Tun Khin, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, reacts outside the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 23, 2020, after the court ordered Myanmar take all measures in its power to prevent genocide against the Rohingya.
Tun Khin, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, reacts outside the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 23, 2020, after the court ordered Myanmar take all measures in its power to prevent genocide against the Rohingya.

The United States should increase pressure on Myanmar to end persecution of ethnic minorities and restore the citizenship rights of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims driven from that country by government-sanctioned violence, said a Rohingya political activist visiting Washington last week.

Tun Khin, president of the London-based Myanmar Rohingya Association UK, lauded the U.S. government as “a champion for the refugees’ humanitarian aid”

]] and its sanctions against several Myanmar military leaders for alleged rights abuses. But he also encouraged Washington to back the tiny African country of Gambia in its genocide case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).“

We need more powerful countries to join with Gambia to move forward this case,” Tun Khin said in an interview Thursday with VOA.

FILE -Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi leaves in a car after attending a hearing in a case filed by Gambia accusing Myanmar of genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands.

A day earlier, the South Asian island nation of Maldives announced it would join the Gambia in its ICJ case. The suit, filed at The Hague in November, accuses Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention in its treatment of Rohingyas. Both Maldives and Gambia are predominantly Muslim; Myanmar has a Buddhist majority.

Celebrity attention

The Maldives’ case will be represented by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. She previously had represented the Maldives’ former president, Mohamed Nasheed, getting a U.N. determination that he had been unfairly tried and imprisoned on politically motivated terrorism charges in 2015. The Maldivian Supreme Court suspended his 13-year jail sentence in 2018.  

Clooney is married to Hollywood actor George Clooney. Her backing of the Rohingyas’ cause “is big,” Tun Khin said, noting her celebrity “will give more attention to the case.” That, he said, will benefit Rohingyas and “other minorities in Burma. We all want justice.”

Recent months have brought other legal action on the Rohingyas’ behalf. In November, the International Criminal Court said it would investigate Myanmar’s military for alleged crimes against humanity. At the same time, the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK – the group Tun Khin leads – filed a “universal jurisdiction” case against Myanmar in Argentina. As he explained in an Al-Jazeera opinion piece, the case “is based on the principle that some crimes are so horrific that they concern humanity as a whole, and can be tried anywhere regardless of where they were committed.”

Asked about the timetable for the Argentine case, Tun Khin said prosecutors were “analyzing the case. I believe that in a few weeks’ time, we will hear some good news.”

Emotional moment

In January, Tun Khin was in the courtroom when the ICJ – the United Nation’s top court – imposed emergency “provisional measures” on Myanmar, also known as Burma. “It almost brought me to tears,” he said of the ruling.

The court ordered the government to prevent any acts of genocide against the estimated 600,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims remaining in the country.  Another 1.1 million live in neighboring Bangladesh, where more than 723,000 had fled after a bloody military crackdown in August 2017. Myanmar’s government has said it was acting to quell terrorist threats after Rohingya insurgents attacked military outposts in Rakhine state.  

United Nations investigators have accused the military of burning villages and raping and killing civilians with “genocidal intent.” While defending the military at an ICJ hearing in mid-December, Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged some individuals might have used excessive force but said they would face military tribunals at home.        

FILE - Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi leaves the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the top United Nations court, after court hearings in a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population.

Tun Khin urged the United States to describe Myanmar’s actions as “genocide” – a determination that the ICJ is considering in the case that may take years to decide. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has denounced the “Burmese military’s horrific atrocities” and, in a 2018 report, called the violence “extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents.”

Washington focus

Last Tuesday, Tun Khin joined in a Capitol Hill panel discussion on “Justice and Human Rights in Burma: The Way Forward.” The event – sponsored by American Jewish World Service, Amnesty International and Refugees International – opened with remarks by Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Todd Young of Indiana. Both support the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act, a bill to promote democracy and human rights.

The Rohingya people, Cardin said, “have been subject to genocidal activities. And we have to speak out against that and act out against that – take steps to make sure this never can happen [again].”

Those steps, Tun Khin said, should include:

Seeking stronger sanctions on Myanmar. In December, the U.S. government tightened restrictions on four Burmese military leaders accused of rights violations, freezing any U.S. assets. Last July, they had been banned from entering the country. The Rohingya activist called for ending U.S. corporate ties to any Myanmar businesses – such as in the oil sector – that benefit the Burmese military.

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is seen in Washington. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet)

Encouraging Bangladesh to lift restrictions on education and internet access in Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. In January, Bangladesh announced it would expand schooling for youngsters – perhaps as early as April. They currently receive basic lessons in English, Burmese, life skills, math and drawing and only through early primary years. 

In September, Bangladesh’s government shut down 3G and 4G mobile phone services and internet access in the camps, leaving only limited phone service. The telecommunications minister said the move would enhance “state security” and “public safety.” Human Rights Watch objected, saying the communications block puts refugees “at serious risk” regarding “security, health and other necessary services.”      

Tun Khin, who left Myanmar in the 1990s after he was blocked from university access, said he appreciated U.S. humanitarian aid for his people. The U.S. government is the top aid contributor to the crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh, providing more than $669 million since August 2017.