Kerry Kennedy. Photo: AFP / Angela Weiss

I have spent the last 10 days in Myanmar and Bangladesh, speaking with refugees, IDPs, members of the Rakhine and Rohingya community, human rights defenders and government officials about the massive attacks on the Rohingya people.

Our interest in Myanmar is based on our support for all the people of that great country, who seek democracy, peace, and a society based on a common understanding of humanity. We consider ourselves friends of Myanmar. We do not want this great country to return to the bad old days of isolation and unrelenting sanctions. We believe that both the United States and Myanmar will be best served by increasing the strength of our relationship, including in trade, aid, and military cooperation.

But none of that can happen until the elements of Myanmar security forces are held accountable for the crimes it has committed. Aspirations for a more free and prosperous country, connected to the West, cannot be realized in the context of genocide and impunity for the perpetrators of that terrible crime.

Overwhelming evidence

Everything we heard from Rohingya women and men, both in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and the Internally Displaced Person camps in Rakhine State, Myanmar, as well as all the evidence we have seen, point to genocide. Nothing we heard from government sources credibly rebutted that overwhelming evidence.

We spent two days taking testimonies from survivors in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee camp on earth, on the southern tip of Bangladesh. The camp is a spaghetti bowl of narrow alleys, dotted with rudimentary shelters precariously clinging to slippery slopes, seemingly ready to slide.

Drenched and covered in mud, my daughter Cara and I carefully hung our umbrellas on the bamboo rafters outside one of the more stable huts, removed sludge-soaked sneakers and socks and entered a pristine room, cleared of all furnishings save a few mats, the thatched walls protected from rain by blue tarps stamped “made in So Korea.”

We sat on the floor along with five women dressed in burkhas, their heads draped in hijabs. Two were our young Rohingya interpreters, both students aspiring for university degrees, their faces open and bright, their English, learned in the camp, flawless — a tribute to their thirst for knowledge in a place where most schooling ends after the fifth grade. Three women, newly arrived to the camps, greeted us warmly, carefully unhitched their veils, and told us about their families, the homes they fled, their lives in the camps.

We talked for hours, interrupted only when the monsoon rains pounded the tin roof with such force we could not hear one another. Children peaked through paneless windows. A curious but shy toddler wrapped himself in the colorful drape that served as a doorway to an adjoining room. When a tray of coffee and biscuits passed through the curtain, he carefully unfurled himself, and briefly joined our small circle, emboldened by the lure of a sweet treat.

A woman who I will call M is 36 years old. She said: “My home is near a security forces outpost. On August 25 at 12pm the security forces starting shooting. They shot all day and night, and finally stopped at 5am. I saw them kill 12 people at the outpost alone. They burned our village, and when people ran from their burning homes they captured the beautiful women. I knew it was for rape. They didn’t rape me, I think because I speak Rakhine and work as a translator. I knew two women taken by the police. When I inquired about the women, I heard that the women were dead.”

T arrived on August 27 last year. She said when the military came to her village they burned all the homes. She saw them rape three women. As they left the village, she said: “Security forces just started shooting people. They killed two little children who were running away.”

J arrived on August 29. She was at home when soldiers burned her village and started shooting her friends.

Horrific accounts

Elsewhere at Cox’s, another woman told us she was raped by many soldiers. She said she is always in pain and is still bleeding — then she lifted her dress and showed us the fresh blood on her slip. One after another, women told us the details of their terror, of watching in horror as soldiers burned their villages, gang-raped women, murdered men and boys, raped girls – 5, 6, 7 years old, set flames to mosques, rounded people up and threw their bodies into mass graves.

While Cara and I spoke with women, our colleagues from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights spoke with men, and heard horrific reports of mass graves, burned villages, children tortured, parents forced to watch soldiers gang-rape daughters and wives, a breastfeeding woman’s infant torn from her arms and tossed into a pyre.

Each woman told us about their lives, their families, their children, their loved ones raped, murdered, their homes destroyed, their communities burnt to the ground. And then each one talked about what they wanted — to return home. To be finally given the citizenship papers denied them by successive Myanmar regimes.

To have good schools for their children and access to healthy food for their families. To be allowed to move freely throughout their country. To enjoy the protection of the police, and the respect and friendship of their neighbors. The Rohingya are indigenous to Myanmar and are tied to the land in Rakhine State in a profound way. Bangladesh is not their home, and they wish to return as soon as it is safe.

Absurd lies

As the report released today by Fortify Rights documents in meticulous detail, the Myanmar government can no longer stand behind the absurd lies that Rohingya burned their own villages en masse and decided on their own accord to risk their lives traveling to Bangladesh.   

The facts are clear. Starting in early 2017, The Myanmar military deployed soldiers across Northern Rakhine State, went door to door, confiscating weapons and sharp objects that might be used as weapons, systematically “disarming” the Rohingya population.

