Daniel Sullivan

What’s The Future For The Rohingya?

The abuse of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar continues, with hundreds more fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh in recent months.

There, they join the world's largest refugee camp of around a million other Rohingyas who fled a co-ordinated campaign of violence designed to drive them out of mostly Buddhist Myanmar.

But what will happen to these displaced people long term? Myanmar has claimed they would be able to return, but it’s clear that remains impossible.

The aid agency Refugees International says the most recent arrivals to Bangladesh paint a bleak picture of life in Myanmar for remaining Rohingyas.

Listen here.

WNYC's The Takeaway | Bangladesh Plans to Relocate 100,000 Rohingya to Cyclone-Prone Island

Since 2016, over 1 million Rohingya Muslims have fled ethnic cleansing by Myanmar's military and taken refuge in Bangladesh, which has one of the highest population densities in the world.

Following the Foreign Minister’s announcement that it could no longer accept Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh has completed some construction as part of a plan to relocate 100,000 refugees to a remote, monsoon-prone island in the Bay of Bengal.

The island's name, Bhasan Char, means "floating island". Rohingya activists have criticized the decision, saying that they didn't get a chance to weigh in.

Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International, gives an update on the situation in Myanmar, and then discusses Bangladesh’s refugee relocation plan.

The Takeaway: UN Report Accuses Myanmar Military of Genocide

new report from the United Nations says six of Myanmar’s top generals should be tried for genocide and other crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.

The report comes one year after the Myanmar military systematically forced more than 700,000 people from the Rohingya Muslim minority from their homes and villages across the border into Bangladesh. At least 10,000 Rohingya were killed in a targeted campaign of genocide, the UN experts say -- adding that 10,000 is a conservative estimate.

Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate for Human Rights at Refugees International, visited and interviewed Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh earlier this year and recently wrote an article called "Five Key Priorities To Address the Rohingya Crisis."

PBS Newshour: Amid ‘mounting evidence of atrocities,’ UN calls for investigation into Rohingya crackdown

The U.N. is calling for an investigation into Myanmar’s violent crackdown last year against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. But Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are finally receiving aid, and despite repatriation discussions, many are reluctant to return to the people who brutalized them. Nick Schifrin talks to special correspondent Tania Rashid and Refugees International's Dan Sullivan.

All Things Considered: U.N. Human Rights Probe; Top Myanmar Generals Should Face Genocide Charges

A United Nations-mandated Fact-Finding Mission issued a scathing report documenting Myanmar security forces' violence against the country's ethnic Rohingya Muslim population last year.

RI’s Daniel Sullivan joins NPR’s All Things Considered to discuss the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

The National: Rohingya refugees face monsoon wrath in Bangladesh camps

After surviving a state campaign of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh now face the wrath of a South Asian monsoon that aid agencies warn could spark a new catastrophe for the Muslim ethnic group.

Around 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh after a campaign of religious persecution, settling in camped, flood-prone camps now at risk from the seasonal monsoon and the heavy rain and landslides it has caused. Most arrived from Myanmar’s Rahkine state following a coordinated state campaign the US has described as ethnic cleansing.

Aid agencies say that around 200,000 Rohingya, more than half of them children, are threatened by the conditions. Both the UN and host government Bangladesh have received criticism for what has been viewed as an inadequate response to the impending crisis.

Heavily-populated and low-lying Bangladesh has struggled to find room for the refugees, most of whom now live in bamboo and tarpaulin shelters in sprawling hillside camps on national forest land.

As of June 14, the UN had reported one death - a young child - in the monsoon. But Myo Thant, a 25-year-old Rohingya refugee from Maungdaw in Rakhine, said a dozen refugees had been killed in landslides since rains began last week.

“People are feeling so sad and scared,” he said, speaking from Balukhali camp.

“What people were worried about is happening in front of their eyes. The international community and help from aid workers is needed urgently to help us survive this situation.”

Due to a shortage of available land, the government of Bangladesh has offered up low-lying but hilly sections of national forest for the camps.

“It’s the best they were able to offer at this time,” said Lynette Nyman, a communications delegate for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “I can’t think what other options there would have been.”

Much of the land in the camps has been deforested by refugees seeking wood for cooking fires, and rains are now washing away the sandy soil. Landslides are destroying shelters and roads and flooding latrines, creating a health risk. The monsoon rains also increase the threat of water-borne diseases such as cholera, putting the inhabitants not only at risk of displacement, but infection.

According to UNICEF, almost 900 shelters, 15 water points, over 200 latrines, two health facilities it supports and two food distribution sites have been damaged or destroyed in the camps. Most roads into the camps have been flooded.

“The land itself is the most dangerous part of this situation,” said Ms Nyman, speaking from District Camp 4 in Cox's Bazar, a town on the southeast coast of Bangladesh.

Aid agencies and the government of Bangladesh, who both had foreknowledge of the likely effects of the monsoon rains, have come under fire for not acting faster to flood-proof the vulnerable camps.

“The humanitarian response, including preparation for the monsoon season, has been significant and substantial – but it has also been hamstrung by a number of obstacles and lack of effective management and coordination by the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations system,” said Daniel Sullivan of advocacy group Refugees International.

“Failure to overcome these challenges is unnecessarily putting lives at risk.”

With rains expected to continue until September, humanitarians are issuing urgent warnings for the camps to be made safe for inhabitants before disaster strikes again in the coming months.

“The problem now is not one of money, it’s one of de-congesting extremely overcrowded settlements which are well below emergency standards for camps,” said Caroline Gluck, a public information officer for the UN’s refugee agency in Bangladesh.

“The more it gets waterlogged, the more we’re going to see these problematic things become worse,” she continued. “It’s a race against time.”

This piece originally appeared here

Fair Observer: The Other Ethnic Crisis in Myanmar

isplacement and human rights abuses in northern Myanmar underscore the need for international pressure on Myanmar’s military.

With more than 650,000 people fleeing their homes, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyaminority by the Myanmar military has reached unprecedented proportions. But patterns of serious human rights abuses and restrictions on humanitarian aid at the hands of the military are neither unprecedented nor limited to the Rohingya. This fact not only reinforces the need for international pressure on Myanmar, but also highlights the urgent need to address an unsustainable situation that, if ignored, could lead to a rapidly deteriorating human rights and humanitarian crisis in another part of the country.

Some 100,000 mostly Christian people continue to live in displacement camps in northern Myanmar, increasingly cut off from life-saving aid. Even as a new round of national peace talks approaches, fighting between the Myanmar military and groups that have not signed a national ceasefire agreement, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has ratcheted up. As recently as Christmas Eve, Myanmar military shells fell near a displacement camp in Kachin State.

Most of the 100,000 people in Kachin and northern Shan States have been displaced since 2011 when a 17-year ceasefire between the military and the KIA, one of Myanmar’s strongest ethnic armed groups, ended. Many have been displaced multiple times. In January 2017, for example, Myanmar military shells fell near a displacement camp causing thousands to flee across the border into China before being pushed back and making their way to a new camp high in the Kachin hills. Another thousand are estimated to have been displaced just since the end of December 2017.


Nearly half of the displaced population in northern Myanmar is living in areas beyond government control, mainly in the hands of the KIA and along the border with China. As Refugees International found in a recent — rare for an outside group — visit to these areas, this vulnerable population faces an increasingly precarious situation. Since May 2016, the government of Myanmar has forbidden any international aid delivery and denied virtually all access for the United Nations and international humanitarian groups. Local groups are still able to deliver aid but at a much higher cost and without the expertise and capacity that international humanitarians can provide.

