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Simon-Skjodt Center Testifies at House Foreign Affairs Hearing on Burma

Andrea Gittleman, Program Manager at the Simon-Skjodt Center, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Asia Subcommittee at a hearing titled "Burma's Brutal Campaign Against the Rohingya." The Simon-Skjodt Center expressed alarm at the crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority in Burma. The full testimony is available below, and the Simon-Skjodt Center's previous work on Burma is available here.

Thank you, Chairman Yoho and Ranking Member Sherman, for convening this hearing on such an urgent matter.

I speak on behalf of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. We draw upon lessons learned from the Holocaust, and the failure to prevent genocide then, in order to inform policy decisions today. It is with great alarm that we are here to discuss yet another situation of mass atrocities that the world is failing to prevent and local authorities are refraining from halting.

The Simon-Skjodt Center sounded the alarm about early warning signs of genocide against the Rohingya two years ago. Even then, the warning signs were clear – including the denial of citizenship, segregation between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhine, and impunity for violence against Rohingya. In fact, Burma has been listed as one of the top three countries most likely to experience a state-led mass killing in the Museum’s early warning project, in every year since the project began.

The warnings signs were known, yet not heeded, by leaders within Burma and others around the world. During a recent period of renewed international engagement, the Burmese government perpetuated an enabling environment for mass atrocities.

Over the past year, the Simon-Skjodt Center worked with the human rights organization Fortify Rights to gather testimony from Rohingya who have fled northern Rakhine State. Deadly attacks by a group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) were followed by the Burmese military’s so-called “clearance operations” – operations that the government stated were to address the threat of militants, but in practice were brutal and disproportionate attacks against Rohingya civilians.

Those who survived shared stories that consistently describe the brutality of the Burmese military and their associates, how they attack entire villages and kill men, women, and children, and employ barbaric tactics such as rape and torture, under the guise of countering militants. I spoke to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh earlier this year after the first round of these “clearance operations,” and people shared with me horrific stories of witnessing soldiers murder their family members, of fleeing for their lives not knowing of the fate of their loved ones. Women shared disturbing details of sexual violence, that appears to have been systematically perpetrated.

While the threat posed by ARSA and any militant group should be taken seriously, the greatest risk to civilians in Rakhine State today is coming from the Burmese military.

We are witnessing the commission of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing on a horrific scale. Without an immediate end to atrocity crimes and the creation of safe conditions so that those displaced can voluntarily return in the future, we will witness a brutally effective campaign to rid all Rohingya from Burma.

There is mounting evidence that genocide is happening in Burma. There needs to be additional investigation on the intent of perpetrators in order to make a definitive legal declaration of genocide. The Burmese government is currently blocking efforts to investigate these crimes, but the US has the ability to support such an investigation in order to bring the full truth to light.  

While investigations should move forward, by the time an investigation can be made into genocidal intent, it may be too late. We should not wait for a formal legal finding of genocide before taking action.

The military is the primary perpetrator of mass atrocities, and should be pressed with all of our available resources to cease its illegal campaign against Rohingya civilians. While the most urgent demand is for mass atrocities to cease, we must also address the underlying policies and institutions that allowed such crimes to occur.

The ultimate responsibility for de-escalating the current cycle of violence and protecting the lives and freedom of Burma’s minority populations rests with the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

As a basic principle, we should not fear pressing democratically elected leaders to squarely confront mass atrocities within their country. We can understand the nature of Burma’s democratic transition and the outsized role the military continues to play, while at the same time expecting moral responses from its civilian-led government. The US Congress does not need to choose between stopping mass atrocities and supporting a democratic government. After all, a democracy in which mass atrocities are occurring is still unacceptable.