More than 400,000 Rohingya men, women, and children – a Muslim, ethnic minority – have recently fled attacks by government forces to Bangladesh from their homes in the western border region of Myanmar.
The subjugation of the Rohingya people is a longstanding problem in Myanmar, but the military’s recent large-scale violent attacks came in retaliation to a failed attempt by a small, armed insurgency against border posts in August.
The military claims that its offensive efforts are part of “clearance operations” to eradicate insurgents but, the all-out violent campaign against Rohingya civilians has been condemned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Human rights groups have reported widespread rape, torture, forced disappearances, and scorched earth tactics. The Myanmar military reported that some 40-percent of Rohingya villages are now empty, which is an alarming admission.
The U.S. must lead the international community to address the worsening humanitarian and political crisis that could lead to instability in neighboring countries and pose risks to American geopolitical interests in that region.
The conflict is historically, geographically, and ideologically complex; it is at once about authoritarianism, religious persecution, and natural resources.
The land assets and mining potential therein are valuable to the military’s leadership, which continues to exercise significant influence over business development in Myanmar, and many foreign countries and private sector enterprises also have investments at stake.
The government of Myanmar refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, instead branding them unwanted illegal migrants from Bangladesh. While the Rohingya have moved west since at least the 1930s – the migration patterns in South Asia are complicated and tied to colonial legacies – but the current wave of displacement is unprecedented.
Those who have made it to safety in Bangladesh arrive despondent, hungry, traumatized and physically hurt.
The Burmese military appears to have planted landmines in the border areas to thwart Rohingya from escaping, killing many while injuring others who arrive at refugee camps with horrific injuries.
Bangladesh is no stranger to genocidal violence ; the 1971 Liberation War was one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century and saw as many as one million Bengalis massacred and some 250,000 women raped during a massive operation by the Pakistani military.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on a visit this week to the refugee camps in the east, urged Myanmar to take back the Rohingya but she also acknowledged that Bangladesh would host refugees “in our humble way” for as long as possible.
“What is the crime of the children, the women, the innocent people?” Hasina pleaded. “They are human beings, we cannot just push them back. We are humans.”
Bangladesh is doing what it can to mitigate the humanitarian disaster that has landed on its shores but it lacks the resources, experience, and infrastructure to cope indefinitely with the Rohingya refugees.
Bangladesh is not a state party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and, although many international relief organizations including the UN’s migration agency (known as IOM), UNCHR; and UNICEF are on the ground providing assistance, concerns are growing about ensuring the dignity and safety of Rohingya refugees, more than half of them are children.
The crisis is now threatening to grow into a regional one, that could have social, economic, and security implications far beyond Myanmar.
A nation of 163 million people in a space approximately the size of Iowa, Bangladesh is an overcrowded, low-lying country at the mouth of multiple major rivers that is extremely vulnerable to climate change.
Despite impressive social development progress in the last two decades, one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. As flooding and other natural disasters wreak havoc throughout the country, but especially along the coastlines, more and more natives have moved toward the capital over the last several decades in search of work.
The Rohingya are eager to do the same but the government announced that although it would build new shelters in Chittagong to house refugees, their movement would be restricted to designated camps to prevent people from moving to inland to plant permanent roots. How this restriction will be enforced, and what consequences refugees who violate these orders will face, remains to be seen.
Aid groups are still being unable to meet refugees’ basic needs not only because of inadequate supplies but also insufficient access to the vulnerable population.
There is a massive operation underway being coordinated by intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations to register the Rohingya refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh but there a host of logistical challenges make the process difficult.
The Rohingya are, at present, a stateless people and the legal situation is particularly precarious for expectant mothers and newborns who can neither make claims to Bangladeshi nor Burmese citizenship.
Although Hasina has encouraged locals to welcome the refugees, some officials are voicing concerns about security risks that may emerge from the influx of foreigners. Bangladesh’s Home Minister, for example, expressed worries that transnational terrorist networks may seek to capitalize on the plight of the Rohingya to further their jihadist agendas – though he admitted that there was no evidence to date to suggest that refugees were becoming radicalized.