At the same time, international donors have decreased the overall amount of aid to those national groups. The result, as found in Refugees International interviews with displaced persons in Kachin State, has been an increased sense of desperation expressed by displaced persons and borne out by increased reports of disease, higher dropout rates among students in schools set up for displaced persons, and increased numbers seeking livelihood opportunities in China, where they face growing risks of trafficking and exploitation.

In short, the dangerous mix of less international aid, more restrictions and waning global attention to displacement (going on seven years) has created both a humanitarian and protection crisis.

Conditions have even been worsening for displaced persons living in government-controlled areas. While not facing the near blanket restriction on international aid and services like those in areas beyond government control, these displaced persons face a dramatic increase in restrictions in the form of onerous bureaucratic requirements and delayed travel authorizations. As the UN humanitarian agency’s November 2017 update reported, “Over the last year, there has been a dramatic deterioration in the amount of access granted by the Government for humanitarian workers in Kachin and Shan states.”

Nor has the pattern of increased restrictions been limited to international humanitarians. Local humanitarians and media are also facing greater difficulties and intimidation. In 2017, two Kachin Baptist pastors were arrested for showing international journalists where a Myanmar military shell had landed on a Catholic church.

This links to a broader national trend of a crackdown on media. In December 2017, two local Burmese journalists working for Reuters were arrested for allegedly illegally obtaining documents related to abuses against the Rohingya. The government of Myanmar also continues to insist that it will not grant access to the fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council, and it recently barred the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights from any further visits.


The trajectory of recent events, from arrests of journalists to resumed shelling even near displacement camps, suggests the government and military are not prepared to take steps toward peace and respect for human rights whether in Rakhine or Kachin and northern Shan States. In the absence of internal policy change, the need for international pressure will only become more necessary and urgent.

The holding of emergency sessions at the UN Human Rights Council and UN Security Council and the US sanctioning of Maung Maung Soe — the general previously overseeing the ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine State — are welcome steps. But more must be done, including further targeted sanctions, suspension of military to military cooperation and imposition of a multilateral arms embargo.

The ethnic cleansing of two-thirds of the Rohingya community previously living in Myanmar already begged all of these steps and more concerted international pressure. The ongoing plight of other minorities in Myanmar should not only reinforce the need for that pressure, but also remind us of broader risks of insecurity and even greater civilian suffering.

For the full article, click here

MSNBC: Journalists Held in Myanmar as Rohingya Crisis Continues

Daniel Sullivan had the chance to close out 2017 with an appearance on MSNBC speaking with Hallie Jackson about humanitarian situation for Rohingya and Kachin in Myanmar

US News & World Report: Aung San Suu Kyi, understand this: Ethnic cleansing is going on in your Myanmar

Daniel Sullivan, Opinion contributor Published 5:00 a.m. ET Sept. 28, 2017 | Updated 5:07 p.m. ET Sept. 28, 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi, former Nobel Peace laureate and current de facto leader of Myanmar, recently addressed the world on the Rohingya crisis for the first time: “We are concerned to hear numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. We want to understand why this exodus is happening.” She should ask Lila.

Lila, 28, is a Rohingya mother of three whom I met in Thaingkhali, one of several newly established makeshift settlements in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are a minority in what's formerly known as Burma, where they are not recognized by the government as an official group and are denied citizenship. More than a million Rohingya are stateless Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country that has long been hostile to their presence.

Suu Kyi’s inferred question — “Why have more than 480,000 Rohingya, a third of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, fled to Bangladesh in just the past month?” — is exactly what I asked Lila and numerous others in the few days leading up to Suu Kyi’s global address on Sept. 19. 

Read the full article here.

Yahoo! News: Activists cling to hope Myanmar leader will step up and fight ethnic cleansing

Read the original article here.

Katie Flaherty
Yahoo News September 27, 2017

Last week Myanmar’s de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi again failed to address the international communities’ concerns on the plight of the displaced Rohingya ethnic group in her country. The onetime democratic activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate seemed unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the mass exodus of the Muslim minority in the mostly Buddhist country, leading human rights officials to debate their next step in the unfolding tragedy.

In one month, more than 422,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee their home in the country’s northern Rakhine State as the Myanmar military reportedly conducts “clearance operations” that have been deemed “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra‘ad Al Hussein.

Rights groups have been pressuring diplomats to redirect their attention and issue targeted economic sanctions against the leaders of the campaign and the country’s true power, the military.

After decades of martial law, Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy (NLD) took control of the government in 2016 as the face of Myanmar’s long-delayed shift to democracy. But since then, she has been a “profound disappointment,” says Human Right’s Watch Asia advocacy director John Sifton, for failing to condemn the same army generals who kept her under house arrest for 15 years.

Still, he says, she may be the international communities’ only hope to halt the continuing atrocities.

Although Suu Kyi rightfully won Myanmar’s election, her formal title is state counsellor, a position she created for herself to get around the constitution’s prohibition on anyone with a foreign spouse or children from holding the presidency. Suu Kyi’s two children are British citizens, as was her late husband.

Still, she is widely recognized as the country’s leader, with the president, U Htin Kyaw,serving as a close confidantBut the Constitution allots 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the armed forces to overrule the president in the event a “state of emergency arises” or any time the army deems newly established rights are interfering with their ability to protect the state’s sovereignty.

“They realized they could manage a transition to ‘democracy’ in which she would run a civilian government, but they would continue to essentially run the national security and foreign affairs of the state,” says Sifton.

The Myanmar Army began its most recent crackdown on the Rohingya a month ago, after a handful of insurgents under the name Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police outposts, killing 12 officers. The army has since used the attack as a pretense to systematically kill civilians, rape women and burn more than 200 villages. Military leaders say the campaign is targeting only armed militants, even as close to half the Rohingya population in Myanmar has now fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

Dan Sullivan, senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International, who visited Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, close to the border, says Bangladeshi patrols described finding land mines at crossing points and verified refugees’ stories that it was Myanmar police setting fire to their homes.

Also near Cox’s Bazar, United Nations Human Refugee Agency spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey, who is working in two nearby refugee camps, says although they heard the raids had slowed slightly, refugees are still coming over the border. McKinsey says they have all told similar stories.

“They describe seeing their families killed, chopped up in front of them, this is the thing I hear over and over again,” she says.

But the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar is not unique to the military and has roots extending back more than half a century. Among the Burmese population, even the name ‘Rohingya’ is taboo, as many believe the government narrative that these people are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingya are not one of the recognized “national races” and therefore are denied basic rights.

Human Rights Watch deputy director for global advocacy Philippe Bolopion visited Rakhine State in the spring, when he says even before the recent crisis, many Rohingya were confined to “de facto prison camps” without access to jobs, hospitals or education.

“People are stuck in these camps for years, they have absolutely no future, and no dignity and no semblance of a normal life.”

McKinsey says the minority group is unique in that they are one of the only ethnic populations in the world that are both stateless and refugees.

“These people have never had the protection of the country in which they were born. The Rohingya are the most friendless people in the world, the most persecuted people in the world. … They have no allies, it’s just unbelievable.”

After the most recent wave of refugees, Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, is now sheltering more than 800,000 Rohingya. Local Bengalis have begun to open their homes to refugees as well as to those already living in camps, but McKinsey says the speed and sheer number of arrivals have left at least 90 percent of the latest wave living outside of the camps, forced to squat in makeshift shelters on the side of the road.

