All Government Hands On Deck Needed To Denounce Burmese Genocide


Kerri Toloczko Senior policy fellow at Institute for Liberty
Font Size:

Euphemisms are helpful when used tactfully in social situations. But when government uses them to skirt diplomatic tension, it can become an abdication of moral responsibility with deadly consequences.

In the Southeast Asian country of Burma, Muslims and Christians are routinely slaughtered and displaced by the Burmese military as a matter of government policy. Our government has harshly condemned these barbaric actions by the murderous junta running unchecked inside this small nation.  

On August 17, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Intelligence Sigal Mandelker announced financial sanctions against the Burmese military, thus laying critical groundwork for future U.S. action. The sanctions are an invaluable first step — but a first step only — in bringing related U.S. government agencies and decision-makers together to make the difficult but only choice on Burmese genocide.    

U.N Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have denounced Burma’s action as “ethnic cleansing,” calling out the Buddhist majority country for systematic murder and sexual violence against its religious minorities. President Trump has called for an end to “atrocities.”

But the U.S. has stopped short of calling Burma’s crimes against humanity “genocide.” And it matters.

Genocide is less a term of art than it is a term of consequence. Although “ethnic cleansing” is a strong renunciation, “genocide” has legally actionable teeth. Ethnic cleansing is not a crime under the International Criminal Court (ICC); genocide is.  

Since the junta took over the government of Burma in 1962 (renaming it “Myanmar’) it has waged a vicious one-sided war against the Rohingya, a peaceful Muslim minority living in Burma for a thousand years. The military has tacit approval of the Buddhist majority by politicizing Buddhism, and a defense by its civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner currently being stripped of some of her humanitarian awards.

After a wave of strong sanctions by the U.S. in the early 2000s, atrocities curtailed. But from 2009–2016, the harshest punitive actions against Burma were rescinded by President Obama. This indefensible and destabilizing policy shift immediately resulted in increased rape, displacement — and genocide.

The ICC has jurisdiction on genocide based on1948 Geneva Convention guidelines. It proceeds with the assistance of reporting countries and cases cannot be pursued without evidence of “specific intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group by … bringing about its physical destruction.”

It is an exacting definition with a high burden of proof, but modern technology makes validation far easier than in the past.

International human rights groups and Christian missionaries now send live feed over the Internet just with cell phones. Humanitarian aid organizations like the Free Burma Rangers who work closely with Rohingyans and Burmese Christians gather graphic evidence. But the unassailable proof of genocide is satellite intelligence.

Within weeks of the Obama administration reversing sanctions against Burma, satellite images that previously identified clusters of Rohingya villages showed scorched earth. Today, as the Burmese junta sustains its murderous campaign, imagery continues to reveal devastating evidence.  

Satellites have no political affiliations or diplomatic pressures. But if they could talk, they would objectively note that the government of Burma is committing genocide against its Muslim and Christian religious minorities.

When a government condemns another for genocide it is not just words. The accusing government has a legal and moral obligation to intervene on behalf of victims through international court proceedings, sanctions or humanitarian aid. In 2005, President George Bush broke with the U.N. in calling the systematic murder of non-Arabs in the Darfur area of Sudan “genocide,” leading the way for the ICC to indict Sudan’s then-president for genocide.

The problem with government is that it moves like a tortoise in a mud puddle. A very real problem of a genocide designation is that by the time a nation finds the political courage to make it, it is too late.  

The report the Department of State is compiling on the atrocities in Burma is expected to be released very soon, and its contents will surprise no one. It will lay the groundwork for a genocide designation.

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have embraced the non-swamp approach to diplomacy and should not fear calling genocide “genocide” either. It will take a decisive, singular and bold move by this administration to cut the tape and assign this designation to Burma.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims are dead. The Burmese military is now turning its attention and guns on Catholics and Baptist Christians in another part of the country.

How many dead people does it take to make a genocide? Way too many. But in the case of Burma’s atrocities, it will only take one Donald Trump and an eight letter word to start unmaking it.   

Kerri Toloczko is a Senior Policy Fellow at Institute for Liberty, a public policy organization dedicated to limited government, free enterprise and individual pursuit of the American dream. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.