In this photograph taken on October 21, 2016, armed Myanmar soldiers patrol a village in Maungdaw in Rakhine state as security operations continued after the October 9, 2016, attacks by armed Muslim militants. Photo: AFP

The clock is ticking down to a May 23 deadline for Myanmar’s government to provide demonstrable evidence that it has taken substantive action in the first four months of 2020 to protect its Rohingya minority from genocide.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) imposed that deadline in January in response to The Gambia’s petition for “provisional measures” to protect the Rohingya from “real and imminent risk” of genocide by Myanmar authorities.

Those provisional measures are the ICJ’s first response to The Gambia’s official complaint of Myanmar’s violations of the United Nations’ Genocide Convention. The complaint cited the extreme violence that the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, along with Border Security Guard units and armed Buddhist Rakhine civilians, unleashed against Muslim Rohingya civilians in late 2017.

The ICJ decision imposed a series of obligations on the Myanmar government linked to a specific timetable for detailing its efforts to meet those benchmarks. The obligations include “taking all measures within its power to prevent” actions that meet the legal definition of acts of genocide and to ensure that the Myanmar military “do not commit acts of genocide, or of conspiracy to commit genocide, of direct and public incitement to commit genocide, of attempt to commit genocide, or of complicity in genocide.”

In addition, the government must “take effective measures to prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of any evidence related to allegations of acts within the scope of Article II of the Genocide Convention.”

Unfortunately for the Rohingya, there is little evidence that Myanmar has undertaken any meaningful effort to meet the ICJ benchmarks.

An April 8 presidential directive specifies that all “military or other security forces, or civil services and local people under its control or direction do not commit [genocidal] acts.” The directive also mandates that the office of the president be notified of any person “attempting, conspiring to or inciting the commission of or being complicit in any such acts.”

It looks good on paper – but it ignores the pervasive culture of impunity that has been the Tatmadaw’s modus operandi for decades and the government’s abject failure to date to bring to account any Tatmadaw personnel implicated in the mass killings of Rohingya civilians.

The integrity of the presidential directive is also questionable, given the Myanmar government’s unbridled hostility to The Gambia’s ICJ complaint, particularly its refusal to acknowledge the Rohingya by name in the hearing, and its dismissal of the ICJ ruling in January as an “unsubstantiated condemnation.”

That’s despite the extensively documented widespread and systematic targeting of Rohingya civilians by Myanmar’s security forces in a weeks-long violence spree that started on August 25, 2017. That’s when security forces overran hundreds of Rohingya villages, massacring thousands of their residents, reportedly gang-raping thousands more, and burning their homes to the ground.

As of January this year, the violence and ongoing abuses had killed at least 10,000 Rohingya civilians and prompted about 740,000 others to flee for their lives to Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain. Some 600,000 Rohingya civilians still inside Rakhine state remain at risk of further genocidal acts, according to the UN’s Fact-Finding Mission.

Meanwhile, facts on the ground suggest that the Tatmadaw’s so-called “clearance operations” in both Rakhine and Chin states remain business as usual in terms of the authorities’ blatant disregard for human rights.

The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, on April 29 accused Myanmar’s government of exploiting the international focus on the Covid-19 pandemic “to escalate its assault in Rakhine state, targeting the civilian population.”

Lee accused the Tatmadaw of military operations that have inflicted death and suffering on Rakhine ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya, Mro, Daignet and Chin populations. Those operations have prompted human rights organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights, to issue urgent guidelines to Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to protect ethnic minorities from the threat of the coronavirus.  

For the past three years, Myanmar’s government has deployed a strategy of denial and obstruction that has blocked international investigators as well as Yanghee Lee from accessing Rakhine to undertake independent probes of the slaughter of 2017. Satellite images have revealed that the locations of former Rohingya villages in Rakhine have been “flattened and scraped by bulldozers.”

In what appears to be a blatant attempt to erase the physical remnants of the dead or fled Rohingya, those villages have been replaced by facilities for the security forces as well as hundreds of new homes built for mostly Buddhist residents from other areas of Rakhine.

May 23 is a day of reckoning for the Myanmar government. It has the choice of finally submitting to meaningful international accountability processes that will protect the Rohingya and help pave the way to justice for their suffering – or it can maintain its diplomatic defensive crouch of denial and deceit that will only reinforce its international status as a murderous pariah state. 

Phelim Kine is the director of research and investigations at Physicians for Human Rights and a former deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. He is also an adjunct professor in the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York.

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