Are Myanmar and the Philippines Guilty of Genocide?

Claims of genocide have been leveled against the governments of Myanmar and the Philippines. But are they valid?

Mong Palatino

It is common for unpopular governments to be accused by their enemies of committing serious human rights violations such as murder and kidnapping, but it is not often that genocide is included in the charge sheet. Even notorious dictators who are assumed to be guilty of committing the most heinous crimes against humanity are rarely accused of genocide.

When various groups denounce a government’s action or program as being genocidal, it immediately gets global and media attention. Something evil must be really happening to warrant the use of the term.

Two Southeast Asian governments are currently facing such accusations. Myanmar is accused of committing genocide against the ethnic Muslim Rohingya minority. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, a former senator and the influential Catholic Church hierarchy have warned the government that it could be held liable for genocide if it implements the controversial reproductive health law. Really?

Fortunately, there exists an international convention that can help us identify specific acts of genocide. The convention states that genocide involves “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” through 1) Killing members of the group; 2) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 3) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 4) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and 5) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

So, using this definition, in the case of Myanmar, the genocide accusation seems solid. Rohingyas have no citizenship rights because the government has still refused to recognize them as a distinct ethnic group in the country. Rohingyas have no government-issued identification cards, they cannot own land, and they are barred from government employment.

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In recent years, riots between Rohingyas and other ethnic groups in the state of Rakhine have displaced thousands of villagers, especially the Muslim Rohingyas who are further discriminated against due to their religion. State forces are accused of doing nothing when a mob attacks a Rohingya settlement. An estimated 125,000 Rohingyas are living in refugee camps in Myanmar in dire need of aid.

Recently, the government imposed a two-child policy on the group in a bid to defuse ethnic tension. This controversial measure finally elicited a response from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who until then was criticized by many human rights groups for her silence on the persecution of the Rohingya minority.

Almost all major human rights groups in the world have already issued an alarm over the growing repression of the Rohingyas. They are one in urging the Myanmar government to review its laws and programs that curtail the basic rights of Rohingyas.

Unless the government revamps its discriminatory and repressive policies against the group, it will have a tough time convincing the international community that it is resolving the communal riots and ethnic tensions involving the Rohingya with utmost transparency and fairness.

While the Rohingyas’ plight in Myanmar seems to warrant claims of genocide, in the Philippines’ case the accusation seems flimsy. Early this month, Former Senator Francisco Tatad appeared before the Supreme Court and petitioned for the scrapping of the reproductive health law, which he rejected as an unconstitutional assault against God and family. He argued that the government will commit genocide because the law prescribes “state-mandated birth control” that would lead to the slaughter of innocent souls.

The law, hailed by women’s groups and health advocates as a landmark legislation, lays down the framework for comprehensive reproductive healthcare in the country, principally to prevent maternal deaths. It allows local health centers to provide birth control services to the population in the face of fierce opposition from the Catholic Church. The Philippines is the only Catholic-dominated nation in Southeast Asia.

“That is not freedom of choice at all. That is not protecting the family as foundation of the nation,” Tatad said of the birth control provisions provided under the law.

He added, “That is not equally protecting the right of the mother and right of the unborn and this is simply putting the family under state supervision and control…Have we become a democracy only to submit to state supervision and control?”

But Tatad conveniently forgot to mention that the law doesn’t force individuals or couples to use artificial birth control measures. Filipino Catholics are still free to practice natural birth control methods or other options approved by the Vatican. The law simply provides for freedom of choice and consent.

For highlighting the population control agenda of the government, Tatad’s critique deserves to be studied. But for dismissing the law as an instrument of genocide, Tatad’s petition should be outright ignored.