Eric P. Schwartz is president of Refugees International. He was on a fact-finding mission in Bangladesh from Sept. 15 to 19.
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 sought to flee.
By now more than 500,000 Rohingya — about half of the Rohingya population living in Burma prior to 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 should 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 persecuted 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 long-fought 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 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 are 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 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.