“Never again” is happening to Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims

The world vowed never again after the Holocaust, never again after Bosnia, never again after Rwanda and yet in Myanmar it seems that here we are again. Over the last week, violence and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Myanmar’s army have forced nearly 40,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh, where around 400,000 Rohingyas already live in squalor.

Haunting images and videos of the army burning dozens of Rohingya villages in Rakhine have flooded social media, which has been accompanied by reports from global news outlets and human rights groups that dozens of civilians have been killed including children. According to Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, the estimated death toll is around130 people. Reports have also indicated that a vicious campaign of rape has been carried out against Rohingya women by the army. Violence in Rakhine State is not a new phenomenon; ethnic clashes between Rakhine Buddhist and Muslims have been ongoing for years.

This recent spate of violence began in Myanmar on August 25th when Rohingya militants attacked a border post killing government officials and police. In response the army has seemingly launched an unwavering campaign of terror to punish the entire Rohingya community. Persecution of the Rohingya lies in the fact that the government denies citizenship rights to them, claiming that their origins lie in Bangladesh and therefore they are illegal immigrants despite many of them having lived in Myanmar for centuries.

Rohingya Muslims live under an Apartheid-like system where they can’t even move about freely without permission from authorities. In early 2017, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee said that previous crimes by Myanmar’s security forces amounted to crimes against humanity.

The situation of the Rohingyas is horribly disappointing, especially since there were hopes from within the international community that Nobel Prize winner and former political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, once in power, would foster a new period of democracy and respect for human rights after decades of military dictatorship in the wake of her historic election in 2015.

However, this hasn’t been the case thus far. When asked or pressed about the situation of the Rohingya, the Nobel Prize winner simply claims that the reports are exaggerated and overblown. Oddly enough, the government refused visas for a United Nations team tasked with investigating the alleged human rights violations against the Rohingyas. In defense, Aung San Suu Kyi argued that admitting the team of human rights experts would have only fueled further conflict between ethnic Buddhists and the Rohingyas in Rakhine.

Beyond the failures of the government in Myanmar to protect lives of Rohingya, even more disappointing has been the international community’s inaction. While international intervention is difficult and controversial, we have learned from contexts like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan, that the international community must unequivocally take sides and be clear that human rights atrocities will not be tolerated. The international community has the power of economic means to influence the political elites of Myanmar, as billions of dollars in aid have poured into the country since 2011, after 50 years of military rule ended.

According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. has provided over $500 million to support the country’s transition to democracy since 2012. In 2016, the U.S. lifted all remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar which came to the surprise and shock of many. The Obama administration maintained that the removal of economic sanctions would help demonstrate to the people of Myanmar that the international community was supportive of their efforts to move towards democracy.

Also in 2016, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Az) and Ben Cardin (D-Md) introduced the “Burma Strategy Act” which laid out a number of key foreign policy objectives to help Myanmar’s transition.  It included elements such as economic assistance to civil society, initiatives to promote ethnic reconciliation, military-to-military training between the militaries of Myanmar and the United States to help reinforce civilian control of the military and respect for human rights, among other things.

While tasked with encouraging further democratic and human rights developments in Myanmar, the sanctions lifted targeted key individuals and companies that supported the old military regime. Lifting these sanctions didn’t further democratic principles; it eroded them. Accountability is a key principle in a democracy, and if the U.S. or the international community is going to push for democratic changes, accountability has to be at the forefront of those changes. Anything less is encouraging a culture of impunity and corruption.

At present, what is the incentive for the current government in Myanmar to cooperate with the UN on investigating the human rights circumstances of the Rohingyas? The situation of the Rohingyas will not change without pressure from the U.S. and other key international actors. While Aung San Suu Kyi at one time may have been a beacon of human rights in Myanmar, she is not now. She may not control the military directly, but her evasive actions and silence on the issue make her complicit in the plight of the Myanmar’s Rohingyas. If the international community does not take definitive action to hold the current government in Myanmar accountable, then it should stop saying “never again”.

Jared O. Bell is currently an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the International University of Sarajevo. He researches and teaches on human rights, transitional justice, peace building, post-conflict society transitions, and ethnic and cultural conflict. Read other articles by Jared O..