Last week’s U.N. General Assembly brought together more than 100 heads of state but failed to produce any kind of concrete action on the crisis. The U.S. also pledged $32 million for the emergency response in Bangladesh and in Rakhine State itself. But as a political matter, Sifton says there is reluctance among U.S. officials to admit that their hopes for Myanmar haven’t been realized. Under President Obama the U.S. removed most sanctions on Myanmar in 2016 and began working and training with the country’s military in a limited capacity.

“Policy makers the world over who were invested in [Myanmar’s] transition are concerned that taking tough actions like sanctions, arms embargos will essentially be an admission that the transition to democracy has failed,” he says.

The State Department refused to comment on sanctions. In spite of a long history of ethnic conflict and atrocities under years of unfettered military rule, the U.N. has never issued sanctions on Myanmar for its human rights abuses. However, many countries have taken a bilateral approach to punish the state.

The U.N. has yet to even hold a public Security Council meeting on the situation in Rakhine State, but Sifton says the issue has the necessary support for a procedural vote to put the issue on the agenda. Sanctions or other substantive action would likely be vetoed by China, one of Myanmar’s closest allies, but Sifton thinks even debating the issue would send a signal to the military that they are under scrutiny.

However, recent military speeches in the region call into question whether such a threat would be much of a deterrent. On Thursday, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing addressed the situation in Rakhine State without mentioning the almost half million Rohingya Muslims who fled his forces.

“Regarding the rehabilitation of villages of our national races, for the national races who fled their homes, first of all they must go back to their places,” he said.

The use of ‘national races’ refers to the constitutionally recognized ethnic groups, including both Buddhists and Hindus, some 30,000 of whom have also been displaced by the crisis.

Related slideshow: Protesters rally in solidarity with Rohingya Muslims >>>

Aung Hlaing has done little to hide that his army is trying to rid the country of Muslims entirely, defending the operations as “unfinished business,” a reference dating back to World War II when ethnic tensions between Buddhist and Muslims resulted in mass atrocities, disproportionately affecting the Rohingya.

Former Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin also spoke Thursday during a rally for the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, where he and others spun theories of the Rohingya’s ties to militant groups like the Islamic State and dismissed international pressure to halt the clearance operations. Wai Lwin stressed the importance of the military’s ability to “protect the country’s sovereignty,” over “prioritizing human rights.”

Even with the army’s transparent intentions on public display, Suu Kyi has refused to condemn the military, reminding the world that her government has only been in power for 18 months.

“I’m a bit dumbfounded by this idea that we have to be understanding of the hardships of democratic transition. Yes, we get that, but that does not excuse an ethnic cleansing campaign,” says Bolopion.

Rights groups have called for sanctions specifically targeting high-ranking military officers, issuing personal travel bans and targeting companies they own.

“The Trump administration could throw [Myanmar’s army chief] Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on the specially designated nationals list tonight if he wanted to.”

This list, issued by the Treasury Department, designates individuals and companies that are effectively blacklisted, cutting off their assets and any relations with the U.S. The decision would not require billions of dollars or even international cooperation, it’s just a matter of policy.

Senior U.S. officials have expressed fear that sanctions will only strengthen the military and serve to further isolate Suu Kyi. But Human Rights Watch believes these actions would do just the opposite, he says, empowering Suu Kyi and leveraging her record of getting Obama to lift sanctions to rein in the army.

From the beginning of her appearance in the world’s spotlight, Suu Kyi has said she’d like to be seen as a politician, not a human rights icon, and Human Rights Watch’s calls for action suggests using her as such.

“She could be the middle man between the generals and the U.S. She’ll be the one to convince them [that] if they do what she asks, which is stop these operations and negotiate some kind of situation where [refugees] are allowed to return,” she could get sanctions removed again, says Sifton.

Unfortunately, even if the Rohingya are able to return, prejudice runs deep among the people of Rakhine State. The end of strict military rule gave rise to a growing strain of Buddhist extremism that regards the Rohingya a threat to both the country and its majority religion.

“We’d have a situation where we’d basically be asking the people who are carrying out the ethnic cleansing to stop carrying out the ethnic cleansing, let people return and then guard them from ethnic cleansing by the local population,” says Sifton.

In these types of situations, peacekeeping forces or international monitors are often deployed, but often come with their own set of problems.

Despite perilous conditions, McKinsey says, all refugees — including the Rohingya she’s spoken with — always want to return home.

“These are people with their own free will and they are the ones who will decide where they can go safely. … The international community to needs to create conditions that will make it attractive for people to go back to their lives,” Bolopion adds.


U.S. News and World Report: A Brighter Future for Refugees

By Eric Schwartz and Daniel Sullivan

June 20, 2017, at 8:00 a.m.

On Dec. 4, 2000, the United Nations General Assembly declared that June 20 would be "celebrated" annually as World Refugee Day. For millions of people displaced by conflict and persecution globally, there is little to celebrate, but World Refugee Day does present an opportunity to bring attention to their plight, and to the possibility of solutions.

Indeed, if political leaders are responsible for stoking the communal anger and intolerance that cause such suffering, they also have the power to chart a different course. While we focus appropriately today on cases of stubborn resistance to respect for human rights, we should not ignore signs of positive action.

It is not hard to find examples of resistance to improving the plight of the displaced. The situation of the Muslim minority Rohingya population in Myanmar provides one of the most compelling cases. The Burmese authorities have denied citizenship to one million Rohingya and have turned a blind eye to security force abuses that may constitute crimes against humanity. Decades of persecution have caused another million Rohingya to flee the country.

Read the full article here.

Fair Observer: Suu Kyi Continues Denial of Rohingya Abuses

Read the original article here.


Aung San Suu Kyi continued a pattern of denial and unwillingness to criticize the Myanmar military over crimes against the Rohingya. 

In a rare interview with an international news network, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi downplayed atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in the country’s Rakhine State and dismissed growing international criticisms of her response to the abuses.

In the interview given to the BBC, Suu Kyi ardently denies charges that Myanmar’s military is engaged in ethnic cleansing. Suu Kyi preferred instead to frame the situation as a matter between “people on different sides of a divide” and insisted that those who have been displaced by violence are welcome to return.

Lost between this denial of atrocities and dubious invitation to return to safe conditions are serious human rights abuses by military and security forces, which prompted the United Nations Human Rights Council last month to establish an independent, international fact-finding mission—a mission with which Suu Kyi refuses to cooperate.

More than 100,000 Rohingya have been displaced and hundreds killed amid rampant severe human rights abuses since a military crackdown started in October 2016. The crackdown was prompted by an attack on border security posts by a group of Rohingya militants that resulted in the deaths of nine officers, but quickly escalated to a disproportionate blanket response affecting the broader Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State.

A February 2017 UN report, based on interviews with some of the more than 70,000 Rohingya who fled the violence to Bangladesh, documented a series of horrific abuses by the Myanmar army—or Tatmadaw—that it concluded may amount to crimes against humanity.

When asked about the Tatmadaw’s apparent freedom to rape, pillage and torture without consequence, Suu Kyi denied this was the case but also failed to acknowledge or call for accountability for the well-documented abuses that have taken place.

Suu Kyi’s answers continued a pattern of denial and unwillingness to criticize the Tatmadaw. Ostensibly, this is a political calculation. Suu Kyi continues to be clear that she considers herself a politician, not the human rights icon that many held her up to be during her years of struggle under house arrest against the previous military junta.

