A Rohingya man carrying his belongings approaches the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Bandarban, an area under Cox's Bazar authority, Bangladesh, August 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

According to United Nations estimates, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh over the past three weeks to escape a clearance operation by security forces and Buddhist militias that have left scores of civilians dead and entire villages burned to the ground.

The actions taken against the villagers are in response to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army Rohingya insurgents attacking border police last month as revenge against past injustices against their people.

This recent turmoil is the latest in a decades-long line of abuses against this stateless Indo-Aryan people in Rakhine state, a majority of whom are Sunni Muslim and a minority of whom are Hindu.

Rohingya history and current situation

Believed to be the descendants of Arab and Persian traders with ethnic and linguistic ties to Bengal (present-day Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal state), the Rohingya came to Myanmar generations ago and are regarded by many as illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh.

Adding insult to injury, over the years the government in Bangladesh has also refused to grant citizenship to the Rohingya. In fact, the authorities have been known to return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar forcibly.

The victims of widespread discrimination by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, the Rohingya face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to education, medical care and basic social services, as well as employment in the civil service.

Under a law enacted in 1982, the Rohingya are denied citizenship and are the frequent targets of military crackdowns and ethnic-cleansing campaigns conducted by both Myanmar security forces and ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups, with executions, torture and detentions commonplace.

This maltreatment has resulted in more than 650,000 Rohingya fleeing to southeastern Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Pakistan in recent years, where many live in squalid conditions.

Lack of help and reasons for it

Few have come to the defense of the Rohingya. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy and de facto leader of Myanmar, is one such example. Suu Kyi has called for “peace and reconciliation” while also defending the Myanmar security forces’ treatment of the Rohingya, blaming “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” in a September 6 Facebook post about the recent violence in Rakhine state.

Without question, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner is in a difficult position given worries about Islamic terrorism, her limited ability to push back against the military, the fragile state of democracy in Myanmar and the current international outrage about the plight of the Rohingya.

Adding to this, the geopolitics of our time complicate matters.

Myanmar is sandwiched between two Asian giants, China to its north and northeast and India to its west, while also sharing borders with Laos and Bangladesh. Myanmar also has more than 1,900 kilometers of uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

Just as Aung San Suu Kyi has a moral obligation to speak out and come to the defense of the Rohingya, so does the international community

For decades, China has enjoyed close economic, political and military relations with Myanmar, to such an extent that the Myanmar authorities became concerned that their country had become a client state of Beijing. This was one factor behind Myanmar’s 2010-15 implementation of political reforms and decision to open to the world.

Following up on this move, India, the US, Japan, the European Union and others have re-established ties and sought influence with Myanmar given its strategic geography and economic promise given its considerable natural resources and tourism potential.

New Delhi and Washington have been reticent to criticize the mistreatment of the Rohingya for fear that such talk will put them at a disadvantage with Beijing in their efforts to curry favor with the government in Naypyidaw.

False starts

Yet just as Suu Kyi has a moral obligation to speak out and come to the defense of the Rohingya, so does the international community.

While United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an end to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, concrete action by the world body to improve their circumstances, such as identifying countries that will accept them, has been scant.

Two fellow Southeast Asian states, Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, while critical of Naypyidaw, have not allowed entry of Rohingya refugees in meaningful numbers.

India, which claims to have 40,000 Rohingya living within its borders, is currently considering their deportation on national-security grounds relating to alleged ties to Pakistani and Bangladeshi militant groups as well as supposed vulnerability to Islamist radicalization.

While US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has condemned the violence against the Rohingya and demanded its immediate end, Washington, for its part, has done very little to improve the situation other than issue statements.

Steps needed

It is urgent that the US and its partners take the following steps to improve the situation facing the Rohingya.

First, doctors, nurses, medicine, surgical supplies, clothing, shelter, sanitation, food and clean drinking water must be made available in areas along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, particularly at Cox’s Bazar along the Naf River. Hospital ships and naval vessels of different countries ought to be mobilized to provide needed aid. Yes, all this at a time when US naval assets are also needed in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean for hurricane relief – Americans can and must do both.

It is no secret that immigration has become a political hot potato in the US, Europe and elsewhere in recent years. Indeed, US public opinion polling from the 1950s onward has shown that large numbers of Americans have been opposed to taking in refugees from war-torn countries. However, while the US has admitted more than 2,000 Rohingya per year since 2014, these measures have been inadequate given the estimated 650,000 Rohingya in need of resettlement. Washington and others have an obligation to admit more of those fleeing genocide.

Third, the need to enhance military ties between the US and Myanmar is well founded and must be pursued given the security challenges to the region. Yet in the wake of the recent violence, US Senator John McCain made the right call to set aside temporarily legislative plans to deepen military-to-military cooperation between the two countries. Such steps are necessary in order to communicate to Naypyidaw that ties with the regime will move forward in earnest when the ethnic cleaning stops.

Fourth, Washington and its partners should limit – but not eliminate – Myanmar’s access to economic markets, investments and foreign aid until progress is made on protecting the Rohingya from extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and other abuses. While some argue that such measures would drive Myanmar into the arms of China, it bears stressing that Naypyidaw is loath to get too close to Beijing out of fear that it could become another province of the People’s Republic of China, giving Washington and its partners leverage in negotiations.

Fifth, effective discussions between the US and Myanmar on the Rohingya’s troubles will require a deeper understanding of the reasons behind their persecution. Is it simply old-fashioned bigotry, or has the Buddhist majority concocted other justifications for its crimes? Washington needs to devote more time to learning of the interests of its counterparts in Naypyidaw – their prejudices, their grassroots political burdens and their core security concerns. A failure to understand all of the factors behind the radical Buddhists’ hatred and calls for the extermination of the Rohingya will put Washington at a disadvantage in human-rights talks with Naypyidaw.

Sixth, over the longer term, the US must work with Myanmar on reconciliation programs aimed at ending the forced segregation of Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists as well as providing the Rohingya with a path toward Myanmar citizenship.

Finally, education initiatives that stress tolerance and trust need to be implemented at the local level as a way of dialing down sectarian strife and hatred.

Why help the Rohingya?

The world community has a moral imperative to help victims of genocide. Tragically, the Rohingya are once again a target of deliberate extermination inside Myanmar. This situation is playing out before the world’s eyes and it is incumbent upon people and states of goodwill to act.

Additionally, the civilized world, which has spent considerable blood and treasure fighting Islamist terror over the past 16 years, must not allow for the creation of a new Southeast Asian front in the “war on terror”.

Continued neglect of the Rohingya Muslims will likely further encourage regional Islamist groups and ISIS to recruit from their families, establish cells and mobilize the cause of terror in Rakhine state. This does not have to happen and can be managed if not prevented by partnering with Naypyidaw to develop policies of inclusion that address the government’s security concerns while also engaging in outreach to the Rohingya community.

Myanmar’s recent political and economic reforms present opportunities for its place on the world stage as well as challenges to its internal divisions. There is arguably no better time for the US and its partners to use the bargaining chips of power, prestige and wealth to secure improvements to the condition of the Rohingya. Making good on this responsibility is a worthy endeavor consistent with American values in this region where the US will continue to have vital interests for generations to come.

Ted Gover

Ted Gover PhD writes on Asia and foreign policy. His writings have appeared in a range of publications in Asia, the Middle East and the US. He is also the director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University in California.

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