The Courier: We Are Desperate and Without Help: The Plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar

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The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, have been described as the most persecuted people in the world. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project, they are at the highest risk of state-led mass killing of any population. In fact, recent news reports acknowledge strong evidence that genocide of the Rohingya may already be happening.

The Stanley Foundation genocide prevention policy team— Carrie Dulaney and Jai-Ayla Sutherland—sat down with Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate at Refugees International, to discuss the plight of the Rohingya. Sullivan has traveled to Myanmar and met with displaced Rohingya a number of times.

The Stanley Foundation (TSF): Tell us about the Rohingya.

Dan Sullivan: The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority mostly based in western Myanmar in Rakhine state. Over a million [Rohingya] live in Myanmar, and several hundred thousand more have been displaced in the surrounding countries, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand. They are stateless people, so they do not have citizenship. That’s a huge part of the challenge they’re facing. Effectively, if you’re stateless, you don’t have citizenship in any country, therefore, you don’t have the protection of laws in any particular country.

The Rohingya are facing a combination of decades of state-sponsored persecution and widespread discrimination among the population in Myanmar, largely driven by a general fear of the Other and Muslims. Myanmar is 90 percent Buddhist. There’s a small contingent of ultranationalist Buddhist monks who have really been stirring up this fear and trying to paint a picture of the Rohingya as an existential threat to Buddhism in Myanmar.

The government of Myanmar has refused to recognize the Rohingya as a people. They are even asking the international community not to use the word Rohingya. They consider the Rohingya to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations. There have been members of parliament who have identified as Rohingya, who have served the government. Yet the government continues to refuse to recognize them as a people, even denying them the right to self-identify.

TSF: What level of risk do the Rohingya face? Why and how are the Rohingya being targeted?

Sullivan: The Early Warning Project, which is affiliated with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, has continued to list Myanmar as the country most at risk of state-led mass killing, based on the risk faced by the Rohingya. Additionally, the Holocaust museum went on a mission to Rakhine state to monitor the situation and returned with the warning of a very high risk of further atrocities and even genocide against the Rohingya. There have been other groups, including a Yale Law School group with Fortify Rights, that have said there’s strong evidence that genocide may already be happening.

The current situation has been set up by decades of persecution that has been exacerbated by the rise of ultranationalist rhetoric against the Rohingya painting them as a threat, as the Other, and scapegoating them for the lack of development in Rakhine state. The Rakhine Buddhist population—the majority population where most Rohingya live—has been marginalized through the years and suffered at the hands of the former military dictatorship.

But just since 2012, violence broke out between the local Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya, resulting in some 200 Rohingya deaths and 140,000 people being displaced, mostly Rohingya. They continue to be displaced today in camps that have been described as open-air prisons with very squalid conditions. People are not allowed to enter and leave; the government is keeping them there. They’re not allowed to move. They have no access to higher education and very limited access to medical care. The conditions are very difficult.

Now, the [United Nations] is reporting that some of the people have been allowed to go back, but that’s misleading because it hasn’t always been voluntary. Regardless, there are some 120,000 people who still live in those camps. Even the one million who are not in camps are still facing restrictions on their access to work, education, and medical care, not to mention restrictions on their rights to marry and have children.

TSF: What is Buddhist nationalism, and how is it leading to violence against the Rohingya?

Sullivan: There has been hate speech in Myanmar that has incited mob violence against Myanmar’s Muslim populations, including the Rohingya. One infamous source of this speech is Wirathu, a firebrand Buddhist monk who has traveled the country holding rallies and using vitriolic language comparing Muslims to vermin, and rallying people, riling them up, and appealing to their baser, violent urges. We’ve seen a lot of violence coming out of his efforts.

He’s part of this bigger movement of the Ma Ba Tha, or Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion. They are very well-organized. Wirathu has had his DVDs and different promotional material sent out all over the country. Initially, there were organized boycotts of Muslim shops. We’re seeing that this movement has spread and become more sophisticated and dangerous, even though it has gotten a lot of international criticism.

At the urging of Buddhist nationalists, the [Myanmar]government recently passed laws for the protection of race and religion, which target Rohingya by limiting who they can marry and how many children they can have. They also restrict the ability of the Rohingya to convert to a different religion. The troubling thing is that we haven’t always seen people speaking out. With the previous government, the president, Thein Sein, described Wirathu as a son of Buddha and supported him. Though there has been recent denunciation of radical Buddhism, it is not always as strong as we might have hoped.

TSF: Because conditions are so poor within Myanmar, many Rohingya have fled by boat to surrounding countries. What has happened to them?