It is true that her influence with the Tatmadaw, particularly on security matters, is limited both by the constitution and the entrenched power of the Tatmadaw in Myanmar’s economy and society following decades of military rule.

But Suu Kyi has gone beyond basic acquiescence to actively support the military’s denials. In her statements since the current crisis began, she has defended the Tatmadaw and, rather than speak out about the increasingly horrific reports, highlighted accusations of “fake rape” on her official Facebook page.

She has further studiously ignored the humanitarian consequences of months of blocking aid to northern Rakhine State. Even as the UN was warning about spiking malnutrition rates in January 2017, a government commission was reporting positively on the food security situation in northern Rakhine State, citing “no cases of malnutrition.” The latest UN humanitarian updates confirm that humanitarian aid continues to be “severely restricted,” calling further into question her claim that those who return will be safe.

But beyond the defensiveness and denials, the BBC interview also provides a glimpse of hope that Suu Kyi is not immune to international pressure. If body language is any indication, she is bothered by the criticisms of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, even if she discounts these criticisms as just their opinion. With the UN report, appeals by the Dalai Lama and the pope as well as the latest UN Human Rights Council resolution, it is quite clear it is an opinion shared by an increasing number of people around the world.

If Suu Kyi is to stem this rising tide of criticism, she will have to provide much more than her own increasingly questionable word, which brings us back to that most pertinent of questions: Why not allow an international fact-finding mission?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Harvard International Review: Aung San Suu Kyi's Ultimate Test

Read the original article here.

Dan Sullivan  January 19, 2017  37(4) Fall 2016AsiaHuman RightsPerspectives

The victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, has marked an historic political transformation in Myanmar (also known as Burma). But little has improved for the country’s most vulnerable people.

As Suu Kyi and the NLD move beyond their first six months in power, addressing Myanmar’s human rights and humanitarian challenges remain among their greatest tests.

By the Numbers


According to UN figures, nearly a million people from Myanmar are displaced either within the country or in surrounding countries. Much of this displacement is the result of long-term policies of discrimination and bellicosity by the military-dominated government. This displacement includes some 100,000 refugees across the border in Thailand and hundreds of thousands dispersed in southeastern Myanmar. But a significant portion of the displacement is the result of more recent dynamics, even as recent reforms have been instituted (or perhaps partially because of reforms). Since 2011, more than 240,000 people have been displaced by violence and conflict in Myanmar, roughly 100,000 in Kachin and Shan States in the northeast and 140,000 in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Most of the latter are Muslim Rohingya, a heavily persecuted minority.

Beyond those displaced, more than one million Rohingya have been rendered stateless due to the government’s refusal to recognize their citizenship. Though better off than the 120,000 who remain cordoned off in squalid displacement camps, they too face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to health care, education, and livelihoods, not to mention their rights to marry, have children, and even self-identify. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled conditions in the country by sea in recent years, with many suffering abuse at the hands of human traffickers and hundreds dying along the way. This dynamic captured international attention in May 2015 when thousands of Rohingya, along with migrants and asylum seekers from Bangladesh, were abandoned by traffickers and trapped at sea. Today, the displacement crisis continues, though largely outside of the headlines.

Historic Election

The NLD’s resounding victory was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for a more democratic government that included the student uprising in 1988 and the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” in 2007.

Myanmar’s displacement crisis has been largely overshadowed by the NLD election victory in November 2015 and assumption of power in March 2016, which represented the first truly civilian-led government in half a century. The NLD’s resounding victory was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for a more democratic government that included the student uprising in 1988 and the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” in 2007. These protests were sparked by new economic policies and crackdowns that reflected a longer history of failed economic policies and heavy restrictions on personal freedoms suffered by most of the population. Suu Kyi was initially elected to Parliament in 1990, but soon detained along with hundreds of other political prisoners. She gained international notoriety for spending the better part of two decades under house arrest.

Years of campaigning by both domestic and international activists kept the struggle in the headlines, but a real opening did not come until 2010 when the military leadership announced a transition to a civilian-led government (though effectively retaining power) and the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. The change of heart came as a result of continued pressure by the domestic democracy movement, international overtures offering an escape from sanctions and isolation, and a desire to open to the West to rebalance against China’s rising influence.

Suu Kyi was allowed to run for and win a seat in parliament in 2012. Several significant reforms occurred over the ensuing years, including the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners, lighter restrictions on media and public gatherings, and ceasefire agreements with several of the ethnic minority armed groups who had been fighting the military-led government for years. These reforms were met with the lifting of most international sanctions, increased international investment, diplomatic recognitions including the appointment of a US Ambassador, chairmanship of the regional governmental alliance (ASEAN), and visits by world leaders, including President Obama. Suu Kyi was welcomed to the White House in September 2016 as President Obama announced the lifting of most remaining sanctions. The NLD electoral victory has largely been seen as a vindication of international policy towards Myanmar and hopes for further reforms have remained high through the first months of governance.

Not all Good News

Not all the news has been good, however. In the lead up to the elections, there was significant backsliding on much touted reforms including new arrests of political prisoners, crackdowns on media freedoms, and unwillingness to move forward on constitutional reforms. The current military-influenced constitution, written with Suu Kyi in mind, blocks her from being President. The NLD partially worked around this by creating a “State Counselor” position and appointing Suu Kyi as Foreign Minister. But the constitution also guarantees the military control of important ministries and 25 percent of parliamentary seats – an effective veto on any constitutional changes. Former generals continue to control most of the economy behind the scenes. Corruption remains widespread and the US State Department has listed Myanmar as among the very worst countries in its latest human trafficking report.

Progress on negotiations with ethnic armed groups has also been mixed. While eight groups signed a National Ceasefire Agreement just ahead of the elections, seven others who had been invited to negotiations did not, including those of the Kachin and Wa, who have the largest militias. Suu Kyi has prioritized national reconciliation, hosting a notable gathering of nearly all the country’s ethnic groups in a peace conference in August 2016, but little beyond opening statements has been achieved so far. The UN and independent monitors continue to report severe human rights abuses including rape, torture, and summary executions committed with impunity by Myanmar’s army and rebels. Fighting in the Kokang region last year forced tens of thousands across the border into China. Bouts of fighting have also flared up with other groups, such as the Arakan Army. Aid restrictions also continue to put lives in danger. Of the nearly 100,000 people who remain displaced by fighting in Kachin and northern Shan states, half are in non-government controlled areas, where a UN official who recently visited warned “humanitarian access is shrinking.”

The most decidedly negative news has been the rise of an extremist, nationalist brand of Buddhism, known as the 969 movement, which expresses itself in inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and has exploded in violence, particularly against the Rohingya minority.

The most decidedly negative news has been the rise of an extremist, nationalist brand of Buddhism, known as the 969 movement, which expresses itself in inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and has exploded in violence, particularly against the Rohingya minority. The Rohingya have faced decades of state-led persecution, but their situation has in many ways worsened in recent years. Violence that broke out between ethnic Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012 led to scores of deaths and the displacement of some 140,000 people. A climate of increasingly hate-filled and dehumanizing rhetoric has fed the previously mentioned flow of tens of thousands attempting dangerous escapes by sea.

The situation is such that the US Holocaust Museum’s Early Warning Project lists Myanmar as the country most likely to see a new bout of mass killing. A team from the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide visited Rakhine State and warned of a high likelihood of atrocities and even genocide, while a Yale Law human rights study last year found “strong evidence” that genocide may already be under way. The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has similarly warned that the Government of Myanmar must address discrimination against the Rohingya “…or face the risk of further violence and, potentially, more serious crimes.”

