Newsweek: One Year On, Rohingya Path Out of Genocide Remains Unclear

This op-ed was originally published in Newsweek.

Today marks one year since the United States made an official determinationthat the Myanmar military committed genocide against the Rohingya people—and one year since U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed to “a path out of genocide.” It was a significant moment and one that has helped to spur several useful actions.

But a year later, with more than 1 million Rohingya refugees still living outside their homeland, the very military responsible for the genocide is still wreaking havoc across Myanmar. The Rohingya’s path out of genocide has been far from clear.

A year ago, the two of us, a Myanmar-born Rohingya activist now living in the United Kingdom and a refugee advocate in Washington, sat before Secretary Blinken and alongside several prominent Rohingya activists to mark the genocide determination as a historic and profound step. From the camps, Rohingya who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh told us how much it meant to them for the crimes committed against them to be recognized and for the United States to declare its willingness to act.

In the days and weeks that followed, the U.S. government took several meaningful actions. It provided $2 million in support of an investigative mechanism to collect evidence of the genocide, and other atrocities committed against other minority groups and ordinary citizens who protested Myanmar’s 2021 coup. Washington levied additional sanctions against, among others, arms dealers, Myanmar’s Air Force brass, and leaders of the country’s oil and gas sector. It has stepped up engagement with opposition leaders, particularly following the passage late last year of parts of the BURMA Act, which authorized new sanctions and other steps, and insisted that the Rohingya be included in a future democratic Myanmar. Most tangibly, the United States and Bangladesh agreed to begin resettling some Rohingya refugees to the United States.

These are all welcome steps that the genocide determination helped to drive forward. But they are not nearly enough. The 978,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, inhabiting the world’s largest refugee settlement, face dire conditions—rising insecurity, fires, and significant funding cuts to their basic food rations. The government of Bangladesh allowed U.N. agencies and humanitarian organizations to provide formal education and skills-building. But it continues to restrict access to quality education and formal employment opportunities—necessities if the Rohingya are to build self-reliance.

A smaller, but significant, number of Rohingya refugees are facing similar challenges in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and India. Those countries are failing to uphold the most basic of protections for Rohingya refugees—by refusing to let them disembark from their boats or seek asylum, or by threatening them with indefinite detention and even deportation back to Myanmar. Despite the positive news on the U.S.-Bangladesh resettlement agreement, fewer than 100 Rohingya have been resettled to date.

The ultimate goal in pursuing a path out of genocide must be to create the conditions conducive to safe, voluntary, and sustainable return of Rohingya to their homeland in Myanmar. This will require stepped up, coordinated international pressure on the military junta, including through further sanctions on the oil and gas sector and imports of aviation fuel that allows them to carry out devastating air strikes on civilians. Diplomatic efforts must be sustained in the U.N. Security Council, even if China and Russia block strong action, to keep attention on the Rohingya and others suffering in Myanmar. Both at the Security Council and in bilateral engagements, the United States must champion measures like a global arms embargo, better coordinated sanctions, and referral of the junta’s crimes to the International Criminal Court. Washington must also work with allies in Southeast Asia to increase pressure and avoid legitimization of the junta.

In the meantime, Washington must do more to support and enable Rohingya refugees. As we wrote last year, if the United States is to truly support the survivors of genocide, it must help them build their lives back.

At a minimum, this means delivering sustained and life-saving aid to the refugees, and assuring that they will not be forcibly returned to Myanmar. The United States should host a global pledging conference for aid to Rohingya refugees and to others in Myanmar facing the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the junta. It should try to expand work and education opportunities for Rohingya refugees, both in the camps and across South and Southeast Asia, through scholarship exchanges or remote learning options. It should also lean on allies to oppose forcible return of any Rohingya to Myanmar—and agree to welcome more of them into the United States. The numbers would remain modest, but it would make all the difference in the world to the individuals given a new life.

As one refugee recently told us, even if he isn’t among those chosen, every resettled refugee will bring another voice of the Rohingya out into the world.

The path out of genocide should not lead through fire, violence, and desperate journeys by sea, nor send its victims back to living under a murderous regime.

Tun Khin is a leading Rohingya activist, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, and is a member of Refugees International’s advisory council. He has filed a universal jurisdiction case in Argentina against the Myanmar military and civilian government for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Daniel P. Sullivan is the director for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East at Refugees International.

Cover Photo: Rohingya refugees watch ICJ proceedings at a restaurant in a refugee camp on December 12, 2019 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images.