These remarks were delivered at the Simon-Skjodt Center's June 21, 2023 event, Living Under Threat: Civilians Across Burma.
Good morning. I am Naomi Kikoler, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
It is an honor to welcome you to the Museum. As an institution that understands all too intimately the cost of indifference—we seek to put a spotlight on communities that are neglected, and that are experiencing or at risk of mass atrocities. In doing so, we aim to do for communities today what was not done for the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. We are here today to discuss one of the most urgent crises of our time, a crisis that has persisted in one iteration or another for decades: the plight of civilians across Burma.
The Museum began working on Burma in 2013, when we highlighted our concerns regarding threats against the Rohingya community in the country, and sounded the alarm about the risk of genocide. At a time when Burma was emerging from military dictatorship, the Rohingya—an ethnic and religious minority—remained at great risk. Rampant hate speech, impunity for past crimes, and discriminatory and violent efforts to push Rohingya out of the country’s political, social, and cultural life stood in stark contrast to the world’s embrace of the country’s initial transition to democracy. The US and other countries' default position was that by advancing democracy there would be an inevitable improvement in the plight of the Rohingya and other persecuted communities. That assumption proved dangerously wrong.
The Tatmadaw, Burma’s military, attacked Rohingya civilians, using their infamous brutality that had traumatized Rohingya and others in the past. The devastation of those attacks was harrowing, and included mass killing, rape, torture, arson, and arbitrary arrest and detention. More than 700,000 people were displaced, swelling camps in Bangladesh where Rohingya now face a precarious future.
As our exhibition Burma’s Path to Genocide shows, and as civil society leaders from across Burma will attest, the genocide of the Rohingya was predictable and preventable. The Tatmadaw had for decades earlier committed systematic and widespread attacks against civilians in many areas of the country. Survivors and others are fighting for justice, but in Burma, impunity has persisted.
Over two years ago, the Tatmadaw—the same military that committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya—seized power from the country’s elected leaders. Since then, the military has attacked civilians across the country, from health workers to children to protesters to concertgoers. Since the coup in February 2021, the military has killed approximately 3000 people, and over one million people have been displaced. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Tom Andrews has characterized these attacks as crimes against humanity and war crimes. Ethnic and religious minority groups have been targeted since the coup, and for decades before.
The UN Fact-Finding Mission stated in its 2018 final report, several years before the coup, that Burmese military leaders should be investigated and prosecuted for crimes against humanity and war crimes for its attacks against civilians in Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine State. The Fact-Finding Mission report said that these crimes are “shocking for the level of denial, normalcy, and impunity that is attached to them. The Tatmadaw’s contempt for human life, integrity and freedom, and for international law generally, should be a cause of concern for the entire population.”
While the crimes in Burma may no longer feature in international headlines, we are honored to hear today from experts who are doing all they can to stem the Tatmadaw’s attacks on civilians and protect their communities from future harm. We are joined here today by civil society leaders from various communities in Burma who have experienced mass atrocities, and who have been tirelessly working to document mass atrocities and share this information with the world. We want to hear from this diverse group about what US-Burma policy has meant for their communities, and what future steps could be to ensure safety and justice for civilians across Burma.
Watch the full event: