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Opinion At long last, the U.S. recognizes what the Rohingya already knew

Rohingya refugees walk through a shallow canal after crossing the Naf River as they flee violence in Myanmar to reach Bangladesh in Palongkhali near Ukhia on Oct. 16, 2017. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)

Wai Wai Nu is a human rights and democracy activist, a former political prisoner, a visiting senior research fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California in Berkeley’s School of Law, and the founder and executive director of the Women’s Peace Network in Myanmar.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken officially declared that the U.S. government defines the crimes perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya people as a genocide.

For me and many other Rohingya, this is an epochal moment. For too long, we have felt abandoned by the world. For years, we pleaded for help — but our calls went unanswered. The violence and suffering we endured were compounded by the realization that so much of the world preferred to look away. This collective memory has further traumatized us. How could no one care when they burned down our homes and slaughtered our people? How could the international community close its eyes when hundreds of thousands of us were forced to flee our country?

Blinken’s announcement has important legal implications. That the world’s leading power has finally acknowledged our experience gives us hope that our oppressors will one day be held accountable for the crimes they have perpetrated against us. But it is also important to understand the moral and emotional impact of the U.S. government’s move. For many of us, it feels as though the pain and trauma of a generation are now being recognized in their entirety.

Those of us who experienced the 2017 campaign of terror that drove nearly 1 million of our people — two-thirds of the total Rohingya population — out of Myanmar and into exile never had any doubt that we were victims of genocide. Detailed accounts from Rohingya victims, as well as reports from the United Nations’ Independent International Fact-Finding Mission and many human rights organizations, have confirmed this. And yet our collective trauma has been ignored, denied and minimized.

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For decades, we have suffered at the hands of the Myanmar military, which has stripped us of our citizenship, denied us our basic rights to give birth or marry, and deprived us of access to education, health and livelihood. Myanmar troops have tortured, raped and killed our people.

Today, more than 800,000 Rohingya struggle to survive life-threatening conditions in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh. Across Southeast Asia, more and more of these refugees risk their lives in the search for a semblance of humanity, only to confront hate speech and discrimination. They are sometimes arrested for “illegal entry” and threatened with deportation back to Myanmar — where the remnants of our people live under siege by the perpetrators of the genocide.

Since the February 2021 military coup, the roughly 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar have faced an increasing risk of being subjected to further atrocities. The Myanmar junta, responsible for widespread killings, arrests and other acts of brutality, is now poised to launch a final assault on those who remain. As reported by survivors in Rohingya communities inside the country, the Myanmar military has issued more apartheid-like policies, including official orders prohibiting Rohingya from leaving their townships and imprisoning those who violate this arbitrary rule. Earlier this month, my organization, the Women’s Peace Network, found that the junta has arrested more than 856 Rohingya — of which more than 60 percent are women and children — for allegedly violating such policies.

Although it is past time for our genocide to be recognized for what it is, I am thankful for this week’s action by the United States. My seven-year imprisonment as a political prisoner, as well as my near-decade of activism since then, have instilled in me the importance of hope in helping to brave periods of darkness. I believe in this hope that brings us together today. All human beings deserve to live in dignity regardless of our race, religion, color or creed.

The genocide determination is a key step in bringing justice to Rohingya victims and survivors. I hope the U.S. government will follow its words with actions. The United States should lend its support for legal efforts around the world to establish justice and accountability for our people, including persuading the U.N. Security Council to refer the case of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. Washington should also act to impose a global arms embargo on the military junta in Myanmar and issue economic sanctions and financial penalties against the generals and their businesses.

I am hopeful that the U.S. government’s actions will spur a global response to crimes against the Rohingya. I trust that other governments will follow America’s lead by officially acknowledging the atrocities still being committed against the Rohingya as genocide and taking comprehensive steps to hold the Myanmar military accountable. Myanmar’s National Unity Government, which has brought together a wide range of national figures in opposition to the junta, should publicly recognize the crimes committed as genocide, hold all actors involved accountable, and restore equal rights to the Rohingya.

This week’s genocide determination is an important step on the path toward justice for the Rohingya people. My hope is that it is the first of many meaningful actions to come.