In October 2017, not long after being ousted from Myanmar's Northern Rakhine State in the midst of the mounting Rohingya crisis, I penned a controversial article in Al-Jazeera English titled, rather bluntly, "What's Happening in Myanmar is Genocide."
At the time I was moved to write by the things I had seen in Myanmar as well as the things I continued to hear from Rohingya contacts on the ground. From an international legal perspective, it was clear to me not only that Myanmar was engaging—indeed, had been engaging for years, if not decades—in at least four of the five Genocidal Acts outlined in the 1948 Genocide Convention. How, then was this not obviously a genocide? And where was the international community of States—whose obligation it was under the Genocide Convention—to act to stop such mass atrocities once they are recognized as such?
In this regard, my article was influenced at least in part by Samantha Power's excellent book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (first published in 2002). Though her work largely predated the rampant proliferation of hate speech via social media that we see fueling intercommunal conflicts today (a topic I also hope to write on soon), one key takeaway has remained with me: namely, that for all the world's lofty post-Holocaust "never again" rhetoric, States—and especially the United States—are consistently willing to perform mind-bending linguistic backflips to avoid using the term "genocide": for to do so would obligate them to act.
It was perhaps in part because of this realpolitik factor—and unbeknownst to me then—that, I soon learned, mine was supposedly the first article in a major global news outlet to label the situation of the Rohingya a "genocide" under international law. And in the days and weeks that followed, countless similar articles cropped up across numerous international publications.
Of course, I certainly do not credit myself with being the first to recognize the Rohingya genocide as such; many others both within and outside the Rohingya community have long been well-attuned to the looming crisis. In 2015, for instance, the International State Crime Initiative released a critical report, "Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar," in which they warned that "the marked escalation in State-sponsored stigmatization, discrimination, violence and segregation, and the systematic weakening of the community, make precarious the very existence of the Rohingya." And in 2016, Dr. Azeem Ibrahim published a book on the topic: The Rohingya's: Inside Myanmar's Genocide. To go even further back, in 2012, friend and fellow activist Dr. Maung Zarni wrote to the then-Ambassador warning of the dangers facing the nation's Rohingya population.
Still, I am sure there are many others who recognized the genocidal nature of Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya—perhaps even labeling it "genocide" under international law, and perhaps even earlier than I or my peers mentioned here. Were you one of them, or do you know of anyone who was? If so, please comment or contact me directly: let's be in touch!