Plight of the Rohingya

But the Rohingya have been particularly singled out with policies of persecution.

The challenge in Rakhine State is mired in a complex mix of exploitation by the military-led government, decades of state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya, and widespread anti-Muslim sentiment stoked by the rise of a well-organized movement of influential ultra-nationalist monks. Rakhine State is the second poorest state in Myanmar. All of the ethnic groups within the state have been negatively affected by government policies, including Buddhist Rakhine, Muslim Rohingya, and non-Rohingya Muslims like the Kaman. But the Rohingya have been particularly singled out with policies of persecution. A great number of people across Myanmar view the darker-skinned Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a remnant of colonial policies of bringing foreigners into the country. The military-led government and many across the country have refused to recognize the Rohingya as a people, insisting on calling them “Bengali” in reference to their perceived illegal immigrant status.

In reality, the Rohingya are a people that can trace their presence in today’s western Myanmar to at least two hundred years ago. In previous elections, Rohingya representatives and votes were cultivated by the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) party as a counter to Rakhine influence. Some Rohingya have even been tacitly recognized as citizens by being elected to Parliament. Similarly, repatriation agreements in the 1990s signaled acceptance of their citizenship claims.

Still, a perception of the Rohingya as foreigners persists and has been stoked by the 969 movement, led by a group of ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks who have traveled the country giving vitriolic speeches, dispersing hate speech in DVDs, and pushing for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. At the head of the movement is the monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been described as the Buddhist Bin Laden, compared Muslims to vermin, and called the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar a “whore” for defending Muslim rights. Wirathu and others paint the Rohingya as a rapidly growing existential threat to Buddhist and majority Burman culture, despite the fact that the country remains nearly 90 percent Buddhist.

This dynamic is not new. In 1978, 250,000 Rohingya were driven out of the country into Bangladesh. Another 200,000 fled to Bangladesh before being largely repatriated in the 1990s. Leaked government documents have shown decades of state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya. Perhaps most damning, a 1982 Citizenship Law left the Rohingya out among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups of Myanmar, effectively making them one of the largest stateless populations in the world. Lacking citizenship limits their ability to move freely, seek work and education, and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

What is new is the level of separation between the ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya in apartheid-like conditions. The two groups had long interacted commercially, especially in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. But today all of the Rohingya have been driven out of the city, save for a few thousand sequestered in a ghetto area called Aung Mingalar. Tens of thousands of other Rohingya who previously lived in and around the city now live in displacement camps that have been described as open-air prisons.

Widespread violence and displacement began in 2012, sparked by the rape of a Rakhine woman by Rohingya men. While the violence has often been described as intercommunal, it was enabled by state-led persecution and the refusal of state security forces to intervene, with some reports of the state’s active participation in the violence. The government’s accountability measures have also been inordinately skewed. Despite the fact that the United Nations estimates 95 percent of those displaced by violence have been Rohingya, few Rakhine have been charged for the violence, while hundreds of Rohingya have been detained.

International aid access has also been restricted with dire consequences.

International aid access has also been restricted with dire consequences. In 2014, the government expelled Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the primary source of health care for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. Within the first two weeks of their expulsion an estimated 150 died from the lack of medical care. While MSF has since been allowed to return, it is at a much reduced level and otherwise preventable deaths continue to take place.

Today, under the new government, some 120,000 people remain in displacement camps. In hervisit to the camps in June, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee reported “poor” and overcrowded conditions concluding that “the situation on the ground has yet to significantly change.”

Broader Anti-Muslim Dynamics

In central Myanmar, an attack on non-Rohingya Muslims in the village of Meiktila in 2013 left some 40 people dead – many of them children – and several mosques and Muslim-owned shops destroyed.

The violence against Rohingya has occurred in a broader environment of anti-Muslim sentiment. Kaman Muslims, recognized as citizens, have suffered attacks and displacement in Rakhine State as well. In central Myanmar, an attack on non-Rohingya Muslims in the village of Meiktila in 2013 left some 40 people dead – many of them children – and several mosques and Muslim-owned shops destroyed. Riots in Mandalay in 2014 similarly targeted Muslims. In recent months, a Muslim prayer hall was destroyed in central Myanmar and a mosque was burnt to the ground in the north, with little accountability.

The blatant racism of Wirathu and the 969 movement continues, but has also been joined by a more sophisticated anti-Muslim movement. The Buddhist-monk-led Ma Ba Tha or Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, formed in 2014, has proven a formidable force in domestic politics. They have drafted and successfully pressured officials to pass so-called Race and Religion Protection laws that largely target Muslims, restricting freedoms to convert religions, marry people of other religions, and have children in areas deemed by authorities to need population control measures.

But it is not just the ultra-nationalists contributing to anti-Muslim dynamics. The military-led USDP party stripped the rights of sitting Rohingya members of Parliament to run for re-election. The NLD did not put forward a single Muslim candidate in the elections. And, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who voted in the last election were disenfranchised, as new policies invalidated their temporary identification cards and demanded near impossible standards as proof of citizenship.

Prospects for Change

The first six months of the new NLD-led government have seen strong indications of both potential progress and regression regarding Myanmar’s displacement challenges.

The more positive potential lies with refugees in Thailand and those displaced within Kachin and northern Shan States.

The more positive potential lies with refugees in Thailand and those displaced within Kachin and northern Shan States. The root cause of this displacement has been fighting between ethnic armed groups and Myanmar’s army. Suu Kyi and the NLD have identified a peace process with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities as a top priority. In August, she held a 21st Century Panglong Conference, a new version of the meeting convened by her father General Aung San with key ethnic groups in 1947. That original meeting led to a signed, but never implemented, agreement setting the basis for a federal system with significant autonomy for ethnic groups. The NLD enjoyed widespread support among ethnic minority groups in the elections. That goodwill has translated, at least initially,  into a willingness of holdout ethnic groups like the Kachin and Wa to participate in further talks.

The outlook for the Rohingya and the smaller number of non-Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists displaced in western Myanmar is decidedly more troubling. Despite great optimism among Rohingya that their situation might improve with the new government, initial indications have been less hopeful. Shortly after the NLD took the helm of the new government, a spokesman indicated the party would take the same line as the previous military-dominated government in refusing to recognize the Rohingya as anything other than illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh. Suu Kyi, in her new role as State Counselor and Foreign Minister, has since asked foreign governments and the United Nations to desist from using the name “Rohingya.” Unfortunately, the European Union (EU), in a statement, expressed its willingness to comply.

The government has re-launched a citizen verification process in Rakhine State, but the Rohingya are viewing it with great skepticism. Earlier documents supposedly verifying their claims to citizenship have been revoked. The head of the State Counselor’s office recently suggested a doubling down on the 1982 Citizenship Law, suggesting that anyone identifying as Rohingya would be barred from citizenship.

The situation in northern Rakhine State took a turn for the worse in October 2016 with attacks on border security posts, reportedly by Rohingya, and a subsequent security crackdown by Myanmar authorities.

The situation in northern Rakhine State took a turn for the worse in October 2016 with attacks on border security posts, reportedly by Rohingya, and a subsequent security crackdown by Myanmar authorities. This new dynamic is still playing out, but within the first weeks has led to dozens of deaths, displacement of at least 10,000 Rohingya and 3,000 Rakhine, and blocked food aid to tens of thousands.

Room for Hope?

