State Department delegation tries to address Rohingya crisis, still won’t call it ethnic cleansing

It's unclear whether the current U.S. delegation's visit to Myanmar will yield anything other than soft talking points.

A Rohingya refugee child suffering from malnutrition gets his arm measured at the Out Patient Therapeutic ward at Action contre La Faim (ACF) center in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. CREDIT: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo
A Rohingya refugee child suffering from malnutrition gets his arm measured at the Out Patient Therapeutic ward at Action contre La Faim (ACF) center in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. CREDIT: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo

As a U.S. State Department delegation visits Myanmar and Bangladesh this week, the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world continues to unravel: According to the International Office of Migration, at least 604,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh in two months. And Reuters reports that seven Rohingya refugees — including two children — drowned on Tuesday trying to make it to safety.

The current campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority of just over a million in a Buddhist majority country, started on August 25 after insurgent attacks on police posts. Myanmar authorities responded with a ferocity that has driven over half of the total Rohingya population out the country. While aid agencies and NGOs have been trying to respond to the crisis, the international community has largely stayed out of the fray.

The purpose of the U.S. visit, according to the State Department’s announcement, is to “to discuss ways to address the humanitarian and human rights concerns stemming from the Rakhine State crisis and improve the delivery of humanitarian assistance to displaced persons in Burma, Bangladesh, and the region.”

The delegation, headed by Simon Henshaw, acting assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, will be there until Saturday, and will also include meeting with “Rohingya and Rakhine community leaders,” a State Department official told ThinkProgress. But how this crisis will be addressed without acknowledging the scope of what’s happening — a campaign of what the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing — is unclear.

When pushed as to whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is any closer to deciding whether to call Myanmar’s actions just that (Tillerson was “considering” calling it ethnic cleansing last week), the State Department official communicating with ThinkProgress via e-mail said that Tillerson has “been clear in saying that violence and persecution ‘have been characterized by many as ethnic cleansing.'” In other words: Tillerson has yet to arrive at the conclusion the United Nations reached back in mid-September.

How the United States sees this crisis on the State Department level is crucial, as it will be the means by which it can apply pressure to Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as, potentially, China, which is a strong backer of Myanmar on the U.N. Security Council and unlikely to back sanctions against the state.

Describing the U.S. response as “very disappointing,” Tun Khin, president of the London-based Burmese Rohingya Oraganisation UK, said, “We need stronger action — punishment — [for] this military. It’s impunity going on … [W]e need targeted sanctions to military, military-related companies, visa bans,” said Khin.

“The U.S. government knows what’s happening — we have credible information,” said Khin, who recently returned from visiting refugee camps in Bangladesh, where he said people recounted horrible tales of trauma and loss: Families described systematic rapes and killings carried out “house-to-house” in their villages before watching soldiers burn down their villages.

The government of Myanmar refutes these claims, insisting that they are fighting Rohingya “terrorists” and that the Muslims are burning down their own villages. It insists that the stories of rape and atrocities are fake.

But even making it to Bangladesh is no guarantee that Rohingya families will get what they need. Khin said that despite the generosity and hospitality of the people and government of Bangladesh, the needs for everything from baby formula to clean water are overwhelming. Plus, the massive camps aren’t prepared for the coming winter cold, which, in Bangladesh, is followed by floods.

“Thousands of Rohingya women when they fled, were pregnant … at least 10,000 Rohingya are with two month, three-month [old] babies,” said Khin, adding that orphanages in Bangladesh are over capacity by thousands of babies now. Given the stories Khin relayed, it’s a miracle any of these children survived.

“One woman told me … she saw the military enter her village and knife (stab) to death a seven-year-old Rohingya boy. Then the military entered her house and raped her for about twenty minutes … but she was able to run and learned that her husband was killed by the military the same day. There are many similar stories like that — I heard them continuously, ” said Khin. Given the situation, talk of repatriation, he said, is “very, very premature.”

“I don’t think in one or two years there people can return, until the government changes its policies against Rohingya,” said Khin. He added, “Safety, security and dignity — laws need to be changed” before they can go back. But go back to what? Right now, the government of Myanmar is taking back the land from the Rohingya villages it burned down, under a law stating that the government can do so as part of a development plan. If past campaigns against the Rohingya are an indication, “repatriation” means forcing them into camps, where they will live in what an Amnesty International researcher described to ThinkProgress as “concentration camps.”

Although the U.N. food program reached an agreement with authorities in Myanmar late last week to distribute food aid in Rakhine state, where thousands are facing starvation, Myo Win, executive director of Smile Education and Development, said food has no yet been distributed.

Even when food aid does get distributed, and even if the killing stops, Win is concerned about how the Rohingya could ever go back home. Repatriation, said Win, is not likely to be successful due to the rampant use of hate speech — which is not just tolerated in public spaces but also encouraged in nationalistic, patriotic rallies. “So, hate speech and hate crimes are everywhere — the government is taking no action,” said Win, whose organization promotes religious tolerance. “The spread of racism, racist ideology, racist propaganda — that’s another threat to our country.”

“Facebook is the key hate-speech maker,” said Win, saying some users, possibly backed by the military, post “fake news,” anti-Rohingya propaganda and even calls for attacks on Rohingya and pro-Rohingya activists. Khin himself has been the target of attacks on social media by hardliners.

Win’s outfit hired a researcher to look into the role of social media in the tide of hatred against the Rohingya, finding that Facebook, with an estimated 9.74 million users in Myanmar, “was identified as the primary source for attaining information, and as the main platform for hate speech.” Until rule of law is enforced, said Win, nothing will change. Win and Khin, both of whom met with reporters on Monday in Washington, D.C. (hosted by American Jewish World Service), agree that international pressure is needed, especially from the United States. Some U.S. lawmakers have shown support for action against Myanmar, but the State Department and White House have, in their eyes, fallen short.

“The U.S. plays a key role — they’ve been a long-time supporter of human rights in Burma,” said Khin, referring to the other name for Myanmar. “But we Rohinyga can’t be sacrificed for the reforms of democracy in Burma — 1 million people. That’s what some people are saying, that Aung San Suu Kyi can’t speak up because she’s worried about the military threat. So, for that issue, do you want to let that whole population be killed without saying anything?” said Khin, “That’s the question. Is that what the U.S. government should do?”