The Ro­hingya need our help


In 1998, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton vis­ited Rwanda, where he for­mally apol­o­gized for the U.S. govern­ment’s in­ac­tion dur­ing the 1994 geno­cide there that claimed ap­prox­i­mately 800,000 lives. He lamented that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity “did not im­me­di­ately call th­ese crimes by their right­ful name.” In­deed, this was an omis­sion of his­toric pro­por­tion, and the ab­sence of out­rage en­abled pol­i­cy­mak­ers to avoid con­sid­er­ing bold mea­sures that might have made a dif­fer­ence.

The U.S. govern­ment is now risk­ing the same kind of fail­ure in the case of Burma’s Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity. On Oct. 5, State Depart­ment tes­ti­mony to the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee was strik­ingly rem­i­nis­cent of the ini­tial de­scrip­tions of the sit­u­a­tion in Rwanda 23 years ago. Mem­bers of Con­gress tried in vain to per­suade the depart­ment’s East Asia wit­ness, Deputy As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary Pa­trick Mur­phy, to af­fir­ma­tively de­clare that eth­nic cleans­ing was tak­ing place in Burma, also known as Myan­mar. In­stead, he de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion as a “caul­dron of com­plex­i­ties.” His re­marks be­trayed lit­tle sense of ur­gency.

The facts are hardly in dis­pute. On a visit to Bangladesh last month, I heard re­peated tes­ti­mony from refugees that con­firmed what cred­i­ble hu­man rights groups have been re­port­ing for many weeks. Af­ter at­tacks by a Ro­hingya mil­i­tant group on Burmese se­cu­rity forces at the end of Au­gust, the Burmese mil­i­tary be­gan sys­tem­at­i­cally set­ting fire to Ro­hingya vil­lages and shoot­ing civil­ians as they tried to flee.

By now, more than 500,000 Ro­hingya — about half of the Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in Burma be­fore Aug. 25 — have fled to Bangladesh, join­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ro­hingya who were al­ready there as refugees. The ex­o­dus con­tin­ues even now, and there is lit­tle doubt that the Burmese mil­i­tary is re­spon­si­ble for crimes against hu­man­ity.

To be sure, the State Depart­ment tes­ti­mony on Oct. 5 came af­ter more pointed state­ments last month by Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, who de­clared that the Burmese mil­i­tary had re­sponded with “ter­ri­ble sav­agery,” and by Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, who re­ferred to “a bru­tal, sus­tained cam­paign to cleanse the coun­try of an eth­nic mi­nor­ity.” But th­ese state­ments haven’t been fol­lowed by a strong U.S. ef­fort to rally the world to the cause of the Ro­hingya. As a re­sult, the State Depart­ment tes­ti­mony re­mains the most de­tailed dis­cus­sion of U.S. pol­icy to date.

Our val­ues de­mand that we not sim­ply sit by as if there were noth­ing we could do to pre­vent the con­tin­u­ing tragedy. U.S. in­ter­ests in re­gional sta­bil­ity and democ­racy in Burma also com­pel stronger ac­tion. The Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion has al­ready at­tracted the at­ten­tion of move­ments in the Is­lamic world. Mil­i­tant groups may seek re­cruits among the roughly 1 mil­lion Ro­hingya refugees in Bangladesh. Fu­ture at­tacks by Ro­hingya in­sur­gents in Burma would give the mil­i­tary a pre­text to re­assert con­trol and end the coun­try’s long­fought strug­gle for democ­racy.

Bold ac­tion is es­sen­tial to di­min­ish the like­li­hood of such an out­come and to en­able the safe re­turn of the Ro­hingya. It is true that the chal­lenges are for­mi­da­ble. While Burmese civil­ian leader and No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi has ex­pressed a will­ing­ness to ac­cept the re­turn of the Ro­hingya who have fled, no one knows what ob­sta­cles may be im­posed by the Burmese au­thor­i­ties. It is un­re­al­is­tic to be­lieve Ro­hingya, whose vil­lages have been de­stroyed by the mil­i­tary, would have suf­fi­cient con­fi­dence to dare re­turn. More­over, ac­tion to bring mul­ti­lat­eral pres­sure to bear at the United Na­tions risks be­ing stymied, above all by the Chi­nese govern­ment, which sup­ports the Burmese mil­i­tary.

China also has an in­ter­est in good re­la­tions with Bangladesh and the Is­lamic world as well as in the long-term sta­bil­ity of Burma it­self. For all th­ese rea­sons, the United States should seek to join with China to press both Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese mil­i­tary to agree to the re­turn of the Ro­hingya refugees and to pro­vide them with gen­uine safe­guards.

In par­tic­u­lar, the United States, China and other U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil mem­bers should urge that such safe­guards in­clude rapid de­ploy­ment of a U.N. peace ob­server mis­sion to Rakhine state, home to the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the refugees. The mis­sion would mon­i­tor both the re­turn of refugees and con­di­tions fac­ing all eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing those the Burmese govern­ment is con­cerned may be threat­ened by Ro­hingya in­sur­gents. The diplo­matic in­volve­ment of the Chi­nese, who now con­trib­ute more per­son­nel to U.N. peace op­er­a­tions than any other per­ma­nent mem­ber of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, could pro­vide re­as­sur­ance to the Burmese govern­ment and mil­i­tary.

The pol­i­tics of this ef­fort would be ex­tremely com­pli­cated. But it is worth a try, as it may be the only hope to pro­mote re­gional peace and sta­bil­ity and keep faith with a Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion whose most fer­vent de­sire is to live in peace in Burma. The writer is pres­i­dent of Refugees In­ter­na­tional.


A Ro­hingya girl car­ries a baby through a refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Tues­day.

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