The Ethnic Cleansing of the Rohingya Could Be the New Myanmar’s Original Sin
Any future success will be built on the blood of the Rohingya.
In 2016, the world had high hopes for Myanmar. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had gone from prisoner to the de facto leader of a country slowly moving toward democracy.
In 2017, innocent civilians in Myanmar are watching their homes burn. The military is killing people and forcing entire communities to leave their country. Some 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh.
Myanmar is perpetrating an ethnic cleansing campaign, which, if not stopped, will become the original sin of Myanmar’s new state. The United States — and the world, is sitting on the sidelines watching it happen.
When I began working at the State Department in 2009, there were few signs of hope in Myanmar, which had been ruled by military leaders for decades. Slowly but surely, things began to change, the military opened up, elections were held, a civilian government took over, and all of a sudden Myanmar appeared to be transitioning peacefully away from its dictatorship.
My most direct experience with Myanmar’s transition was overseeing preparations for U.S. involvement in the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits in 2014, when Myanmar for the first time chaired the organization. Myanmar had been slated to take up the chair in 2006, but relinquished it due to pressure from the United States and EU, imposed because of repression on the part of the ruling junta.
By 2014, Myanmar was opening up. In my many trips to the country, one could see progress in how people spoke openly and positively about the changes. At the annual ASEAN meetings, Myanmar set the agenda for every regional issue, from climate change to the South China Sea. Leaders — including U.S. President Barack Obama — gathered in Myanmar amidst a sense of optimism about the future. It was a coming out party.
The following year, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won national elections. Countries around the world continued dropping sanctions, and Myanmar appeared set to begin the long, difficult path to building a democracy.
Today, that progress and hopefulness is overshadowed by a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that the military is conducting against the Rohingya.
The Rohingya — a Muslim ethnic group — have long been persecuted in Myanmar, and are not considered citizens of the majority-Buddhist country. They live largely in squalor in Rakhine state. While the government is attempting a peace process with the numerous minority groups in Myanmar that control their own militias, there has been no willingness to engage in real dialogue with the Rohingya. Instead, it is clear that the central government wants the Rohingya — as a people, and a problem — gone.
In Myanmar’s new, transitioning political structure, the civilian government does not control the military. While the military is leading the violent campaign, Aung San Suu Kyi at the very least is willing to let this happen. In the worst case, she silently supports it. Her speech this week addressing the issue mirrored the military’s talking points and sounded more defiant against international criticism than compassionate towards the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi may have earned international icon status for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, but the value she places on political representation and rights don’t extend to the Rohingya.
If the military is successful, the Rohingya will largely be pushed out of Myanmar in a humanitarian disaster. If that happens, and Myanmar continues to open its political and economic system, any future success will be built on the blood of the Rohingya.
I strongly supported the U.S. decision to drop sanctions step by step in response to Myanmar’s opening. Up until recently, I believed that a re-imposition of sanctions would damage the greater good of Myanmar’s democratic progress. But we are beyond the pale now, and the new government has shown its true colors.
The threat of renewed international pressure is once again necessary. Statements from the United Nations expressing “concern” and condemnations from world leaders at this week’s U.N. General Assembly are not enough. Every leader around the world should immediately call on Myanmar’s government to take the following steps: stop the military’s violent operation, openly criticize the persecution by the military and militia groups, allow humanitarian access, and begin a political dialogue with the Rohingya.
Leaders should make clear that, unless these actions are taken swiftly, countries will respond. Pressure tactics could include withholding aid, stopping economic benefits from the Generalized System of Preferences , or even re-imposing sanctions on the military. And since the Trump administration seems to care little about human rights, in the United States it is likely that Congress will have to take the lead.
There is no guarantee that pressure from the international community will work, but we must do everything we can, while organizing a massive international effort to help the displaced.
If nothing changes in the coming weeks, no matter where the situation goes from here, Myanmar will never be able to remove the stain of its bloody campaign against the Rohingya. And the international community will be stained as well.
Photo credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images