Is Genocide Occurring Against the Rohingya in Myanmar?

This August 30, 2017 photo shows Rohingya refugees reaching for food aid at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhiya near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The International Organization for Migration said August 30 that at least 18,500 Rohingya had crossed into Bangladesh since fighting erupted in Myanmar's neighbouring Rakhine state six days earlier. Getty Images

Amid hurricanes and other crises consuming attention in the United States, many Americans may not have heard about the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Myanmar (also known as Burma).

Over the past two weeks or so, over 120,000 Rohingya people have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh due to ongoing violence, which has included reports of mass killings, among other crimes. The situation is so dire some have gone as far to label what's happening as genocide.

We need every single person - to use your voice. Your platform - to help stop the genocide happening in Myanmar now. #SaveRohingyaMuslims

— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) September 4, 2017

1M #Rohingya at risk of genocide, as army carries out ethnic cleansing. When victims are Muslim, silence of world leaders is defeaning.

— Rula Jebreal (@rulajebreal) September 3, 2017

The Rohingya, who've been described as one of the most persecuted groups on the planet, are a stateless Muslim minority group who live primarily in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. They aren't considered citizens by the Myanmar government, in spite of the fact they've lived Myanmar for generations.

"The lack of status bleeds into all aspects of their lives: they face restrictions on freedom of movement; their rights to health, education and religion; deprivation of their livelihoods; and constant harassment by security forces," Richard Weir, who covers Myanmar for Human Rights Watch, tells Newsweek.

Bangladeshi activists of several Islamic groups shout slogans during a protest rally against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, after Friday prayers in Dhaka on November 25, 2016. Getty Images

Several years ago, religious tensions between Rakhine Buddhist and the Rohingya escalated into intense violence, forcing thousands to flee. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been displaced and UN officials determined more than 1,000 civilians might have been killed by the Myanmar military in late 2016.

More recently, on August 25, Rohingya militants attacked a number of police outposts, killing at least a dozen members of security forces, according to The New York Times. In retaliation, the Myanmar military said it killed roughly 370 militants. But human rights organizations have claimed the violence goes much further than this.

"We're documenting mass killings." @matthewfsmith on @CNN speaking about the crisis in northern Rakhine St, Myanmar

— Fortify Rights (@FortifyRights) September 4, 2017

Remarkable: satellite data picks up 19 major burn sites in Rohingya Muslim villages even though it's monsoon season.

— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) September 5, 2017

The crimes reportedly committed against the Rohingya are unquestionably serious, but do they constitute genocide?

Speaking on the situation in Myanmar during a recent speech in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "There is a genocide there." "Those who close their eyes to this genocide perpetrated under the cover of democracy are its collaborators," he added.

This was was a strong word for Erdogan to use, considering the controversy over the fact the Turkish government has long been unwilling to officially designate the mass killings of Armenians during World War I as "genocide."

Raphael Lemkin -- a lawyer of Polish-Jewish origin who lost most his family during the Holocaust -- coined the term "genocide" after doing extensive research about the crimes Armenians faced from the Ottomans. Genocide is derived from the ancient Greek word "genos," meaning race or tribe, and the Latin "cide," meaning killing.Lemkin defined genocide as "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves."

More officially, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide -- approved by the UN in 1948 -- defines genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

Top UN officials have characterized what's occurring in Myanmar as "ethnic cleansing," but have not used the term "genocide." Unlike genocide, ethnic cleansing has not been designated as an independent crime under international law.

William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, says he has "no doubt" what's occurring to the Rohingya constitutes a crime against humanity, but notes the strict nature of international law makes it difficult to label what's transpired as "genocide."

"From an international law standpoint, it does not seem that we are in the presence of the physical destruction or extermination of a religious or national group but rather a form of persecution and oppression," Schabas says.

Similarly, Andrea Gittleman, program manager for Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide (part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or USHMM), tells Newsweek, "I think it's important to remember genocide is a very specific, very horrible crime."

Referring back to the definition of genocide under international law, Gittleman adds, "It's really hard to determine 'intent' with what's going on Myanmar."

Part of the problem is the fact the Myanmar government and military restrict international investigators and reporters from going to Rakhine state. Accounts of what the Rohingya have been subjected to, Gittleman says, are mostly gathered once they've fled to Bangladesh -- if they make it there.

This makes it hard to know exactly what's occurring to the Rohingya and therefore difficult to label the crimes they're being subjected to.

With that said, Gittleman says the USHMM remains "extremely worried" about the situation in Myanmar. She notes the museum first raised concerns of genocide in the country in 2015, adding, "The current violence raises even higher alarms about the risk of genocide."

Major human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International express similar views.

Weir notes Human Rights Watch has in the past determined "the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya community in Rakhine State amounted to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." But he also says Human Rights Watch has not reached the conclusion that what is currently occurring in Myanmar constitutes genocide.

Correspondingly, Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's crisis response director, tells Newsweek, "the violations by security forces [in Myanmar] may have amounted to crimes against humanity."

But Hassan also contends the "different terminology" used to refer to what's happening to the Rohingya isn't as important as bringing an "end to the current campaign of violence, and [addressing] the long-term discrimination that has cemented discrimination against Rohingya for decades."

"The recent military campaign makes it all the more clear that international engagement and pressure on Myanmar to end rights violations is urgently needed," Hassan adds.

When questioned about the situation in Myanmar, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department did not specifically address the discussion of genocide, but tells Newsweek, "The United States is in close contact with Burma's government about the situation in Rakhine and have publicly and privately discussed this issue at the highest levels," adding, "As government and security forces act to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice, we urge them to do so in a way that is consistent with the rule of law and that respects human rights."

Based on comments from the USHMM, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others, the U.S. government and the international community more generally could arguably be doing far more to pressure Myanmar's government to cooperate with efforts to stop the violence against the Rohingya.

Both Weir and Gittleman both pointed to the vital need for Myanmar's government to allow a UN-mandated fact-finding mission to enter the country to investigate abuses and violations, which it has not yet permitted.

It's important to note the government in Myanmar does not control the military, but that doesn't mean it can't influence the current situation. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's iconic de facto leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has been heavily criticized for not taking a more forceful, vocal stance on this issue. Some seem to feel her legacy is already tarnished irrevocably over her silence on the plight of the Rohingya.

It's hard to say whether a more impassioned plea from the international community for Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out would change much, but it certainly couldn't hurt.