According to UNICEF’s October Humanitarian Situation Report on Bangladesh, at least 537,000 Rohingya have fled violence in Burma (Myanmar) since Aug. 25 and require humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh.
The rapid pace of their exodus from Rakhine State in Burma exceeds the pace of those who fled Rwandan genocide. The plight of the Rohingya demands international action—action that likely will be spurred only if the United States takes concrete steps to hold the Burmese military to account and ensure humanitarian support and safety to Rohingya.
The Burmese military is the primary perpetrator of violence against Rohingya. Satellite imagery analysis indicates that the Burmese military already burned down roughly 288 villages. Villages in Maungdaw township on the border with Bangladesh are almost completely empty because Rohingya fled the brutal violence. The United Nations is calling it a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, and Human Rights Watch believes it may constitute crimes against humanity.
Countless reports from human rights organizations indicate that severe atrocities are being committed, including the murder of innumerable Rohingya men and boys and sexual violence against women, including gang rape. Mothers report having their infants ripped from their arms and thrown in the fire to their death; others recount harrowing stories of family members being raped and murdered in front of their own eyes. These are truly the things of nightmares.
The Rohingya have long been persecuted in Burma. They were officially denied citizenship after the passage of a citizenship law in 1982. Despite the fact that most Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, the Burmese government calls them Bengali, a derogatory reference to their historically Bangladeshi lineage. After the passage of the citizenship law, Rohingya were excluded from voting and denied access to health care and schooling.
While the conflict is rooted in ethnicity, it also has a religious nature. Nearly 90 percent of the Burmese population is Buddhist. The majority Buddhist Burman population discriminates against Rohingya on the basis of their Muslim religious beliefs. Common rhetoric against Rohingya includes a fear that Muslims will over-populate Burma. Partially in response to these fears, race and religion laws passed in 2015 limit Rohingya and other religious minorities to two children.
Numerous human rights groups are conducting face-to-face interviews with Rohingya refugees, many of whom place the blame for the majority of human rights abuses on the Burmese military. The international community would do well to heed their testimony and devise strategies to stay the hand of the military—including evaluating ways to cut off their access to resources.
Silence from Suu Kyi, Burma’s de facto leader, in the early days of the Rohingya crisis elicited much criticism from the international community. Since then, she has agreed to assemble a humanitarian project to galvanize international funding and support for Rohingya in the hopes of defusing tension.
It is time for a shift in U.S. strategy toward Burma. The relaxation of sanctions in the wake of the 2015 elections—the same elections that brought Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to power—sacrificed leverage the U.S. had over the military at a time when political reforms became a real possibility. The Obama administration’s warming of relations with Burma went too far, too fast, and missed the boat on the complexities of political power-sharing dynamics in Burma. Rather than serving as an impediment to Burmese political reform, many of the U.S.’s sanctions against Burma ensured the military’s acquiescence with Suu Kyi’s promised political reforms.
Statements are not enough. In the face of ethnic cleansing, and even possibly crimes against humanity, Congress and the executive branch should consider ways to specifically target the Burmese military while ensuring that the civilian government has the tools it needs to guide Burma toward political reform.
That means strategically instituting targeted financial measures. It also means providing more humanitarian assistance—the U.S. already increased humanitarian assistance to $95 million for fiscal year 2017—to Rohingya in need. The U.S. should also continue support for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh through resettlement.
Current U.S. human rights priorities, such as combatting human trafficking and advancing religious freedom for all, are also relevant to support for the Rohingya. The U.S. should use tools that already advance these priorities to hold the Burmese military to account by, for example, considering whether to re-list Burma for its use of child soldiers and evaluating whether Burma merits a downgrade in the Trafficking in Persons report due to ongoing reports of trafficking of Rohingya women.
U.S. leadership is critical to getting justice for Rohingya and ensuring that Burma undertakes concerted political reforms. Previously proposed reforms are severely jeopardized by the Rohingya crisis, but it is in Burma’s interest to get back on the reform bandwagon. Before President Trump’s upcoming trip to Asia, the administration should ensure that it has a solid plan of action that ensures accountability for the Burmese military and protection for Rohingya.
Olivia Enos, policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, specializes in human rights and transnational criminal issues. These include human trafficking and human smuggling, drug trafficking, religious freedom, and other social and humanitarian challenges facing Asia.
Photo Credit: Rohingya at a refugee camp in Rakhine State, Burma (Myanmar) in January 2013. By Mathias Eick for European Commission DG ECHO, via Flickr.