The Rohingya people of Myanmar have long been despised and persecuted as a Muslim minority in a majority-Buddhist country. Now, they are being slaughtered. It’s genocide.
A brutal campaign of terror has driven more than 600,000 of the Rohingya to flee the country to neighbouring Bangladesh, and a political and humanitarian crisis is rapidly unfolding. The UN calls it “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
The exodus was sparked by a disturbing escalation of long-simmering tensions between Myanmar’s majority-Buddhist military and civilian government and the Rohingya people, who since 1982 have been stripped of their citizenship and classified as stateless by the government.
The Myanmar military – backed by local Buddhist mobs – has cracked down on Rohingya, burning their villages and attacking and killing people, according to international human rights workers who have witnessed the atrocities.
Myanmar’s civilian government, led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been too quiet on the plight of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi shares power with the military. The civilian government she leads has stymied UN efforts to document the brutality against the Rohingya, and Suu Kyi has told diplomats she’s frustrated with the UN’s human rights arm. She is in a delicate political position, but her reluctance to speak out forcefully against the violence has allowed a slaughter to continue unchecked.
The European Union has done little. And the UN Security Council is paralysed, with Russia and China blocking action against Myanmar.
In such a vacuum, the US must step forward and lead efforts toward a resolution.
Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson forcefully condemned the Myanmar military’s violence against the Rohingya, and the State Department said it is considering targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which would allow the US to freeze the assets of, and limit travel by, certain individuals. A US delegation is visiting Myanmar and Bangladesh this week to “discuss ways to address the humanitarian and human rights concerns stemming from the Rakhine State crisis and improve the delivery of humanitarian assistance to displaced persons,” according to the State Department.
The Magnitsky sanctions should be imposed, at the least, and the Trump administration must increase pressure on Suu Kyi to stem the violence.
There are many reasons why the Trump administration should want to take strong action in Myanmar: to quell the immediate attacks on the Rohingya people, to punish an aggressive military junta that maintains a tight grip on the country, to prevent potential conflict between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The most compelling reason to President Trump might be the opportunity to reverse US policy toward Myanmar initiated by President Barack Obama.
The Obama administration embraced the idea that democracy could flourish in Myanmar, even as human rights violations persisted.
Myanmar’s ruthless campaign against the Rohingya people proves that the country’s reform remains a distant hope.
As Trump departs for his first presidential visit to Asia, he should denounce the attacks against the Rohingya people. The US should reinstate strong sanctions against both the civilian and military arms of the Myanmar government and put pressure on Suu Kyi to intervene to end the violence.
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