Sullivan: Over time, the Rohingya have been forced out and have chosen to flee because of the conditions in Myanmar. Just since 2014, the [United Nations] estimates some 50,000 have fled by sea. The Rohingya have taken to sea to flee their conditions to Thailand or to Malaysia, in rickety boats, some of which have sunk. Over a thousand are estimated to have perished on those journeys. Their plight got international media attention last year.

The Rohingya are often prey to human traffickers because they cannot travel freely. In May 2015, there was a crackdown on human trafficking over land after the discovery of some of the human trafficking camps on the border of Thailand and Malaysia, where there were over 100 bodies found, many of them Rohingya. As a result of the crackdown, many traffickers abandoned boats full of Rohingya in the Andaman Sea.

Many of those who fled are still being detained in different places, in countries like Malaysia and Thailand. Those who were not detained are living in very crowded conditions. They have difficulty finding work, and on a daily basis they are subject to harassment by authorities or being forced to pay bribes. The Rohingya present a major challenge to the region.

TSF: Are there any international laws that would protect populations like the Rohingya that lack citizenship? How does the Responsibility to Protect come into play here?

Sullivan: On the international level, there are legal protections for stateless people, including the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Human rights and humanitarian law apply to all persons, whether with citizenship or not. But these standards aren’t always enforced, especially when they are not supported by national laws.

Pillar one of the Responsibility to Protect does technically obligate the state to protect populations within a state’s territory, but it gets tricky when a state refuses to recognize a population. The Myanmar government treats the Rohingya as unwelcome and wants to push them out. Therefore, the responsibility has needed to become more global, and there’s been a need for sustained international support and pressure to ensure that the Rohingya are protected.

TSF: In November 2015, elections brought in a new political party, the National League for Democracy, in Myanmar. Have the elections started to change the landscape for the Rohingya?

Sullivan: In November of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist, and her National League for Democracy Party, the NLD, won a great victory and gained a majority in Parliament. The problem is that because of the existing constitution that was written by the previous military government, she is barred from being president, and the military is guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary assets, which is an effective veto for any changes to the constitution. Despite the rejoicing, the military continues to exert considerable influence.

There has been a great sense of hope among the Rohingya with whom we’ve spoken during our missions, but the situation hasn’t looked great recently. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have made statements saying that addressing the plight of the Rohingya will not be a priority, that it shouldn’t be overexaggerated. The government recently gave international embassies the instruction that they should not use the word Rohingya—a continuation of the very same policies of the military government.

The one glimmer of hope is that Aung San Suu Kyi has set up a commission to look at peace and development in Rakhine state. While the commission has not explicitly mentioned the Rohingya, its creation shows a tacit willingness to tackle development challenges in Rakhine state, which realistically cannot be tackled without addressing the plight of the Rohingya.

During the elections, some of the more extremist groups were trying to paint Aung San Suu Kyi as a Muslim lover, as somebody who is going to destroy the country. As a result, she now must continue to walk a very fine line. At the same time, there’s great disappointment because Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She was held in house arrest and was a very strong voice for democracy and human rights. But now that she’s in government, she’s been much more muted.

TSF: What role have multilateral bodies like the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) played in protecting the Rohingya?

Sullivan: The record has been mixed. There have been some very strong reports out of the [United Nations]. A couple of UN special rapporteurs for human rights have come out with consistently strong reports about the severity of the situation. There have been some higher-level UN statements about the need to address the plight of the Rohingya, while the support has been weaker at lower levels and within the country.

Within the regional organization, ASEAN, the principle of sovereignty is strong, and there is a reluctance to engage in another country’s affairs. For a long time, we never saw any kind of criticism, or pressure, or engagement among ASEAN, Myanmar’s neighbors. Before the ASEAN summit last April, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights sent a delegation to Myanmar and Rakhine state; they released a report to push for the recognition of the Rohingya as a regional issue. The Malaysian government echoed this assessment. The regional nature of the problem was highlighted the following month in May during the height of the boat crisis. I think there’s been increased recognition within ASEAN that it needs to be addressed, but still very limited actual pressure or engagement by ASEAN with Myanmar.

TSF: Has it been difficult to get the international community to incentivize protecting the Rohingya, after it has broadly approved of the ongoing reforms in Myanmar since the end of the military junta (1962­–2011)?

Sullivan: Obviously, there’s been a lot of good news coming out of Myanmar over the recent years. The country just emerged from almost 50 years of a military dictatorship. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and now she’s basically running the government. There’s a long struggle for democracy and freedom. And there have been some very significant reforms and political prisoners released. So, when you hear all that news, you think it’s a good news story. But lost in that and overshadowed is the plight of the Rohingya and other ethnic groups. Many governments want to cast Myanmar as a success story. The business community also has a vested interest in turning away from continuing human rights abuses, as it wants to invest in Myanmar. There needs to be continued pressure by the United States, by the [United Nations], by ASEAN, to make sure that the Rohingya are not just forgotten in the context of all these other back-and-forth reforms, that it remains a priority for US-Myanmar relations and for multilateral institutions as well.

