Throughout its second term, the Obama administration downplayed mounting evidence that Burma’s Rohingya community was being deliberately eradicated by the country’s military. Genocide was an inconvenient fact for an administration eager to claim a foreign-policy achievement in Burma’s democratic transition. With U.S. help, in 2015–16, Burma had been transformed from a pariah military dictatorship into a democracy headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, an international human-rights icon. But Burma’s deplorable religious-freedom record was hardly a secret.
Since 1999, Burma has been designated a severe and systematic religious persecutor under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act. Its ethnic Rohingya Muslim and Kachin, Chin, and Karen Christian minorities have been regularly oppressed and subjected to brutal attempts of forcible conversion by its Buddhist majority. Violent conflict between them and a military bent on “Burmanization” has raged on and off since the country’s 1948 independence from Britain.
In 2012, the attacks against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s northern Rakhine state became particularly intense. That year, Genocide Watch issued an emergency alert that these Rohingya were being slaughtered and driven from their homes. On May 20, 2013, noted human-rights advocates Jose Ramos Horta, Muhammad Yunus, and Benedict Rogers wrote of these early warning signs of genocide in the New York Times:
The Rohingyas were recognized until the 1982 Citizenship Law stripped them of their citizenship and rendered them stateless. Since then, they have faced a slow-burning campaign of persecution, which exploded last June and again in October, resulting in the deaths of at least 1,000 and the displacement of at least 130,000. . . . Human Rights Watch has published evidence of mass graves and a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
In 2015, amid continuing horrific news accounts from Rakhine, the prestigious Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School produced a legal analysis finding “strong evidence of genocide against the Rohingya population,” based on “the record of anti-Rohingya rhetoric from government officials and Buddhist leaders, the policies that specifically target Rohingya, and the mass scale of the abuses against Rohingya [that] make it difficult to avoid inferring an intent to destroy Rohingya.” By 2016, 93,000 Rohingya had been killed, brutalized, raped, or forcibly displaced, according to the UNHCR.
Nevertheless, in September 2016, President Obama welcomed Burma’s newly elected head of state Suu Kyi to the White House and honored her with an Oval Office meeting. The occasion was marked with a self-congratulatory joint announcement that omitted any mention of the Rohingya’s plight. That October, Obama lifted American economic sanctions against Burma, bestowing trade benefits, business loans, and educational exchanges on the country’s government. He even committed a Peace Corps mission to Burma, possibly the first in a country waging ongoing genocide.
Throughout, Suu Kyi has said and done nothing about the Rohingya crisis. Only once, after her election, in April 2016, did she mention the Rohingya at all — and even then it was only to demand that the U.S. ambassador stop calling them “Rohingya,” since the Burmese government doesn’t recognize the minority group as citizens. By 2015, fellow Nobel peace laureates, including the Tibetan Buddhist Dalai Lama, began entreating Suu Kyi to break her silence. In 2016, after accusations that Suu Kyi was complicit in genocide, groups that had previously honored her activism with awards began revoking them; the U.S. Holocaust Museum stripped her of its Elie Wiesel award in early 2017. Both Suu Kyi’s reputation and Burma’s nascent democracy have been irretrievably tarnished by her government’s treatment of the Rohingya.
Former president Obama can’t say he didn’t know. His own State Department’s reports described the atrocities. In his eagerness to build a foreign-policy legacy, he undervalued religious freedom. An administration that prided itself on concern about genocide and Islamophobia undermined both through its apparent contempt for religious freedom. It downplayed the repression of Rohingya Muslims in order to brandish Burma’s ostensible move toward a form of democracy — one that lacked essential freedoms for its large population of ethno-religious minorities — as a foreign-policy success. Burma’s military likely took this as a sign that it could finish eradicating the Rohingya without fear of international backlash.
August 2017 saw further attacks. These were not the beginning of the genocide, as media accounts might lead one to believe, but its culmination. Following Rohingya terrorist attacks against police, the Burmese army forced virtually all the remaining, overwhelmingly innocent Rohingya men, women, and children to flee for their lives. Reports surfaced of bayoneting babies, rape, and burning alive those who did not run fast enough. Today, over 700,000 Rohingya refugees shelter across the border in Bangladesh, confined to squalid, waterlogged camps.
In September, the Trump administration fast-tracked $32 million in fresh aid to a new wave of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and soon began applying Magnitsky Act sanctions against Burma’s military. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback visited Rohingya refugees in his first official trip, and recently dispatched investigators to collect evidence of genocide.
Genocide Watch president Gregory Stanton, who has studied every recognized genocide since the Khmer Rouge’s in Cambodia, argues that the genocide label is too infrequently applied by world leaders. Unlike “ethnic cleansing,” genocide has legal meaning. If the Obama administration had acknowledged the Rohingya crisis as a religious genocide, it could have forced a different policy response with the potential to prevent further attacks.
Even now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can still make a finding of genocide, and he should. It will strengthen survivor claims to compensation, restoration, and justice, while reiterating that America recognizes the central importance of religious freedom to the growth of emerging democracies abroad.