Rohingya refugees welcome US decision to call Myanmar atrocities a genocide

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have welcomed the announcement by the US that it considers the violent repression of their largely Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar a genocide.

“We are very happy on the declaration of the genocide; many many thanks,” said 60-year-old Sala Uddin, who lives at Kutupalong camp, one of the many in Cox’s Bazar district that are now home to about 1 million Rohingya.

“It has been 60 years starting from 1962 that the Myanmar government has been torturing us and many other communities including Rohingya,” he said. “I think a path to take action by the international community against Myanmar has opened up because of the declaration.”

The US made the determination on Monday to call the repression a genocide based on confirmed accounts of mass atrocities on civilians by Myanmar’s military in a widespread and systematic campaign against the Rohingya, US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said in a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Imtiaz Ahmed, director of the Centre for Genocide Studies at the University of Dhaka, said the declaration was “a positive step,” but it would be important to see what actions and “concrete steps” follow.

“Just by saying that genocide had been committed in Myanmar against the Rohingya is not good enough. I think we need to see what would follow from that statement,” Ahmed said.

He said it was too early to say how the new development would ensure the recognition of Rohingya refugees, who have long been denied citizenship in Myanmar, and the fundamental questions remained how and when they would go back to Myanmar.

He also said that harsh economic sanctions by the US against Myanmar could be the next outcome. He said it was also equally important to see whether the US would take an interest in supporting the international court of justice in The Hague where Myanmar is facing a trial put forward by the Gambia.

Myanmar’s government is already under multiple layers of US sanctions since a military coup ousted the democratically elected government in February 2021. Thousands of civilians throughout the country have been killed and imprisoned as part of ongoing repression of anyone opposed to the ruling junta.

Currently Bangladesh is hosting more than 1 million Rohingya refugees. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the military launched an operation aimed at clearing them from the country following attacks by a rebel group.

Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, said repeatedly that their repatriation to Myanmar is the solution to the crisis but Bangladesh would not force them to leave Bangladesh.

The early days of the genocide were marked by widespread use of Facebook to organise and incite the killings. In 2018, the social network acknowledged its role for the first time, and committed to improving its moderation efforts in the country. But an investigation from Global Witness found that the company is still falling short of those promises.

The charity wrote and submitted eight explicit and violent adverts to the social network, each containing real examples of Burmese-language hate speech against Rohingya. The adverts were designed to clearly fall under Facebook’s criteria of hate speech, and should have been banned from the platform, but all eight were approved for publishing.

“It is unacceptable that Facebook continues to be shockingly poor at detecting Burmese language hate speech. If they still can’t do this in Myanmar after five years of supposed efforts, what are the chances that their own voluntary efforts will be enough to avoid contributing to atrocities in Ukraine and other conflict zones,” said Ava Lee, digital threats to democracy campaign lead at Global Witness.

None of the adverts were shown to the public, after Global Witness intervened to prevent them being published.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We’ve built a dedicated team of Burmese speakers, banned the Tatmadaw, disrupted networks manipulating public debate and taken action on harmful misinformation to help keep people safe. We’ve also invested in Burmese-language technology to reduce the prevalence of violating content. This work is guided by feedback from experts, civil society organisations and independent reports, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s findings and the independent Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned and released in 2018.”