As thousands more Burmese Rohingya refugees have poured into Bangladesh this week amid new images of their home villages burned, former U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell underscores the need for urgent humanitarian assistance, and continued international engagement with the Burmese government to halt the violence in Burma’s western state of Rakhine.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar after crossing the border illegally near Amtoli, Bangladesh, Aug. 31, 2017. Bangladesh on Sept. 6 protested the huge influx of people fleeing violence in Myanmar and raised concerns with the Myanmar government about reports that its military was placing land mines along the countries’ shared border. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/ Adam Dean
A column of Burmese Rohingya cross fields after fleeing to Bangladesh on August 31. They joined an estimated 400,000 who have fled from what they say is the destruction of their villages by Burma’s military. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Adam Dean

“The immediate question is very clear and not complex,” Mitchell told Deutsche Welle television on Sept. 13. “There are 300,000 plus, rising to 400,000, people who need urgent humanitarian assistance. And the international community should do everything to get humanitarian assistance to those people who are suffering,” he said.

Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Burma, also known as Myanmar, is now a senior advisor at USIP, which works with the government and with civil society organizations in Burma to reduce violence and seek resolutions in the country’s various internal conflicts. The conflict in Rakhine has for years been one of the most difficult. Burma’s military, which ruled the country for decades and still operates independently of the civilian government, for years has portrayed the Rohingya as a security threat to Burma.

Public opinion in the Buddhist-majority country overwhelmingly regards the Muslim Rohingya population “as illegal immigrants” brought into the region generations ago under British colonialism, Mitchell noted, “and therefore not worthy of support.” Public opinion against the Rohingya in Burma “is very deep-seated and very unfortunate,” he said.

Burma’s Tenuous Transition

Mitchell and other Burma specialists at USIP have warned that the violence in Rakhine poses one of the biggest threats to Burma’s transition away from military rule toward a more democratic system. The Rakhine conflict erupted in new violence last October when a previously unheard-of group, calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked Burmese security posts near the Bangladesh border.

The U.S. State Department and international human rights groups for years have reported that the Burmese military’s widespread operations in Rakhine, against what the military says is a significant security threat, has uprooted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from their farming villages in Rakhine. Mitchell has urged Burma to undertake a process to permit the safe return of people displaced by the violence in Rakhine.

But the pattern of military operations and the displacement of Rohingya residents has been repeated since last fall. It intensified this month following new attacks on border posts, reportedly claimed by ARSA, on Aug. 25. Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch, and cellphone videos by Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh, appear to show Rohingya villages burning and blackened amid the military’s operations. The Burmese army has said the villages were burned by Rohingya militants themselves.

The civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which does not control the military, has said it would handle the Rakhine crisis on the basis of recommendations by a commission headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The commission, appointed last year by Suu Kyi’s government, urged steps to let displaced Rakhine populations return and rebuild their homes, protect human rights, investigate abuses by security forces, and build reconciliation between Rakhine state’s Muslim and Buddhist communities.

U.S. Role

The international community and the United States “do have a voice, and I think we should be engaged” in trying to halt the violence, Mitchell said. U.S. officials “have a good relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi and even have a way to talk to the military.”

“I think what we need to do as an international community is try to explain to them [Burma’s authorities] that what they’re doing is actually harmful to their own national security,” Mitchell said. “While they may feel that they are protecting their national security, their national interests, over some threat,” the international community should make the case “that the overreaction and, frankly, the human rights abuses and the brutality, at least according to the reports that are coming out, are not helpful to the image of the country and certainly not good for the long-term stability and development of the country.”

International alarm at the plight of the Rohingya has included criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime dissident leader under military rule who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Commentators have accused her of failing to defend the rights of the Rohingya and some have called for her to be stripped of her Nobel prize.

“There’s a legitimate critique that she should be saying more,” Mitchell told Deutsche Welle. “Even if she doesn’t control the security forces, she is the leader, certainly the moral leader … and the political, civilian leader of the country, and I know people on the outside want to hear that compassion, that concern about the plight of this stateless and beleaguered population.”

“You do have to understand, though, the context in which she is operating,” Mitchell added. “As I mentioned, 95 percent of the people of the country, her constituency, do not want to support this population.” Aung San Suu Kyi “has to push back against a broad, anti-Rohingya sentiment and a national security threat in their minds, if she wants to speak up for them. So she is treading a very fine line. She can do more, but she is in a very tight position.”

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