Sounding the Alarm on the Rohingya Crisis

What I am about to write is staggering: it is estimated by the United Nations and others that, over the past several weeks, the government of Myanmar and its military have driven nearly 300,000 Rohingya from their homes and out of Myanmar (also known as Burma).   

That is more than a quarter of Myanmar’s Rohingya population, most of whom live in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Nobody knows how many have been displaced internally or killed, but we do know there is carnage and chaos in Rohingya communities in Rakhine, which should be shocking to all.  

Having been witness to too many man-made tragedies over the course of a long career in human rights and humanitarianism, I hope I’ve learned to scan the horizon each day for those events that are of such magnitude that they require an unrelenting sounding of the alarm. 

These actions, which constitute ethnic cleansing and include crimes against humanity, and have been perpetrated by the Burmese military after Rohingya militants attacked some 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine State in late August. The Government of Myanmar may certainly take measures to hold accountable perpetrators of attacks on government facilities, but the military’s actions against the civilian population have been wildly disproportionate and in gross violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.     

Having been witness to too many man-made tragedies over the course of a long career in human rights and humanitarianism, I hope I’ve learned to scan the horizon each day for those events that are of such magnitude that they require an unrelenting sounding of the alarm. To put it another way, if you’re doing work in this field, you should be continually aware that, ten years hence, you may have to answer the question, “did I do everything I should have done to try help avert or end a tragedy of historic proportions?”  

Samantha Power wrote eloquently about how policy-makers must grapple with this question, first in a 2001 Atlantic piece on the Rwandan genocide, entitled “Bystanders to Genocide,” and then in her seminal work, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. One quotation, from an interview of Susan Rice conducted by Samantha, has stayed with me for many years. Susan, who was at the National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide, later reflected on her role and commented, “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” 

Each of us who is engaged in human rights and humanitarian action should think about “going down in flames” at this particular moment. 

We must do so because we are indeed in the midst of a human rights and humanitarian crisis of historic proportions, as the government and military of Myanmar expels a huge proportion of its population of Muslims in Rakhine State – the long persecuted Rohingya community.  

At Refugees International, we are striving to do what we must do to contribute to efforts to end this carnage by bearing witness, and by mobilizing support and action by others who have influence. In recent days, RI has made its position clear in a statement that has been widely reported, and in other ways in which we have been engaged. We have met or otherwise been in touch with senior officials at the United Nations; senior officials of the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Mission to the UN; Members of Congress and congressional staff and others we believe may be in a position to help bring this crisis to an end.  And RI has mobilized its network of supporters with recommendations for citizen action on these critical matters.  

These efforts build on two recent reports we issued in July, Ongoing Abuses and Oppression Against the Rohingya in Myanmar and Reluctant Refuge: Rohingya Safe But Not Secure in Bangladesh, as well as advocacy on this issue over many years. 

So what must be done at this moment in time? 

The UN Secretary General should convene the Security Council on an urgent basis, and senior UN and U.S. officials, including the UN Secretary General, should travel to the region immediately to press the authorities in Myanmar to end these abuses and permit unfettered access to Rakhine State for international humanitarian organizations. Travel to the region by senior officials should also be used to garner support for humanitarian aid in Bangladesh, to offer expressions of solidarity with the Government of Bangladesh and to request that Bangladeshi authorities work with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to welcome and provide assistance to all those fleeing violence in Myanmar.  

This unfolding tragedy is not only heartbreaking. It is yet another test of the willingness of governments of the world, and of all of us, to mobilize and take action to prevent crimes against humanity of enormous proportion. 

The White House should speak out on this tragedy, and it is disheartening that neither the President nor the Secretary of State has made statements on the crisis. They both must make their voices heard.   

The United States should lead an international effort to promote multilateral sanctions against the Myanmar military, perpetrators of these horrendous abuses. Skeptics might contend that support will be limited, but the anguish and anger that has been expressed by so many governments in Asia and around the world may suggest otherwise.  And this is a ridiculous time for the U.S. Congress to be considering legislation to expand U.S. military cooperation with Myanmar, as the Congress is apparently so doing. 

And what more can you do?

Sound the alarm. Share what is happening on social media. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper. Contact your political leaders. If you are in the United States, call your senators and tell them now is not the time to expand U.S.-Myanmar military cooperation, as is now envisioned by the proposed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Urge them to support Amendment 607 to the NDAA, an amendment that would strike the NDAA provision on such enhanced cooperation. If you are in other countries, urge your political leaders to speak out and support action by the UN Security Council and at the upcoming UN General Assembly meetings.  

This unfolding tragedy is not only heartbreaking. It is yet another test of the willingness of governments of the world, and of all of us, to mobilize and take action to prevent crimes against humanity of enormous proportion. 

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