The most hopeful signs lie in the continued attention and pressure from the international community. While the EU stance is troubling, others have continued to stand up for the Rohingya. Even after the US Embassy in Myanmar faced protests for using the word “Rohingya” in a statement of condolences for the deaths of some 20 Rohingya who drowned in April 2016, the US Ambassador said he would continue to use the term. Days later, when US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Myanmar, he recognized sensitivities, but stated, “we all understand, as a matter of fact, that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya.”

Suu Kyi herself used the term Rohingya for the first time publicly at a joint press conference with Secretary Kerry and recognized the importance of identity, even as she warned about the use of “emotive words” and asked the international community to give her time. Though she continues to ask that the term Rohingya not be used, she is also asking that the term “Bengali,” favored by the previous military government, be avoided.

There is also hope in the fact that the new government has set up a Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State, headed by Suu Kyi, and appointed an independent advisory commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to seek solutions in Rakhine State. Though the committee and commission both conspicuously lack any Rohingya representation, they are more balanced than previous attempts dominated by local Rakhine extremists. Annan’s commission will bring outside gravitas to a difficult domestic issue, and if Suu Kyi’s commission is true to its mandate to “bring peace, stability and development to all people in Rakhine State,” it cannot help but address the situation of the Rohingya.

There are also some indications that the new government and Buddhist leaders in Myanmar are willing to stand up against the broader anti-Muslim movement. The country’s highest Buddhist authority, the Ma Ha Na, stated that Ma Ba Tha is not a recognized Buddhist group, and Myanmar’s Religious Affairs Minister warned that Ma Ba Tha leaders could face legal consequences for endorsing hate speech. While Ma Ba Tha influence remains strong and the discriminatory laws it pushed through remain on the books, this is a significant change from the previous government’s silent acquiescence toward, if not implicit support for, the group.

Also on the more positive side, the spring of 2016 did not see a repeat of the exodus of Rohingya at sea seen the year before. Much of this can be attributed to the shutting down of trafficking routes and greater awareness of the dangers of the journey brought on by last year’s crisis. But at least some of it can be attributed to the hopeful “wait and see” outlook shared by many Rohingya about the new government. But as the days progress and progress remains stagnant, that mindset may very well change.

Passing the test?

To be sure, the new government faces a host of competing priorities, from constitutional reform to delivering promised growth, even as the military continues to wield inordinate economic and political influence. But these issues are not mutually exclusive with human rights and humanitarian concerns. As the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar stated in her most recent report, tackling key human rights challenges, including in Rakhine State, will be “essential in order to make meaningful and real progress towards democratic transition, national reconciliation, sustainable development and peace in Myanmar” and “should be at the top of the country’s agenda over the coming weeks and months.”

The plight of the Rohingya must be a top priority of the new government. It is also the most easily addressed, at least in the short-term. The long-term solutions needed – revision of the 1982 Citizenship Law to allow all Rohingya a path to citizenship, return of the more than 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya to their communities, and investigations and accountability for severe human rights abuses – are unlikely to see immediate progress. But short-term remedies, including increased freedom of movement, unfettered international humanitarian access, and openingan Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (as promised by the previous president in his 11 Commitments to President Obama), can and must be pursued.

At present, the political will to take these steps is lacking. Domestic support is stifled by the organized stoking of fear and hatred, making it difficult and often dangerous for local voices to take a strong stance. As long as this dynamic continues it will be all the more important for the humanitarian test to be prioritized on the international stage. Suu Kyi and the NLD will need to show leadership in countering these dangerous forces and the international community must support and, where necessary, pressure the new government to do so.

The message must be clear: the ultimate test for Myanmar’s new government is not its ability to pursue its own interests, but how it treats its most vulnerable.

The message must be clear: the ultimate test for Myanmar’s new government is not its ability to pursue its own interests, but how it treats its most vulnerable.

AP: US cautions crackdown in Myanmar could radicalize Muslims

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By Matthew Pennington | AP December 3

WASHINGTON — It’s a scene straight out of Myanmar’s dark past: a military offensive waged beyond world view that forces ethnic minority villagers from the smoldering ruins of their homes.

The U.S. government, a key sponsor of Myanmar’s democratic transition, says a security crackdown that has displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims and left an unknown number dead risks radicalizing a downtrodden people and stoking religious tensions in Southeast Asia.

The military moved in after armed attacks by unknown assailants on police posts along the border with Bangladesh in October. The attacks in Rakhine State were a possible sign that a small number of Rohingya were starting to fight back against persecution by majority Buddhists who view them as illegal immigrants although many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, is critical of the military’s heavy-handed approach and says the escalation of violence risks inciting jihadist extremism in the country also known as Burma. He is also calling on neighboring countries, such as Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, to resist the urge to stage protests that could further stir religious passions.

Assistant Secretary of State Russel told The Associated Press that, “if mishandled, Rakhine State could be infected and infested by jihadism which already plagues neighboring Bangladesh and other countries.”

The plight of the Rohingya, once characterized by the U.N. as the world’s most friendless people, has attracted the attention of Muslim extremists since a spike in intercommunal violence in Rakhine in 2012 that left hundreds dead and forced more than 100,000 into squalid camps.

The Somali-born student who launched a car-and-knife attack at Ohio State University this week reportedly protested on his Facebook page about the killing of minority Muslims in Myanmar. And last weekend, Indonesian authorities arrested two militants who were allegedly planning to attack the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta.

It has also raised hackles in the political mainstream. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, facing domestic pressure over an investment fund scandal, is reportedly planning to attend a protest in his religiously moderate country this weekend condemning the military operation in Myanmar.

Daniel Sullivan at the advocacy group Refugees International said increasing numbers of Rohingya are fleeing across the land border to Bangladesh, and the spike in violence could set off another exodus by sea.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled by rickety boats in recent years to countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but those routes have been blocked since a crisis in 2015 when thousands were stranded at sea.

The U.S. and other nations have called for an independent investigation into the latest violence in Rakhine. Estimates of the death toll range between dozens and several hundred. Human Rights Watch said Nov. 21 that satellite imagery showed at least 1,250 buildings have been destroyed.

With journalists barred from the affected area, it’s been near-impossible to substantiate reports of rapes and killings by Myanmar soldiers — the kind of conduct that has long blighted the military’s reputation in ethnic conflicts.

Adama Dieng, U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said this week that if reports of excessive use of force in Rakhine were true, “the lives of thousands of people are at risk.”

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appointed by Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in August to find ways to help resolve the communal tensions. On a fact-finding visit Friday, he said that security operations must not impede humanitarian access.

That’s been a repeated demand from the international community, including the United States, but it’s made little impact.

The U.N. World Food Program said Friday that since Oct. 9 it has been able to deliver food or cash to only 20,000 of the 152,000 people who usually receive assistance, and to about 7,000 newly-displaced people.

The Obama administration has diminished leverage. It was instrumental in ending the former pariah state’s diplomatic isolation as it shifted from five decades of military rule but the last U.S. sanctions were lifted in October.

The military’s crackdown in Rakhine has also exposed the limits of Suu Kyi’s power. The Nobel laureate’s party won elections a year ago, but the military still controls key levers of government power, including access to sensitive border regions.

Human rights activists who once lionized Suu Kyi now criticize her for failing to defend the stateless Rohingya, but Russel defended her.

“We all should have confidence in her judgment and not fall prey to the idea that she does not get it and she does not care. She does get it, and she does care,” he said.