TSF: What is the nongovernmental organization (NGO) community doing to ensure that the plight of the Rohingya remains at the forefront?

Sullivan: It has been hard to get information about the on-the-ground situation in Rakhine because of the limited humanitarian access. Key aid groups have been consistently threatened with expulsion. Doctors Without Borders was kicked out actually while I was in Myanmar. They were the top health provider to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Rakhine. This led to many preventable deaths, as covered by The New York Times. Eventually, under sustained pressure, they were allowed to return, but at a much reduced level, and there continue to be restrictions on access.

This is important not only because it’s leading to otherwise preventable deaths but also because it means a lack of witnesses in a situation at a high risk of atrocities. Which reminds me of another point, that the last president [of Myanmar] had made 11 commitments to President [Barack] Obama. One of those was opening an in-country Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. That would be huge to allow observation of what’s going on and address the plight of the Rohingya, and just get a better sense of what’s going on there. That still hasn’t happened.

Now, what groups in the [United States] and elsewhere are doing— groups that have been very dedicated to the plight of the Rohingya—are helping get it into the spotlight and getting the attention and bringing journalists in to get some big stories out. Nick Kristof of The New York Times has been there, as has [the PBS documentary series] Frontline. [The international news organization] VICE News recently had a really good short documentary about what’s going on. Activists have been helping to get that attention and get media there as well.

There was also a big campaign that was launched by United to End Genocide called “Just Say Their Name,” which went global and really got the ear of the White House, helping to ensure that the Rohingya problem is addressed by name by the US government. On a recent visit, [US] Secretary [of State John] Kerry made some strong statements and used the name Rohingya, despite pressure not to.

Of course, the crisis continues, and we need to do more to call attention to the plight of the Rohingya and to work toward improving their situation.

TSF: What’s the way forward for the international community to respond to the plight of the Rohingya?

Sullivan: I think the answer is that there is an ability to work with the government of Myanmar, especially with the new reforms. And that would really be the most peaceful and productive way to move things forward. There’s a 1982 citizenship law that’s on the books that recognizes only certain ethnic groups as citizens of Myanmar. So it shows that it’s not written in stone. It would take a huge amount of pressure and time to get the Myanmar government to include the Rohingya, but it should be a long-term goal. The short-term goal should be pressuring and working with the new government and incentivizing them to allow for unrestricted humanitarian access and to launch an investigation into previous human rights violations. There is a lot that can be done with the government.

We can also engage other stakeholders, particularly the business community. There had been a very robust sanctions regime on the military junta in Myanmar, and it can be partially credited for helping to open up the government, to get the military to be open to reforms. For many of us in the human rights community, the sanctions were lifted too quickly. There has been considerable backsliding in recent years, and many political prisoners, including Rohingya, have been detained. For this reason, it is important to review and at least maintain the current sanctions levels.

Myanmar is a country that is rich in natural resources: gems, minerals, and oil. The business community has historically been part of the pressure to open Myanmar, because it wanted to be able to invest in the country. Since 2011, several companies have moved into Myanmar to begin investment. There’s been pressure by human rights advocates and some work within the [Obama] administration to try to balance that by creating reporting requirements for business investment. The business community has an important role to play and can really help incentivize and make sure that those who commit human rights abuses aren’t being rewarded.

Perhaps the most important thing that international NGOs can do is support the voices of the Rohingya themselves. Activists like Wai Wai Nu, a young Rohingya woman who spent years as a political prisoner, have bravely spoken out on the conditions faced by the Rohingya. Many others are taking risks within the country to promote religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence and need the support of the international community.

TSF: Any parting words?

Sullivan: I think there’s a lot that can be done by your readers. The first thing is just being aware and educated about what’s going on and sharing that with others to build up attention. Another thing that can be done is writing to your local newspaper, letters to the editor, to make sure that they’re covering this. It really does make a difference, and it all adds up to much needed pressure. I mentioned that within Myanmar, there are a lot of disincentives for anyone to speak out, and it can be dangerous. So there’s all the more reason and need for international pressure and support for the voices of some of the most persecuted people in the world, and all the more reason to make your own voice heard.

Dan Sullivan is the senior advocate at Refugees International focusing on Myanmar, Central America, and other areas affected by mass displacement. He has over a decade of human rights and foreign policy experience, having worked for United to End Genocide (formerly Save Darfur), the Brookings Institution, Human Rights First, and the Albright Stonebridge Group, where he assisted former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in her role as cochair of the Genocide Prevention Task Force. Sullivan can be followed on Twitter at @EndGenocideDan.