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Ignoring the Plight of the Rohingya is a Mistake

By Daniel Sullivan
April 3, 2016

The State Department’s minimization of the plight of the Rohingya is sending dangerous, mixed messages to Myanmar and its neighbors.

The US State Department’s recent declaration of the Islamic State (IS) being responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, captured headlines across the globe. The news came out of a congressionally mandated report.

However, the biggest story out of that report was not about IS, but rather the failure to find anything more than “discrimination” and “persecution” against the Rohingya in western Myanmar. Such a shockingly understated conclusion and downplaying of atrocities against Rohingya sends a dangerously mixed message at a time of important transition.

It is not so much that the State Department did not find that the Rohingya are facing genocide. Proving intent is always a difficult and controversial barrier for genocide determination. Rather, the greater damage is in the blatant minimization of the plight of the Rohingya and what it means for increasing the risk of further atrocities against them.


The threat is real. The Early Warning Project at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, a sophisticated system of state-of-the-art quantitative and qualitative analysis, continues to place Myanmar at the top of its list of countries at the greatest risk of mass killings. Multiple independent human rights group reports, including by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Fortify Rights, United to End Genocide, and ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, have documented abuses and warned about the high risk of genocide and mass atrocities in Myanmar. Yale Law School’s Human Rights Clinic has found “strong evidence” that genocide is already taking place.

Even if one disagrees with such a determination, it is clear that the risks are high and that the Rohingya face much more than your run of the mill “discrimination” and “persecution.” United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng has warned about rising religious hatred and marginalization of the Rohingya and the need to address the situation “or face the risk of further violence and potentially, more serious crimes.” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in his last report on Myanmar to the UN General Assembly, cited no major improvements to “long-standing and institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya community.”

Even the State Department report itself lists a litany of abuses that beg for a stronger and more accurate conclusion. The report cites the deaths of over 200 people and the displacement of 140,000 in intercommunal violence targeted against the Rohingya in 2012. It states, “There have been numerous acts of violence against Rohingya over the last few years,” and cites the UN Refugee Agency’s estimates that 160,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar by sea since 2012. The report finds that government policies continue to restrict freedom of movement, access to vital health care and education services, and rights to marry and have children. It further finds that the government “restrict(s) access for humanitarian agencies providing life-saving services” and that the government has “enabled discrimination and targeting of members of the Rohingya population.”


Yet the State Department findings leave out significant events and fail to add up to an adequate conclusion. Strangely, the crisis in 2015 that saw thousands of Rohingya and other migrants and asylum seekers trapped at sea gets no mention. Similarly, the fact that hundreds of lives were put at risk when the Burmese government expelled Doctors Without Borders in February 2014 goes unmentioned. While the group has been allowed back in, it is at a much reduced scale and with greater restrictions. UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee continues to report on “preventable deaths due to lack of access to emergency medical treatment.” Exact estimates of deaths are difficult given the ongoing access restrictions, but the report’s authors do not seem to make the connection between the stated restrictions and the very real loss of life.

President Barack Obama had a perfectly good opportunity to emphasize treatment of the Rohingya not only to Myanmar, but to all of its neighbors when he hosted regional heads at the US-ASEAN Summit in February. But the Rohingya did not even make the agenda.

The minimization is particularly striking coming in parallel to the strong language on the Islamic State. Whereas the State Department’s report comes to the damning conclusion that IS has committed mass atrocities, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, the Rohingya are treated like an afterthought, getting the surprisingly low key summary sentence: “Meanwhile, we remain concerned about current acts that constitute persecution of and discrimination against members of the Rohingya population in Burma.”

While freely referring to atrocities committed by IS, the report seems to go out of its way to avoid the use of the word “atrocities” in regard to abuses against the Rohingya. Key subheadings refer to “atrocities in the Middle East,” but just “the situation in Burma” (emphasis added). While the IS determination was rightfully deemed of such great importance that it required an address by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Rohingya determination came up only in a cursory exchange with the State Department’s spokesperson at the prompting of a reporter.


So what does this all mean?

First, such minimization sends a dangerous note to the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Shortly, after the NLD’s historic electoral victory in November 2015, NLD Spokesman U Win Thein said the Rohingya would not be a priority and suggested talking to Bangladesh about returning them. Suu Kyi has answered questions about the Rohingya by saying their plight should not be exaggerated.

Many Rohingya are optimistic about their future under an NLD-led government, but with such statements, it is not at all clear that their situation will be any better. This is all the more reason for the US to clearly include treatment of the Rohingya as an essential part of US-Myanmar bilateral relations. The US State Department report muddles that message at best.

Second, the report sends a dangerous message to Myanmar’s neighbors, those who have taken in tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees. The initial reaction by member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the boat crisis in May 2015 was woefully inadequate, and the status of Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in those countries remains tenuous. If Myanmar’s neighbors get the message that the situation faced by the Rohingya is not so dire, then why should they provide refuge?


Sadly, this appears to go above the US State Department. President Barack Obama had a perfectly good opportunity to emphasize treatment of the Rohingya not only to Myanmar, but to all of its neighbors when he hosted regional heads at the US-ASEAN Summit in February. But the Rohingya did not even make the agenda.

When Obama first visited Myanmar in November 2012, addressing the situation in Rakhine State was one of 11 commitments made by now outgoing President Thein Sein. In the final days of the Thein Sein administration, it is clear that the Rohingya situation has not gotten any better. The question remains: Will Suu Kyi and the NLD do anything about this? As long as that is a question, President Obama must be clear in his message that she must.

The bar for doing better in regard to the Rohingya is not high, but the consequences for not doing better may just be genocide and mass atrocities, the very threats that the State Department seems so intent on ignoring.

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