The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Attacks on Rohingya Intensify in Burma

On August 25, militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, or “Faith Movement,” initiated a major counteroffensive in Rakhine state against 24 police posts and one army base. At least 21 insurgents and 11 members of the security forces were killed. This attack has prompted a vicious crackdown by the Burmese military against Rohingya civilians just days after a panel led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan released a report to the government that recommended solutions to establish peace in the troubled country.

The Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority who have been described by the United Nations as “the most friendless people in the world,” have been denied basic human rights in Burma for decades. Although they have lived in the region for centuries, they lost their citizenship with the passage of the Burma Citizenship Law in 1982 and many in Burma characterize them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Denied basic human rights such as healthcare and education, they have been forced into what have been described as “modern day concentration camps” by the Burmese military and Buddhist extremists and have often suffered from communal violence. These grievances have motivated many young Rohingya men to join the insurgency.

Unfortunately, this insurgency has prompted a furious response by the Burmese military. Indiscriminately targeting civilians along with various vigilante groups, government soldiers have pursued a scorched-earth campaign, burning thousands of shops, businesses, and homes to the ground and murdering at least 1,000 Rohingya civilians. Witnesses have told horrific stories of children being beheaded and civilians being burned alive. The violence against the Rohingya has fueled fury in numerous Muslim-majority countries. Hundreds of protesters have rallied in Jakarta to urge the government of Indonesia to suspend trade with Burma. The Republic of Maldives has already taken this step and has also called for an investigation by the United Nations into human rights violations committed against the Rohingya in Burma. Iran has referred to the situation in Burma as “ethnic cleansing” while Turkey even went so far as to refer to it as “genocide.”

Both Pope Francis and Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years after being shot by the Taliban for promoting education for women in Pakistan, have also condemned the violence. Yousafzai has been particularly critical of fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Burma, for her silence on the human rights abuses being committed by the Burmese military. Some have even demanded that the Nobel Committee revoke her prize. Defenders of Suu Kyi point out that she was once imprisoned by the military junta that formerly ruled Burma, suggesting that she does not possess an unlimited ability to control the military. Most, however, believe that she is one of the few leaders in Burma with the mass appeal necessary to decrease the violence.

In the week and a half since this onslaught began, at least 120,000 citizens have fled Rakhine State for Bangladesh. Another 400,000 are estimated to be trapped in western Burma. Many refugees have died in their attempt to escape Burma and those who do arrive safely are hungry, weak, and sick. Refugee camps are quickly becoming overcrowded and Burma is continuing to block aid agencies from delivering food, water, and medicine to the beleaguered Rohingya. As long as violence continues, the regional consequences of the conflict in Burma will only grow more severe.

Justin Cole is the Policy Coordinator for STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities, and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is currently earning his degree in economics and peace, war, and defense.

Cuts to Special Envoys Threaten Security in Conflict Areas

On August 28, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed Congress that a majority of special envoy positions will be abolished or reorganized as part of efforts to restructure the State Department. Although Tillerson has framed the restructuring as a way to increase efficiency—allegedly by eliminating positions that have successfully resolved their respective policy challenges and integrating other positions into related bureaus—STAND strongly believes this plan will negatively impact the ability of the United States to respond to ongoing international conflicts and crises.

Historically, most presidential administrations have viewed special envoys as vital to the foreign policy of the United States. Because special envoys are able to focus exclusively on a single issue, they can often achieve more progress than policymakers in the State Department, This is particularly the case if the issue has important regional and international components that can be more difficult for ambassadors and even regional secretaries to solve . Additionally, they often report directly to the president, surpassing bureaucratic constraints. Indeed, one of the most important advantages possessed by special envoys is their ability to meet with foreign leaders outside of formal diplomatic communication. This allows them to speak with unfavorable individuals, such as war criminals and terrorists, if they believe that doing so will advance their resolution initiatives. In short, special envoys play an important role in foreign policy, largely due to their flexibility. Although STAND is concerned about many aspects of State Department restructuring, we are particularly alarmed by the reorganization of three special envoy positions that relate to four of our conflict zones: the Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes of Africa, and the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma.

First, the Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan is being subsumed under the Bureau of African Affairs. Although it is theoretically possible for the Bureau of African Affairs to continue this special envoy’s mission of ending violence and human rights abuses in Sudan and South Sudan, it seems more likely that this change reflects the Trump administration’s apathy towards the ongoing conflicts in these countries. In fact, some administration officials wish to lift sanctions on Sudan despite a lack of any real progress towards respecting human rights by the genocidal government of President Omar al-Bashir. The Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan would continue to be instrumental in applying pressure on the government of Sudan if sanctions are indeed lifted. The deteriorating situation in South Sudan, which has seen government and opposition forces commit atrocities against civilians while enriching themselves through profiteering, would also benefit from the attention of this special envoy.

Second, the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa is also to be subsumed under the Bureau of African Affairs. During the Second Congo War (1998-2003), also known as Africa’s first world war, at least half a dozen countries—including Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola—fought a proxy war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Nearly fifteen years after the official end of that conflict, however, atrocities continue to be committed by government troops and rebel groups, many of whom are allegedly supported by regional powers. The vast wealth of natural resources, such as tin, tungsten, and tantalum (the “Three Ts”)—minerals used in cellphones and other electronic gadgets—is a major driver of the continued violence. Indeed, there is concern that the conflict in the DRC as well as the ongoing crisis in Burundi have the possibility of spilling over into the rest of the region. Given these regional dynamics, STAND believes a special envoy is necessary in order to address the myriad complexities of these ongoing conflicts.

Finally, the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma is being stripped of its title and moved to the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In addition to this change, Tillerson is asking “Congress [to] repeal the statutory requirement for this special representative position, since the mission of this position has been accomplished with the 2016 formation of a democratically elected, civilian-led government and the rebuilding of relations with Burma.” Yet this sentiment recklessly ignores the plight of the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority who have been described by the United Nations as “the most friendless people in the world.” Having been denied basic human rights for decades and confined in what many refer to as “modern-day concentration camps” by the Burmese military and Buddhist extremists, the past week’s rapid escalation of violence in Burma has only worsened the plight of the Rohingya. The Burmese military has burned thousands of homes and slaughtered at least one thousand civilians since a Rohingya militant group launched a counteroffensive against police posts and an army base on August 25. As such, a special representative or envoy is crucial in order to carefully monitor the situation and steadfastly protect the Rohingya from this unfolding tragedy.

Although Secretary Tillerson has argued that these changes in the State Department will increase efficiency by reducing redundancies and trimming the bureaucracy, in effect the restructuring of these special envoys will make it more difficult for the United States to effectively promote peace and human rights internationally. Worse, STAND fears that such restructuring actually represents a shift in policy priorities that could ultimately risk the lives of countless thousands of people around the world.


Justin Cole is the Policy Coordinator for STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities, and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is currently earning his degree in economics and peace, war, and defense.