Time for a Shift in U.S. Policy Toward Burma

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Time for a Shift in U.S. Policy Toward Burma

Oct 6th, 2017 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Olivia Enos

Policy Analyst

Olivia Enos specializes in human rights and transnational criminal issues.
Rohingya refugees, who arrived from Myanmar last night, walk in a rice field after crossing the border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 9, 2017. JORGE SILVA/REUTERS/Newscom

Key Takeaways

Human Rights Watch has long documented the Burmese military’s proclivity for burning down entire Rohingya villages and grotesque abuses against women and children.

The latest violence against Rohingya demands a longer-term shift in U.S. and the international community’s policy toward Burma.

Any path forward should emphasize the role of the military in undermining reform and committing human rights abuses, while allowing civilian government reform.

Hasina, a 20-year-old member of the Burmese Muslim minority group known as Rohingya, lost almost all of her closest relatives this week when the Burmese military retaliated after a militant group – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – attacked key security posts near her hometown.

Her infant daughter was snatched from her arms and thrown into the fire by members of the Burmese military. After enduring this, Hasina was nearly raped and watched her mother-in-law get hacked to death for resisting military officials. This story, captured by Human Rights Watch, is emblematic of the treatment endured by Rohingya.

Over the past several weeks, more than 500,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine state to neighboring Bangladesh, where they are housed in makeshift tents and refugee camps. According to the United Nations (UN), this is the most rapid refugee influx since the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. The UN describes the situation as a classic case of ethnic cleansing.

Persecution of Rohingya began in 1982 after Burma passed a  law that denied Rohingya citizenship, rendering them effectively stateless. The law made Rohingya ineligible for basic schooling, healthcare, and today denies them the right to vote. Until now, close to 200,000 Rohingya resided in deplorable conditions in internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine.

2017 is far from the first time that Rohingya have experienced violence. In 2012, violence broke out over the alleged raping and killing of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man, which led to communal violence. Nearly 300 people were killed, and tens of thousands displaced in the aftermath. In 2015, there was a mass exodus of Rohingya by boat due to Burmese military crackdowns. And in 2016, Rohingya fled once again after they were blamed for attacks on security posts and driven out by Burmese military and security officials.

Human Rights Watch, among other groups, has long documented the Burmese military’s proclivity for burning down entire Rohingya villages, pillaging towns, and raping and sexually abusing Rohingya women and children. Conditions deteriorated so significantly that in 2015, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum found early warning signs of genocide against Rohingya.

Coordinating the response toward the Rohingya’s latest plight is increasingly difficult, especially given the complexity of the crisis. Separating myth from fact by ensuring that the limited, but demonstrated threat posed by ARSA is addressed; that attacks by ARSA are separated from the disproportionate retaliation by the Burmese military; and separating ARSA from the vast majority of innocent Rohingya people, may hinder the international humanitarian response.

Despite the fact that ARSA bears the name Arakan (the Burmese word for Rakhine) and Rohingya in its name, many Rohingya have expressed their deep displeasure that ARSA claimed to defend them.

The international community, with the notable exceptions of the Chinese and the Russians, has responded with strength. Suu Kyi has also been curiously uncritical, even defensive. Her position is a difficult one. Due to the flawed construction of the Burmese constitution, the Burmese military wields a disproportionate amount of power in the Burmese political system. That may partially explain Suu Kyi’s restraint and reluctance to place blame on the Burmese military for their actions against Rohingya.

In spite of Suu Kyi’s relative silence, the UN and its refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have come to the aid of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. And the U.S. increased humanitarian assistance by $32 million, bringing U.S. total assistance to alleviate the current crisis to $95 million in 2017.

But all of these are stop-gap, emergency-response measures. Yesterday the UN called upon the international community go beyond statements, a sentiment echoed by U.S. Representative to the UN, Nikki Haley. This latest violence against Rohingya demands a longer-term shift in U.S. and the international community’s policy toward Burma. The warming of relationswith Burma under the Obama administration moved much too fast and sacrificed leverage at the moment when fundamental reform in Burma was just becoming a real possibility.

Now many in Congress are calling for new sanctions against Burma. Any path forward should emphasize the role of the military in undermining reform and committing human rights abuses, while acknowledging and advancing the ability of the civilian government to undertake reform. To alleviate the plight of Rohingya and chart a successful path forward for Burma, the international community should emphasize that there will be long-term consequences for deviating from reforms and failing to protect the fundamental rights of all peoples in Burma.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2017/09/29/time-for-a-shift-in-u-s-policy-toward-burma/2/#2577b896a593 

This piece originally appeared in Forbes