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As Violence and Hate Increase in Burma, Business as Usual for the US

By Tom Andrews
April 2, 2014

Deteriorating conditions have put Burma on a downward trajectory that could end in the world’s next genocide without immediate action. Yet, while the death toll mounts in Burma, its business as usual for the U.S. government.

Today Defense Secretary Hagel is hosting the Defense Minister of Burma among others to discuss the Obama administration’s commitment to “peace and security” in the region.

But there is no peace and security for the ethnic minorities in Burma. The government of Burma continues to allow violent attacks on the Muslim ethnic minority Rohingya in Rakhine State while expelling aid groups from the area including Doctors Without Borders. The mass atrocities that have already occurred threaten now to produce the world’s next genocide without immediate action by the United States.

Burma has one of the largest armies in the world. It is also one of the most brutal. Not only has it failed to protect the hundreds of thousands under siege in Burma, it has been linked to ongoing atrocities including the systematic use of rape and torture against ethnic minorities.

One hundred and forty thousand Rohingya Muslims live in conditions of total segregation, marginalization and desperation in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Thirty thousand attempted to flee these conditions last year by boat – a rate that has doubled in this year – preferring to be victims of human trafficking or death than remain in what many described as brutal “concentration camps”.

Just weeks ago, I visited eight of these camps, housing more than 90,000 desperate people. I met dozens of sick children and adults who were running out of life sustaining medicine provided by Doctor’s Without Borders. The medicine and five hundred health care staff were readily available to provide care. But the government of Burma will not let them.

Why? Because the Nobel Peace Laureate aid group told the truth. They admitted to treating twenty-two wounded people near the site of a massacre that the UN reported killed forty-eight. The government of Burma maintains that the massacre never occurred.

An alarming rise in ethnic and religious tensions and systematic human rights abuses are being fueled by well organized and financed campaigns of hatred led by extremist nationalist Buddhist Monks. The government of Burma has been linked to these campaigns, has failed to protect Muslims under attack and is seeking to establish even more repressive laws against Muslims.

President Thein Sein of Burma made eleven public pledges to President Obama when he made his historic visit to Burma in November of 2012. He’s failed to keep ten of them – including a pledge to allow UN human rights monitors to open an office and have access to volatile areas of the country where hundreds of thousands are threatened.

The United States is in a strong position to alter the course of these events. But, it’s failing to do so. It is clear that government, business and military leaders of Burma value international legitimacy and the opportunities that the opening to the international community has generated. With that comes leverage which can alter the calculations of Burma’s governing and military elite away from the current trajectory of repression, hatred and violence.

Instead of inviting Burma’s Defense Minister to hob-knob with Secretary Hagel in Honolulu, President Obama should be taking action to save thousands of lives by:
  • Demanding that Burmese President Thein Sein act immediately to protect the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority – and those who provide them humanitarian and other aid – from further attacks.
  • Demanding that the government of Burma rescind the order expelling Doctors Without Borders from Rakhine State and allow the organization’s 500 staff to reopen all of its health clinics and services which provide the only life-saving care and medicine to which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have access.
  • Suspending official government-to-government functions including meetings between military leaders until the above-mentioned concerns are addressed.

We must make it clear: as long as the Burmese authorities prove unwilling or unable to protect Muslims and other minorities in Burma the United States will use whatever leverage it has left to urge them to do so.

This is a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of innocent people. And time is running out.

Tom Andrews is President of United to End Genocide.

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