It is true, however, that although Muslim-majority Bangladesh has historically been a secular country, violent extremism appears to be on the rise and a series of recent terrorist attacks has left the country rattled. Moreover, Malaysian counter-terrorism officials claim that ISIS is exploiting the Rohingya crisis to recruit fighters in the region while the Islamic Defenders Front in Indonesia is also seeking to mobilize fighters.
Hasina is seeking international assistance for not only handling the humanitarian emergency but also to stem the conflict fueling it and, in doing so, end the bloodshed.
During a trip to New York last week for the UN General Assembly, she held numerous high-level meetings and participated in press interviews to that end. The Bangladesh government organized visits for foreign ambassadors posted to Dhaka to travel to the temporary and permanent shelters that have been erected near the border to witness first-hand the acute refugee emergency.
While many European, North American, and Asian governments have offered humanitarian aid, little diplomatic progress has been made to deal with the underlying political problems.
All the while, Aung San Suu Kyi – Myanmar’s state counselor – has failed to denounce the violent repression against the Rohingya. She recently claimed that “an iceberg of misinformation” surrounds the Rohingya problem and, although the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has personally implored her to do more to protect the Rohingya, it seems to have had little effect on Aung San Suu Kyi.
Though she does not control the military, her speech last week was full of misinformation and half-truths that seemed to defend the military’s actions. The Nobel Peace Laureate and longtime darling of the West seems, at best, to be turning a blind eye to what is happening and, at worst, is complicit in the continuation of the crisis.
None of this speaks encouragingly to what has been an incremental and shaky democratization process in a country with multiple ethnic conflicts and failed peacemaking efforts. Democracy in Myanmar, if it ever did begin to bloom, has quickly withered.
White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, issued a statement on September 11 claiming that the U.S. is “deeply troubled” by the “crisis” in Myanmar and reiterated the Trump administration’s “condemnation of those attacks and ensuing violence.”
She stopped short, however, of pointing blame at the Burmese military; nor did she use any interventionist language to indicate what, if anything, the U.S. or a broader international coalition might do to bring an end to violence.
This is unsurprising. The Trump administration appears to be scaling back U.S. efforts to promote democracy and human rights internationally and there is no appetite in Washington for any kind of humanitarian intervention in this case or elsewhere.
In a small but potentially encouraging sign, the Trump White House is re-evaluating the U.S. military’s ‘nascent’ relationship with Myanmar’s. Meanwhile, both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have criticized government officials in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called for sanctions against those responsible for ethnic cleansing. Still, the U.S. has been relatively mild in its condemnations and has yet to take any drastic actions to significantly change the behavior of the Myanmar authorities.
The U.S. should be doing more with its allies through multilateral institutions to not only alleviate the humanitarian consequences of the ongoing crisis but also the political drivers of the violence.
Why? In addition to being the right thing to do, resolving the conflict is also in the U.S.’ strategic interest. The U.S. is eager to maintain expand its influence in Southeast Asia where China continues its efforts to become the dominant power.
While the Myanmar military continues to enjoy many of the privileges that come with absolute authoritarian rule, the government also needs foreign investments and political engagement to develop economically.
At present, China is the leading foreign investor in Myanmar and political ties between Naypyidaw and Beijing are increasingly tightening. While the Burmese military was expelling Rohingya from Rakhine state, Beijing established a new diplomatic mission in Nyapidaw and expressed its support to the Myanmar government.
China is not only interested in mineral extraction in Myanmar but also securing access to the Bay of Bengal, which in turn would allow Beijing to expand its presence across international waters between Myanmar and The Philippines.
All of these factors should concern Washington and motivate a deeper engagement to reaching a negotiated resolution to the Rohingya crisis.
Mayesha Alam is the author of Women and Transitional Justice: Progress and Persistent Challenges in Retributive and Restorative Processes (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). She is a Soros New American Fellow pursuing her Ph.D. in political science at Yale University.