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US Fails to Act in Wake of New Report on Atrocities in Burma

The US government should develop a decisive and swift policy response as new findings emerge on Burma’s campaign against the Rohingya. On September 24, the US State Department released a report documenting atrocities perpetrated since 2016. While delineating instances of murder, rape, arson, forced displacement, abduction, and mutilation, the much-anticipated report did not recommend action or classify the ongoing ethnic cleansing as genocide.

Beginning on August 25, 2017, Burmese security forces carried out a campaign that has triggered the mass exodus of approximately 725,000 Rohingya – nearly three quarters of the entire Rohingya population – from Burma’s Rakhine state. In the wake of killings, rape, and mass arson, the Rohingya population has fled largely to Bangladesh where refugees now live in makeshift refugee camps. The State Department report identifies this campaign as one of two phases of violence, with the first occuring in October 2016, following attacks by the Rohingya insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Despite the urgency of the issue, international response has been dismal. China has blocked attempts to address Burma’s abuse of the Rohingya in the UN, while India has threatened to deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled there for asylum. Domestically, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has denied persecution of the Rohingya and has consistently failed to take action against the atrocities in her country. As of July 2018, however, the EU and Canada have placed sanctions on seven military officials. Canada has also recently declared the Rohingya crisis a genocide.  

The State Department report released Monday surveyed over 1,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in the spring of 2018 and aimed to document atrocities in Rakhine State during the past two years. Three-quarters of respondents claimed to have witnessed members of the army commit murders, and one-fifth witnessed a mass-casualty with more than 100 victims. 45% of refugees witnessed instances of rape, the majority of which were committed in whole or in part by members of the Burmese army. Perpetrators include army officials, police, unidentified security officials, and armed civilians. The 20-page report contributes to a growing body of evidence surrounding crimes committed by Burmese security forces. However, its silence on a policy response and failure to label the atrocities as genocide is a critical point of concern.

Given these findings, it is alarming that the United States has taken little action to address the plight of the Rohingya aside from much-needed humanitarian aid contributions to refugees in Bangladesh. While the State Department report is welcomed, international government research is most valuable when translated into actionable policy recommendations. It is clear that not enough has been done to stop the violence in Burma, and the lack of timely intervention has had grave consequences for one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. It’s time for the United States to step up and serve as a global moral leader on behalf of the Rohingya.

IsabelWolferIsabel Wolfer is a senior at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, and is serving as Communications Co-Coordinator for STAND USA for the 2018-2019 academic year. Prior to working with STAND, Isabel interned at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and served as a junior fellow at the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Isabel is grateful for the contributions of the STAND team in developing this post.

Featured image is satellite imagery shown in the State Department report, available here.