Bearing Witness from the Historic Rohingya Genocide Hearings

This week, the world is watching as the Burmese State (Myanmar) stands accused of crimes of genocide against the Rohingya people, a religious and ethnic minority in Burma persecuted because of their identity. I had the privilege of joining several AJWS Rohingya allies and grantees to bear witness to this historic trial.

The Gambia has brought this case to the International Court of Justice—the highest court in the world—on behalf of the Rohingya people. For hours, the country’s legal team laid out evidence against officials in the Burmese military: accounts of executions, rapes, homes set ablaze, villages razed to the ground—to name just a few of the horrors.

This evidence paints a picture of what the world already knows: the Burmese military carried out a carefully planned and orchestrated campaign of genocide against the Rohingya people, attempting to erase an entire group from the country. There are haunting echoes of Jewish history in the descriptions of these atrocities.

Defending the Indefensible

The world also watched as Burma’s State Counsellor—the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—audaciously defended her country’s military, shielding the perpetrators of these unspeakable crimes from international accountability. Those with whom I was watching the testimony audibly gasped as the Burmese legal team challenged claims of genocide because the Rohingya death count couldn’t be proved. Insiders know that it can’t be proved because the Burmese government has continually denied access to independent investigators. The hypocrisy was stunning.

Still image from the livestream of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s testimony before the International Court of Justice.

‘Reclaim our Humanity’

While the legal teams from The Gambia and Burma present their cases in the Peace Palace, Rohingya activists have been making their voices heard elsewhere in The Hague. At a nearby event organized by several human rights groups, Yasmin Ullah—a Rohingya activist who, as a child, fled Rakhine state to escape violence and persecution—told the standing-room-only crowd, “this case is important because we get to reclaim our humanity.”

Rohingya activists speak out in The Hague. Photo by Palkyi Tenzin

For nearly two hours, Rohingya leaders at the same event responded to what they had heard in the legal proceedings. Tun Khin, President of AJWS-grantee Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) and a Rohingya activist living in exile, lamented that Aung San Suu Kyi won’t even say the name “Rohingya”: “We have contributed to our country, building the very foundation of Burma… She didn’t even use our identity today in her statement… It’s totally unacceptable.”

The Rohingya people are not the only ethnic minority facing persecution and violence in Burma. Ms. Ullah acknowledged this and asserted the importance of standing in solidarity with other oppressed minorities and working to stop discrimination against all people:

Rohingya and Kachin activists outside of the Peace Palace in The Hague. Photo by Palkyi Tenzin.

“I don’t want any more lives to be lost. We have lost enough…I don’t want this to happen to any of my Karen, Kachin, Shan and Rakhine brothers and sisters.”

AJWS is proud to stand with Rohingya leaders around the world who are fighting for justice. We fund local organizations providing relief to those struggling to survive in temporary camps in Bangladesh, and we support Rohingya activists who speak out on Capitol Hill and at the UN. We’re also leading the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network (JRJN), a coalition of 25 organizations that has mobilized hundreds of rabbis and thousands of individuals to press for justice for the Rohingya people. And we’ll continue to press for justice until the Rohingya people achieve the full freedom and equality that is their right.

Tenzin Palkyi is the Senior Policy Advisor for Civil and Political Rights at American Jewish World Service.