At the same time, the military trained and armed local non-Rohingya ethnic citizens near Rohingya villages. They tore down fences and barriers around Rohingya homes, giving attackers better line of sight to facilitate attacks. And they limited access to food for Rohingyas, weakening the Rohingya people. These are some of the many actions they took when they were preparing to launch a full-scale slaughter.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights is grateful for the meticulous research and bold vision of Matthew and Amy Smith and the extraordinary team of human rights defenders at Fortify Rights.

What happened last August is shocking, but it’s not surprising to the human rights defenders who have been documenting abuses committed by the government of Myanmar across the country and in Rakhine state in particular. This horrific violence is just the latest in a series of attacks building up across the decades. Attacks for which, while perpetrated by the Myanmar military, the international community bears a certain responsibility.

No one who ever walked through a holocaust museum can credibly claim to be shocked. The failure to hold the Myanmar military responsible for abuses has emboldened them to commit crimes of increasing severity. The only question before us now is, will we allow the latest round of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people to go unpunished once again, or will we finally stand together in the international community against genocide in Myanmar? 

Failure to act is license to slaughter others

Thousands have already perished. For others, the failure to act now will have grave implications. Myanmar includes well over 100 indigenous ethnic peoples comprising at least 35% of the nation’s population. The Myanmar military has a long history of targeting indigenous peoples with complete impunity and then profiting off of stealing their natural resources, including jade and silver from Kachin, minerals from Shan, and natural gas from Rakhine. License to slaughter one group is license to slaughter others.

The failure to hold the perpetrators responsible and place the military under civilian control represents an ongoing threat to tens of thousands of the indigenous people of Myanmar and a threat of destabilization in the region. Every border country runs the risk of being compelled to accept tens of thousands of fleeing refugees.

Some are fearful of calling the attacks what they are. Let me be clear: This is genocide. This is consistent with the findings of others. On more than one occasion, including to the Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights invoked the crime of genocide with regard to the recent violations against the Rohingya. UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee said the situation “bears the hallmark of genocide.” Pramilla Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence, likened the army’s systemic rape of women to genocide. Today, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights is calling for international justice.

It’s well past time to argue over the terms ethnic cleansing, mass atrocities or genocide — as if one label leads to action and a lesser one means we somehow can evade responsibility. It’s not hard to see that the authorities have demonstrated an intent to kill or exile the Rohingya. And it’s still happening.

Risk of repeated attacks

We must investigate, prosecute, and finally hold the rapists and butchers accountable. From Germany to Cambodia, from Bosnia to Rwanda, again and again we have learned the same lesson — until there’s accountability, the risk of repeated attacks of increasing severity is not just likely, it’s guaranteed.

There are at least 900,000 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh and thousands more in IDP camps Myanmar. Many more Rohingya live in extreme vulnerability scattered throughout Rakhine State and across Myanmar, wondering when their homes will be burned and worse.

We will not rest until every single person is able to return to their homes in safety and security, and until they are finally able to lay claim to the citizenship that Myanmar has systemically denied them ever since 1982.

This will not be an easy task. Countries of conscience will have to pressure China, who is playing a destructive role in Myanmar. ASEAN countries will have to abandon their failed policy of non-interference. The United States and other governments must apply targeted sanctions to those who committed gross violations of human rights and international crimes.

International Criminal Court

The United Nations Security Council must refer cases of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity to the International Criminal Court. And for the Rohingya to safely return to their homes, Myanmar will have to amend the law to provide full citizenship to this distinct and indigenous ethnic group, rebuild Rakhine State, return people to their homes and rebuild trust between embattled communities.

The United States has a central role to play. Yet when we inquired about U.S. intentions of holding perpetrators responsible and using the full weight of the US diplomatic corps to push for accountability on attacks against the Rohingya and civilian control of the military, we were dismayed by the response. A senior American diplomatic told our delegation that, the US government is taking a “small-ball approach”. This is completely insufficient.

The scale and the viciousness of the attacks against the Rohingya requires a commensurate international response. The Myanmar military calculated that they could get away with perpetrating a genocide with little to no consequences; it’s our job — all of us — to show them that they were wrong. And to stand with the vast majority of the people of Myanmar who seek a just and peaceful world.

Kerry Kennedy is a lawyer, human rights activist and president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. She is the daughter of former US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and niece of former president John F. Kennedy. She gave the following address at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok on Thursday, July 19, 2018. It was part of a presentation to coincide with the launch of a report by Fortify Rights entitled ‘They Gave Them Long Swords, Preparations for Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar.’

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Kerry Kennedy

Kerry Kennedy is a lawyer, human rights activist and president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. She is the daughter of former US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and niece of former president John F. Kennedy.

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