‘Genocide’, ‘human rights’ and what’s lost in translation

The fight to protect human rights and counter genocide is hampered by the way these terms are understood in Myanmar, and mistranslation is partly to blame.


On March 28, the Burmese edition of The Irrawaddy published a cartoon on its website that caused an outcry among human rights activists in Myanmar.

The cartoon depicted two employees of an international non-government organisation, or INGO, walking among a pile of human corpses. One of them mentions that among the dead there are no bearded men, an indirect way of describing Muslims. “Well,” says his colleague, “then this is not genocide. Let it be.” The headline could be roughly translated as saying, “Not genocide yet”, but a more literal translation would be, “[this] race is not extinct yet”. The “race” in question is not stated but, because the cartoon was published while conflict was mounting in Rakhine State, the Buddhist Rakhine community is implied.

The cartoon, which was later deleted from The Irrawaddy’s website and Facebook page without explanation, echoes popular rhetoric in Myanmar that the United Nations and the international community are unfairly biased in favour of Muslims such as the Rohingya; that for them, “it is not genocide unless the victims are Muslims”. But it is also premised on a fundamentally flawed definition of “genocide”. Some in Myanmar like to pose the rhetorical question, “If it is really genocide, why are so many of them [Rohingya] still alive?” This shows a basic lack of understanding among the public of what genocide actually means. One reason for this is the misleading way the word is translated.

“Genocide” in Burmese is typically rendered as lu myo tone thet phyat mhu, which literally means “slaughtering a racial group until it is extinct.” In this way, the translation indicates that a particular group must be exterminated to constitute genocide. In other words, if people are not actively being killed or if a racial group is not yet extinct, then by no means is it genocide. This is how the term is generally understood in Myanmar, beside those working in human rights that are familiar with the UN definition. In fact, genocide is not just one murderous event aimed at annihilating a group – it is a systematic process that goes through multiple stages involving dehumanisation, persecution, and violence.

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The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide lists five acts that, if “commited with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, each amount to genocide. They are killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part, imposing measures intending to prevent births, and forcibly transferring children to another group. The 444-page report released in September last year by the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar concluded that the crimes against the Rohingya included four of the five listed acts.

Although this information is available online, it is not easily accessible to most people in Myanmar, who lack media literacy and have limited English proficiency. The public generally has to rely on flawed Burmese translations of foreign terms, as well as information from Burmese language media and Facebook, which tends to perpetuate popular misconceptions.

The concept of “human rights” is also widely misunderstood, again partly because of how it is translated. In Burmese, it is lu a kwint a yay, literally meaning “human opportunities.” This strips “human rights” of their essential meaning – namely, that they are inalienable rights granted to all human beings at birth – and reduces them to mere opportunities that the government or the majority in a society can grant or withhold at will. For example, one of my classmates in a political science class once boldly said, “The Muslims in Myanmar only ask for lu a kwint a yay, but don’t do anything for the country to deserve these a kwint a yay (opportunities).”  

In a similar vein, U Thurein Min Tun from the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, said in a debate hosted by the Democratic Voice of Burma, “If you act like a human, then you will be given human rights (lu a kwint a yay).” This was a deliberate attempt to dehumanise the Rohingya and other Muslims, but the assumption behind it is widespread in Myanmar – that “human rights” are something handed down from above, and only to deserving individuals or communities.

Some human rights activists and organisations in Myanmar are trying to narrow the gap in understanding these crucial concepts by proposing alternative translations. For example, for “human rights” they prefer the phrase lu ya paing kwint, which can be translated as “human entitlement”, preserving the essence of the term – that these rights are not conditional. However, they have yet to propose a more accurate translation for “genocide”.

Until better terms are adopted, domestic human rights activists will struggle to combat rhetoric that is not only against human rights, but downright genocidal in its denial of basic rights to “undeserving” communities. We need to first make sure people understand the basic but important terms, before we ask for their participation in defending human rights and preventing genocide.

Correction: This article has been updated to provide a fuller definition of genocide, by stating that it can be directed at “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

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