Associated Press writer Michael Astor at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Radio Free Asia: New U.N. Effort to Protect Refugees Not Seen as Helping Vulnerable Internally Displaced Persons

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By Roseanne Gerin

The United Nations’ newest effort to address large-scale refugee flows and migration, adopted last month in New York, has left out at least one highly vulnerable group—internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Southeast Asia, say disappointed human rights experts and activists.

The adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants on Sept. 19, in which U.N. member states agreed to protect the rights of refugees and migrants and share responsibility for large movements on a global scale, will have little or no effect on IDPs in Southeast Asia, especially Muslim Rohingyas forced into camps in their native Myanmar and scattered across the region.

The stateless Rohingya have been called the most persecuted minority in the world, and some rights groups contend they are the victims of state-sponsored genocide because of the intense persecution by majority Buddhists and officials of a military government long known for brutality that was replaced by a civilian administration only six months ago.

Rights groups point out that while the declaration is intended to address the millions fleeing recent wars, especially the raging conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, it has failed to grasp an opportunity to include concrete measures to help IDPs such as the 1.1 million Rohingya who mostly live in the Southeast Asian country’s coastal Rakhine state, also known as Arakan state.

“The declaration was, frankly speaking, a response to political pressure emanating from the ongoing/proxy war in Syria rather than the long-running problems in Myanmar, which since the start of the Syrian civil war, have failed to make headlines in the West,” wrote said Steven Kiersons, team lead for Myanmar at The Sentinel Project, in an email.

“If it has any effect on the situation in Myanmar and Southeast Asia in general, it is at the very least an acknowledgement that the current system for handling migrants and refugees is systematically dysfunctional and relies more on stemming the flow of people than addressing the root causes of migrations,” said Kiersons, whose Canada-based nonprofit organization focuses on the prevention of genocide.

The Rohingya, victims of an obscure conflict in a country that had largely shut itself off from the world for decades, briefly grabbed world news headlines in 2012, after an outbreak of communal violence killed hundreds and led many thousands to become refugees within Myanmar or take dangerous boat trips to other Southeast Asian countries.

Four years on, their fate remains precarious, amid renewed tensions in the wake of an armed attack on Oct. 9 on Myanmar guards on the country’s border with Bangladesh that has sparked retaliatory violence, leaving more than 40 people dead and sending thousands of frightened villagers fleeing their homes for cities.

Rafendi Djamin, director of Amnesty International’s South East Asia and the Pacific Regional Office based in Bangkok, calls the New York Declaration a “token gesture” that will have little impact on the lives of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Southeast Asia or elsewhere.

“Instead of announcing clear and concrete steps towards ending the refugee crisis, world leaders chose to abscond any real responsibility towards reaching a solution,” he told RFA.

Djamin noted that U.N. members states had discussed including internally displaced communities in the declaration, but in the end decided not to because they thought that it would make the document’s scope too broad.

While the main responsibility for protecting IDPs lies with national authorities, U.N. member states must push the Myanmar government to ensure that the Rohingya and other displaced people have full and unrestricted access to humanitarian assistance and that efforts to resettle them are conducted voluntarily, safely and with dignity, he said.

“It is also important for the international community to address the root causes—which include discrimination and violence—that have forced both Rohingya refugees and IDPs to flee their homes,” he said.

Tangible programs necessary


The declaration, which was adopted during the U.N.’s first-ever high-level summit on the issue of migrants and refugees by heads of state and government, U.N. leaders, and representatives from civil society, the private sector, international organizations, and academia, mentions IDPs three times in general terms. But they are not addressed in the section on commitments, human rights advocates pointed out.

Myra Dahgaypaw, acting executive director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, said she sees no positive impact from the declaration as written on paper and notes that not only the Rohingya, but other people in Myanmar are routinely displaced and become refugees due to fighting or the confiscation of their land by the national army and conflicts with the country’s numerous armed ethnic groups.

“[Unless] the U.N. and the stakeholders are willing to implement some tangible programs specifically for the affected communities, the declaration will only be a gesture,” she wrote in an email.

“If the U.N. would like to see tangible results, the U.N. and its stakeholders must create specific programs that are measurable, work with local community leaders by going on the ground, speaking with the affected community, collecting information and conducting need assessments directly,” she said.

Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate at Washington-based Refugees International who focuses on Myanmar, agrees that the New York Declaration will have little immediate impact on migrants and refugees in Southeast Asia because of its lack of accountability.

“If there is one major disappointment with the New York Declaration, it is that it does not provide for accountability for states that do not live up to their commitments.”

“It is good that IDPs are mentioned in the declaration, even if not being addressed in the commitments, but if it does not lead to future efforts to explicitly address the challenges of IDPs, then it will be a massive shortcoming that will undermine not only the security of IDPs, but the commitments to addressing refugees as well,” Sullivan told RFA from Bangkok where he is completing a research mission on Rohingya in Malaysia and Thailand.

It’s necessary for actual reform to be implemented to have an impact on IDPs like the Rohingya as the Malaysian government and UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, have done to tackle complex migration and refugee resettlement issues, he said.

“If put into effect, it could lead to implementation of ideas like granting work permits to refugees, providing education, and better access to health care,” Sullivan said.

“These would lead to substantive improvement for refugees in Malaysia, including at least 50,000 Rohingya now living there” he said. “Ideally, the commitments in the New York Declaration will help add pressure for such ideas to move forward.”

‘Blatant restrictions on human rights’

Most of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority considers the Rohingya to be illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many have lived in the country for generations.

The country’s 1982 Citizenship Law effectively renders the Rohingya stateless by prohibiting them from holding Myanmar citizenship. This policy denies them basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.

“In the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar, we are talking about blatant restrictions on human rights,” Sullivan said. “There is a need for freedom of movement, unrestricted humanitarian access, and, in the longer term, addressing the status of Rohingya as stateless due to Myanmar’s citizenship laws.”

“Addressing statelessness is included among the New York Declaration’s commitments, so, in theory, should cover the Rohingya.”

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, also cast doubt on the impact of the New York Declaration.

“The declaration has welcome aspirations but no mechanisms for monitoring and implementation,” he told RFA.

“There should be a binding convention on the rights and treatment of IDPs, with monitoring and public annual reports naming and shaming countries which don’t comply, including those who haven’t signed the convention,” Farmaner said.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya were displaced following communal violence with Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead. Afterwards, about 140,000 Rohingya were forced into dozens of IDP camps, where about 120,000 remain today in a state of limbo.

Since 2012, more than 170,000 mostly Rohingya have fled Myanmar and the border areas of Bangladesh by sea to escape ongoing abuses. But many have fallen into the hands of human traffickers in other Asian countries, according to Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based group that seeks to prevent and remedy human rights violations.

The declaration also alludes to obligations under international law when it comes to IDPs, said Djamin. It says: "While some commitments are mainly applicable to one group, they must also be applicable to the other.”

Farmaner noted that Myanmar’s new civilian-led government has retained restrictions on humanitarian aid to Rohingya IDPs that were put in place by the military junta that ruled the country for 50 years until 2011.

“People are dying as a result,” he said. “Rohingya IDPs need international protection in their own country just as much as refugees who flee abroad.”

Slow-moving and stagnant


Likewise, Wakar Uddin, director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union, believes that the New York Declaration will have little or no impact on refugees and migrants in and from Myanmar, saying that such efforts are slow-moving at best.

The nonprofit umbrella organization represents various Rohingya groups worldwide and seeks to find a political solution to the issues they face, including human rights violations and the denial of citizenship.

