How World Leaders Can Address the Rohingya Crisis

September 21, 2017  • Joshua Kurlantzick

This post originally appeared on the Aspen Institute Italia blog.

In recent months, considerable ink and pixels have been spilled chronicling the growing humanitarian crisis in western Myanmar, and castigating the Myanmar security forces for their scorched earth policy toward Rakhine State in the country’s west – but also, perhaps more importantly, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leading political figure, though she is barred from becoming its president. The violence in Rakhine State has been going on for years—the Muslim, ethnic Rohingya have long been discriminated against by the Myanmar state and abused by security forces. But since last October, when a shadowy group of ethnic Rohingya insurgents reportedly attacked several Myanmar police posts, the army has struck back even harder than ever. 

In recent weeks, after insurgents launched attacks on an army base on August 25, the Myanmar army, known for its atrocious rights record, has responded brutally in Rakhine State. Security forces, vigilante groups, and other militants have reportedly been burning down villages and killing civilians, according to reporting by Human Rights Watch, the New York Times, and others. Human Rights Watch noted in a report that “satellite photos (…) show 450 buildings destroyed by fire in the town of Maungdaw” alone. Recently, the United Nations reported that some 360,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh since August, putting immense new strain on camps in Bangladesh that are, anyway, overcrowded and squalid; the Bangladesh government has no desire to take in more Rohingya either, even though it has allowed hundreds of thousands in and has condemned the Myanmar armed forces.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, the de facto head of Myanmar’s government (formally “state counsellor”) since her party dominated the 2015 national elections, has said little about the catastrophe in western Myanmar. In a recent statement posted after a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, she blamed “terrorists” for what she called an “iceberg of misinformation” about what is happening in Rakhine State. She also has refused to condemn the military’s activities, and has said little publicly about the Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh. She withdrew from a visit to the United States in September for the United Nations General Assembly, perhaps to avoid criticism about Rakhine State.

Nobel laureate Aung Suu Kyi, the head of Myanmar’s government, has said little about the Rohingya crisis.

For her silence, Suu Kyi has been blasted by everyone from Senator John McCain to Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. Malala wrote on Twitter, “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment [of the Rohingya.] (…) I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same.” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has further suggested that the military’s “clearance operations” in Rakhine State could border on ethnic cleansing.

But much of this outrage, though legitimate, is not being channeled into specific recommendations. There is, to be sure, no one “solution,” to a crisis that stems from factors that include decades of discrimination against the Rohingya, the end of authoritarian rule in Myanmar, the military’s brutality, land grabbing, entrenched prejudices, the rise of both Buddhist and Islamic militancy in Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s tenuous hold on power in relation to the security forces, and many other factors.

Still, what can foreign governments and other outside actors specifically push the Suu Kyi government to do and what is possible for her to do? For one, governments—including the United States—that are considering expanding military relations with the Myanmar armed forces, such as through education and training programs, should halt this expansion for at least a year. The Senate’s defense authorization bill had contained language allowing expanded U.S.-Myanmar military relations, but Senator John McCain, chair of the armed services committee, has said he will have that language stripped from the bill. That is the right move, and hopefully the rest of the Senate will support this decision.

Although such education programs can in theory improve militaries’ knowledge of rights and appropriate behavior toward civilians, expanding them at a time when the army and allied vigilantes stand accused of massive abuses in Rakhine State would be the worst, wrong signal to the Myanmar army. In addition, there is limited evidence that such programs even work to change armed forces’ behaviors.

Second, every world leader who meets with Suu Kyi should, in joint public appearances, call on the Myanmar government to allow journalists and aid organizations freedom to travel and work throughout Rakhine State. Right now, many aid workers and journalists are being restricted from traveling throughout Rakhine State, despite the need for more information about the crisis and for assistance to people who have not fled to Bangladesh.

The UN reported that some 360,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh since August.

Third, world leaders need to put as much pressure on the head of the Myanmar military, which is really in charge of the situation in Rakhine State, as they do on Suu Kyi. The military commander-in-chief, who has begun building ties with a range of European and Asian democracies, should be questioned just as forcefully as Suu Kyi by foreign leaders. In fact, he should be pushed even harder, as his military operates with minimal civilian oversight.

Pope Francis, who is scheduled to visit Myanmar in November and will be the first pontiff to visit the country, should make these pleas, to Suu Kyi and to the military. The Pope has already spoken out for protecting the rights of the Rohingya, but in Myanmar he can make a major statement.

But other world leaders must step up too, such as Asian leaders attending the planned major Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November. They should call on the Myanmar army to stop its “clearance” operations in Rakhine State, allow UN investigators, aid workers and journalists to operate freely in Rakhine State, and disarm vigilante groups. These clearance operations, besides being brutal, are only fueling the insurgency, by angering more Rohingya and potentially prompting them to fight back.

Meanwhile, regional governments – and those from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where some Rohingya militants are allegedly operating and have collected donations, according to the International Crisis Group – should pledge to the Myanmar government that they will cooperate in locating and arresting any Rohingya militants. These steps might help quell the Myanmar army’s fear of a growing insurgency – one that, of course, is only being fueled by the army’s brutality.

World leaders should also hold a major aid conference to support the refugee camps in Bangladesh, which are badly lacking essential items and personnel. A special aid conference, like those held for rebuilding in places like Afghanistan, would draw attention to the Rohingya crisis and potentially raise significant sums for the camps and for Rohingya who return to Myanmar. 
None of these proposals will create a long-term resolution in Rakhine State, and all of the problems that have caused the crisis will remain. But only when there is some degree of stability in Rakhine State can the long-term challenges be addressed.