CSIS | Towards Durable Solutions: Addressing Humanitarian Challenges in Bangladesh and Myanmar

This event was hosted by CSIS on  January 12, 2022.

Below is an excerpt of remarks given by Daniel P. Sullivan. Full remarks are available here.

Thank you, Elizabeth, and thank you to CSIS’s Humanitarian Agenda for hosting this. Also, thank you to Congressman Chabot and to K’nyaw Paw, both who are longtime champions for the people of Myanmar whether in Congress or at the frontlines of advocacy. And I want to thank everyone for tuning in for this very, very timely and important event as we come upon the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup by the Myanmar military.

I want to talk briefly about the – to highlight the situation in Myanmar with a focus on the humanitarian situation, and then briefly on a separate but very much related situation of the Rohingya in Bangladesh.

But first, just as quick way of introduction, my organization, Refugees International, is an independent advocacy group that promotes solutions to displacement crises around the world. In my work with Refugees International and prior, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to various places where people displaced from Myanmar have fled. And that’s both in internally displaced camps in Rakhine State and Kachin State, and several trips to Bangladesh to speak with Rohingya refugees. My comments today are informed by that experience as well as recent conversations with humanitarian workers and civil society actors in the region.

Myanmar today is facing what UN experts have described as a multidimensional crisis. So that is to say there – it’s a political crisis, an economic crisis, a health crisis, humanitarian, and human rights.

Congressman Chabot mentioned some of the recent massacres that have happened. These atrocities have been a hallmark of what the junta has done prior and especially since the – since the coup. They amount to – they’re very serious human rights violations that amount to crimes against humanity. You also have over 1,400 civilians who have been killed as a result of the coup, hundreds of thousands who have been newly forcibly displaced. And as Congressman Chabot mentioned, we went from 1 million people estimated in need of humanitarian aid, to 3 million in the first months following the coup, to now more than 14 million as we look into 2022.

I think it’s, you know, important to note, though, that all of these multidimensional crises contribute to the humanitarian situation, but it’s not just that the humanitarian crisis is a – is a fallout from the coup. The military has taken direct actions to block aid from getting to various areas.

I spoke to a humanitarian worker based in Kachin who said the junta has very much impeded aid provision anywhere they can. This raises obvious concerns with how humanitarians can provide aid to those in need and is a major warning sign for working through the junta. Rather, you know, humanitarians need to learn – try to find ways to work through credible third parties like the Red Cross and UNHCR.

So that’s the dire picture of where we are looking into 2022. So how do we get to what the title of this event is, “Towards Durable Solutions”? Well, I’d suggest three levels of action: one, international pressure; two, steps taken to immediately mitigate humanitarian suffering; and three, continued support for the people who have already fled Myanmar and sought refuge elsewhere.

On the first one, you know, there’s been – there’s a need for the United States and other countries to support the people of Myanmar who continue to protest and resist by taking away the resources that the military has to continue its oppression. So that can be done in three kind of main ways. One is making sure that there is – there are increased targeted sanctions, working with other countries around the world including but not beholden to ASEAN countries on the military, military-owned enterprises including oil and gas revenues. Second, that there’s a global arms embargo put forward, as has been suggested by the UN General Assembly. And then, third, for accountability – supporting accountability.

Refugees International has long been pushing for recognition of the crimes that this military – the same military – committed against the Rohingya in 2017 for what they are, which is genocide. And this is important not just for the legitimacy of calling what the evidence overwhelmingly points to, but also for other groups in Myanmar who are suffering from crimes against humanity to show a strong signal that atrocity crimes will be held accountable.

You’ll note that in this first level of action, a lot of this echoes what Congressman Chabot said because a lot of it is contained in the BURMA Act. And so, certainly, you know, would love – recommend and love to see that that be passed quickly.

The second level of action is on mitigating immediate suffering. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are within the distance of borders reachable through cross-border aid, but that hasn’t happened. Particularly in Thailand along the Thai-Myanmar border, there’s a well-developed network of civil society that can promote that, you know, and that’s something that K’nyaw Paw may speak to a little bit more in a moment. But there’s also a need for countries like Thailand, China, and India to uphold their international standards and not force refugees back.

The third and last course of action is to maintain support for the people who have already been displaced. This includes tens of thousands of people from Myanmar who are in Thailand and Malaysia, and it includes the million Rohingya who remain in Bangladesh.

And so just briefly on Bangladesh, I traveled there before the 2017 mass influx of Rohingya refugees and wrote a report that was titled “Safe But Not Secure.” And that is just as relevant, if not more so, today, where the Rohingya who are in Bangladesh have found refuge, but they’re not safe. They are facing increasing security risks within the camps and increasing restrictions by Bangladeshi authorities. And just in recent days we’ve seen the destruction of hundreds of shops and markets and informal education centers, a fire where barbed wire that was put up by authorities hindered people’s ability to escape. And we see thousands of people being moved to an island in the Bay of Bengal, despite serious questions about voluntariness.

So that – you know, Bangladesh deserves a lot of credit for providing refuge and for providing vaccines for the Rohingya, but there’s a lot more they can do and should do and be pushed to do to provide access to education, livelihood opportunities, and freedom of movement.

A final suggestion is along the lines of the traditional durable solutions: the need for third-country resettlement. This is important to be a part of the solution to the Rohingya crisis, but also we’ll see that other people from Myanmar will continue to need opportunities for asylum as the dire consequences of this coup continue to play out. Thank you.

The February 1, 2021, military coup in Myanmar has led to a growing displacement and humanitarian catastrophe. Nearly one year in, more than 250,000 people have been newly displaced and the number of people in need of humanitarian aid has risen dramatically to an estimated 14 million people. The Covid pandemic, a collapsed economy, and ongoing atrocities and blocking of humanitarian aid by the military junta are exacerbating the challenges. Additionally, nearly one year since the Myanmar coup, the prospects for safe, dignified, and voluntary return of some 900,000 Rohingya refugees from the largest refugee settlement in the world in Bangladesh seem even more distant.

The panel featured Naw K’nyaw Paw, General Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) and Dan Sullivan, Deputy Director for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East at Refugees International with opening remarks by Representative Steve Chabot (R-OH), Ranking Member, House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Nonproliferation. The discussion was moderated by Elizabeth Hoffman, Director of Congressional and Government Affairs at CSIS.

Photo Caption: Picture of a Myanmar soldier in Sittwe, Rakhine state. Photo Credit: YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images.