He calls the Rohingya issue a “truly humanitarian disaster” and laments that it was not included in the New York Declaration.

“Absolutely, it should have been included,” he wrote via email. “Most countries in this declaration are preoccupied with the issues in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, which involve several millions refugees and IDPs. “These have apparently overshadowed the smaller groups elsewhere in the world, but it shouldn’t have happened that way.”

Uddin also believes the Rohingya issue was left out of the declaration for political reasons, because many of the countries that have spoken out against their treatment in the past have now stopped because they trust the new civilian government, led by state counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to address the matter.

The UNHCR has maintained limited operations with small units in the northern part of Rakhine state but cannot deliver necessary assistance to the people because of its limited presence and restrictions that were first put in place by the junta-led government.

The UNHCR’s handing of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has been much better than its dealings with IDPs in Rakhine, said Uddin.

“Nonetheless, there may be some improvement of these issues in Myanmar not because of the New York Declaration, but due to the emerging unilateral efforts by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD-led government to address the root causes of the migrants, refugees, and IDP issues in and from Myanmar,” Uddin said.

Firm and full engagement

In late August, Aung San Suu Kyi formed a nine-member Rakhine Advisory Commission tasked with examining humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of all who live in Rakhine.

However, her appointment of former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan and two other foreign dignitaries to the panel triggered opposition from Rakhine Buddhists and the state’s Arakan National Party, which has called for the commission’s disbandment. These groups, which have led the hostility against the Muslim Rohingya, say they believe the foreign members will automatically side with the Rohingya and turn a domestic issue into an international one.

“Regardless of the Rohingya citizenship argument from either side, the Rohingya victims in the IDP camps must be returned to their original homes in their respective townships,” Uddin wrote.

“The United Nations must engage fully and firmly with the government of Myanmar for the immediate repatriation of the Rohingya IDPs,” he said.

U.N. officials said more must be done collectively by the organization’s member states to deal with the forced displacement of people.

“The New York Declaration represents a global recognition that no one state can address this issue on its own. We must share responsibilities,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters on the sidelines of the summit for refugees and migrants.

“Migration must be a choice, not a necessity,” he said. “We must address the root causes of forced displacement.”

Helen Clark, head of the United Nations Development Programme, which seeks to wipe out poverty in the world, told journalists on the sidelines of the annual Social Good Summit in New York on Sept. 18, the day before the New York Declaration was adopted, that the international community needs to give more voice to IDPs.

Global leaders and grassroots activists discussed the impact of technology and new media on social initiatives worldwide at the two-day conference held annually during U.N. General Assembly week.

Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, noted that the summit’s outcomes would not “go anywhere near” a rewriting of the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951 or address the issue of IDPs, but she hoped that it would raise awareness among leaders and ideally lead to more practical support for refugees in terms of funding.

“This summit isn’t dealing with the internally displaced, but they are a significant proportion of those who are forcibly displaced, so that tells us that there’s work to expand this conversation to deal with that specific group of people,” she said.

Most Southeast Asian nations, including Myanmar, are not signatories to the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951, which defines the term “refugee,” outlines the rights of the displaced, and sets out the legal obligations of U.N. member states to protect them.

“It’s great that there’s the convention on refugees…but the internally displaced—they need voices, they need attention as well, so that’s a conversation that must happen,” said Clark.

Three days later, Clark and others issued an open letter to U.N. member states, calling on governments and world leaders to do more to support IDPs alongside refugees and migrants.

Research for this story was supported by a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations Foundation.

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.

PolicyForum: Violence threatens new Myanmar

Read the original article here.


Violence threatens new Myanmar

Resurgence of anti-Muslim sentiment shows problems were out of sight, not out of mind


Silence from the government in the face of escalating anti-Muslim attacks only adds fuel to the fire and undermines aspirations for a peaceful future in Myanmar, Daniel P Sullivan writes.

The recent destruction of a Muslim prayer hall in central Myanmar, and the burning of a mosque in the north, mark a rekindling of tensions that have been smouldering since the first large-scale attacks against Muslims in the country in 2012.

Those attacks, initially sparked by the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in June and followed by more coordinated attacks targeting Muslims in October, ended with 200 dead and 140,000 displaced, mostly Muslims. The timing of these most recent attacks, just as the new Aung San Suu Kyi-led government reached its first 100 days in power, is an inauspicious reminder of the dangers of not addressing those hate-driven dynamics.

Since 2012, anti-Muslim feeling has led to violence that has displaced tens of thousands of people and led to almost 300 deaths. Most of those affected have been Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar who face unique prejudices and persecution as the government fails to recognise them as citizens. But anti-Muslim sentiment and violence has also affected non-Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state and spread to affect disparate parts of the country, from Okkan in the northwest to Lashio in the northeast and just outside the country’s largest city Yangon in the south. In 2013, anti-Muslim attacks in the town of Meiktila in central Myanmar led to the deaths of at least 40 people, including many students. Riots in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, in 2014 led to the deaths of one Buddhist and one Muslim man.

The opening of the military-dominated government to reforms in 2011 has led to many notable changes and the first civilian-led government in Myanmar in half a century. But it has also opened the way for dangerous anti-Muslim rhetoric, spread by a group of opportunistic, ultra-nationalist monks.

While a sense of Buddhist Burmese nationalism is not new, the level of organisation, influence, and resulting violence is. Monks like Ashin Wirathu have travelled the country dispersing DVDs and hate-propaganda and giving vitriolic sermons that paint Muslims as an existential threat to Buddhist Burmese religion and culture. They formed the “969 Movement” which organised boycotts of Muslim businesses and later a more sophisticated Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion orMa Ba Tha, which has drafted and successfully pushed through Race and Religion Protection Laws that largely target Muslims.

In past elections, Muslims, including Rohingya, were allowed to vote and even take office. But in 2015 hundreds of thousands of Muslims, mostly Rohingya, who had voted in the last election were disenfranchised and sitting Muslim members of Parliament were barred from re-election. And it is not only the more extremist voices that have supported this trend. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy did not field a single Muslim candidate.

The alarming silence of the country’s leaders has been just as loud as the vitriolic rhetoric of the ultra-nationalist monks. In the lead up to the elections, sympathisers often cited the need for Suu Kyi to balance getting elected with taking unpopular stances. Speaking out for Muslims was described as the third rail of Burmese politics. If Suu Kyi wanted to gain the power to change things, they claimed, she first needed to get elected. But three months into the new government, little has changed.

Perhaps most troubling is the lack of accountability for the recent attacks, a sad continuation of the old military-led government’s policies. Of the large mob involved in the destruction in Kachin state, only five individuals have been arrested. No arrests were made in Bago where a local official said, “If we take action on people, the situation will be bad.” But the situation is clearly already bad and ongoing tensions threaten to flare up in new bouts of violence. Impunity will only further fuel the current dynamics.

Aung San Suu Kyi has the ability to tackle these tensions. Her resounding election victory and widespread good standing give her room to manoeuvre. And she would not be alone in acting. A few brave local civil society actors have spoken out and several interfaith harmony efforts are at work.

Suu Kyi is not only the effective leader of the country, she is also the head of a Myanmar Human Rights Commission that is investigating the recent attacks. Perhaps she will continue to calculate the need to be silent on controversial topics in order to make headway on others. But she need not fully revive the strong appeals of her human rights icon days. Simply standing for accountability in cases like Bago and Kachin would speak volumes. Failure to do so will only allow the voices of hate to grow louder.