Only a year ago the military junta began a sustained assault on the people of Myanmar’s Rohingya district. Over a period of three months, the generals engaged in a campaign of rape, murder and fire, slaying in cold blood thousands of innocents, and burning more than 300 villages, determined to drive out the Muslims who had lived there for centuries.
The evil campaign worked, leaving the civilized world in disbelief. The military’s terror campaign led to the creation of the world’s largest refugee camp, with more than 1 million Rohingyas now living in Bangladesh exile alone. Another million are scattered throughout Asia and fewer than 400,000 remain in their ancestral homelands.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to mark these dark times in a speech as early as this week. As unbelievable as it may be, there’s an argument over the tea cups in Foggy Bottom over what name to put on what has happened to the Rohingyans. An early draft of his remarks circulating through Foggy Bottom and at the White House includes the bracketed phrase [“hold for determination] in the passage of the speech to describe what happened.
There’s a name for it, and we’re happy to supply it for the timid folk at the State Department. It’s correctly called “genocide.” An aspiring wordsmith can search his thesaurus all day to find a gentle euphemism or artful phrase, but as the poet would say, by any other name, what happened still stinks. The United States spends billions every year to support international organizations that are supposed to prevent genocides. That’s a tragedy but what’s even more tragic is that someone in striped pants values form and stability over freedom, liberty and human dignity, and is determined to prevent Mr. Pompeo from calling genocide what it is.
Regardless of what, if anything, can be done about the crime of the Burmese military, what to call what they did in Rohingya is not open to debate. It was clearly premeditated and coordinated and had the full approval of the military leaders who are the real power in Myanmar. Rohingyas were once considered citizens, as indeed they rightly are. They voted in national elections and elected their own representatives until 1982 when, following a military coup, a new constitution was imposed that stripped them of their fundamental rights. Since then, “an apartheid type legal discrimination against them,” in the words of human-rights observers, has become institutionalized and routine.
That discrimination was one of the reasons the United States first imposed sanctions on Myanmar, sanctions that were having an effect as things did seem to be liberalizing a bit. But nothing recedes like success. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton began lifting the effective sanctions in 2009. She announced that the United States would engage again with the generals.
Events moved quickly. In 2010, Myanmar held its first election in 20 years, and the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party claimed victory. Two years later Mrs. Clinton declared the country open to U.S. investment. Restrictions on multilateral assistance were removed. In 2016 the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary elections.
That sounds like progress, but both eye and ear can be deceived. The generals were at the same time stepping up their savagery on the Rohingyas. They were forced out of the capital, mosques in their homeland were blocked. The rush to flee began. Mrs. Suu-Kyi, whom many hoped could lead Myanmar out of the darkness of dictatorship, was unable to act because the military-crafted constitution prohibits her from becoming president or prime minister. Since the military retains 25 percent of the seats in the parliament, she doesn’t have enough votes to amend the constitution.
Over the opposition of the United Nations, all U.S. sanctions on Myanmar were lifted. The military leadership obviously interpreted this as a “green light” to step up persecution of the Rohingyas.
The Trump administration must send a clear signal that this is not true; that the light is red. Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom, said at the end of a visit to Myanmar, as Burma is now called, “We have to start calling it what it is. This is religious cleansing. It would not be happening were these people not Muslim. If they were Buddhists, in all likelihood this would not be happening today.” He’s dead right, and Secretary Pompeoshould say so when he makes his speech. The United States must call genocide what it is. No euphemisms need apply.