Lee Feinstein, a former senior State Department official, is chair of the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Cameron Hudson is Senior Strategic Adviser at the Museum.
Meeting in a private room in Yangon to avoid the unwanted attention of authorities, a Rohingya leader offered a stark description of the plight of this persecuted minority in Myanmar: “We are on the verge of extinction,” he told visiting representatives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This week marks a full year since the Myanmar military began its latest and most brutal pogrom of Rohingya. On Aug. 17, the Treasury Department took an important step in holding those responsible to account, sanctioning security officials and military units responsible for atrocities. A soon-to-be released State Department report will offer the most detailed assessment of the mass atrocities over the past year, including the ones who committed them — primarily the Myanmar military.
These atrocities have taken the lives of an estimated 9,000 Rohingya, according to independent reports. More than 800,000 others have crossed the border into Bangladesh, including hundreds of thousands who had fled previous attacks by the military.
An estimated 200,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar, in northern Rakhine state. Access to this population has been cut off by national authorities. Everyone we spoke to feared for the safety of these individuals, and would not rule out another wave of ethnic cleansing against them in an attempt to finish the job.
Nearly 1 million Rohingya now live in Bangladesh in makeshift shelters of plastic tarps and bamboo packed into a space the size of Central Park. Many recounted to us their personal experiences as the targets of Myanmar’s military and local security forces: widespread and systematic acts of murder, rape, arson and torture.
Despite their persecution, the Rohingya we met wanted to go home. But a safe and voluntary return is a dim prospect. It will require Myanmar, also known as Burma, to grant them protections they have long been denied: full and equal citizenship, official recognition of their ethnicity as Rohingya, plus accountability and justice for those responsible for atrocities.
In the meantime, the question is whether the authorities can successfully wait out international criticism with denial, deflection, and threats.
In meetings in the capital, Naypyidaw, advisers to Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other senior government officials denied responsibility for mass atrocities reported by independent researchers, and as well as the museum’s own reporting.
Senior government officials claim Rohingya themselves looted and burned their own villages in order to build international sympathy. These same officials made extravagant claims about the military capability of Rohingya insurgents. They argue that what all independent observers have described as a poorly equipped and loosely organized group is actually a formidable, internationally-supported and well-equipped fighting force. Given these repeatedly stated positions, a recently announced internal investigation by Myanmar is not likely to produce an outcome different from previous government whitewashes.
The Myanmar leadership also claims that calling on Aung San Suu Kyi to speak up for minority rights and to be a moral voice against atrocities would jeopardize the country’s fragile and fledgling democratic transition.
But supporting democratization and holding the military leadership to account are not mutually exclusive. Policy responses being considered by the U.S. government include additional sanctions on individual military and security officials (such as those imposed last week by the Treasury Department), support for democracy-building efforts, restrictions on military cooperation and, importantly, efforts to mitigate government-supported hate speech — particularly online.
Democracy activists we met regretted Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence over the fate of the Rohingya, and emphasized the need to modernize her party, the National League for Democracy, by elevating a younger generation of leaders and seeking a greater diversity of views beyond the leaders secluded in Naypyidaw. Gaining humanitarian access to affected areas of northern Rakhine state for international NGOs and the United Nations is also urgently needed.
Failure to confront the urgency of the crisis puts the remaining Rohingya population at greater risk — as well as millions of other members of Myanmar’s persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, who have been targeted by the military and who could face future atrocities if impunity continues to rule.
The State Department’s forthcoming report will send a strong message. Strong and sustained international leadership from the United States and its European allies, reinforced by the United Nations and, to the extent possible, other states in the region, is essential to persuade officials in Naypyidaw that their fog of denial, deflection and threats won’t work, and won’t provide cover for further atrocities against the Rohingya.