fact, in terms of rate of escalation, this is the greatest mass exodus – and has the makings to become the most significant humanitarian catastrophe – since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when over 800,000 Hutus and moderate Tutsis were slaughtered over a mere 100-day period.
To much of the international community, Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis appears sudden, with few to no warning signs; indeed, it is only in recent weeks that the word “Rohingya” has begun to crop up in international headlines and to seep into the world’s collective consciousness and conscience. Yet as a human rights lawyer who has long followed the Rohingya situation – and was present in Northern Rakhine the morning the violence erupted – I can say there is no question that the crisis unfolding now has been in the making for years, if not decades. Perhaps more importantly, by international legal and historical standards, the crisis bears all the characteristics of a genocide in bloom.
In fact, for those who have followed the situation closely, the use of the word “genocide” should come as no surprise. For generations, the Rohingya have faced an ever-growing list of discriminatory policies and state-sanctioned rights violations designed to cull the unwanted minority’s numbers and force them from their ancestral lands: key markers of genocide.
The oldest among them have seen their citizenship revoked and their children born stateless; they suffer tight restrictions on movement and access to education and healthcare; and the number of children a couple may bear has been legally limited to two.
The Rohingya also regularly endure extortions for minor “offenses”; they have been barred from gathering in groups of more than five and require permission to hold routine events (like marriages); and have even faced limitations on the materials used to build or repair homes and other buildings (brick and concrete being considered too “permanent” for the unwanted minority). Direct reports from at least one prison also indicate that some prisoners from other parts of the country had been released early on condition that they resettle in Northern Rakhine in order to maximise the Buddhist population and limit Rohingya landholdings.
The Rohingya have also endured periodic crackdowns designed to drive them from their land, dating at least as far back as Operation King Dragon in 1978, with more recent pogroms in 1991 and 2012. Since 2012, smaller spates of violence have erupted, each time accompanied by reports of government and mob-led village raids and burnings, rapes and murders (sometimes two-sided), and ever-increasing restrictions on Rohingya movement and activity.