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Sympathy Not Enough for Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar

Sympathy Not Enough for Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar

Image Source: BBC

By: Presley West

Villages burnt to ash, families ripped apart, elders slaughtered in broad daylight. Borders arduously crossed. Uprisings brutally crushed.   

Blood is flowing in the streets in Myanmar, and the world is looking away.

Considered one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya people have long faced oppression. However, the Rohingya living in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State have managed to maintain a relatively peaceful, if tenuous, coexistence with their Buddhist neighbors and leaders for years. However, a fatal attack carried out by radical Rohingya militants in late August obliterated the region’s fragile peace and provoked a military retaliation.

A number of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh shelters have shared with reporters and human rights’ groups stories of rape, slayings, and other barbarities carried out by Myanmar’s military, igniting outrage and fury around the world. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has officially deemed the security campaign  “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” World leaders have been quick to express concern for the estimated 400,000 refugees affected by the violence, but sympathy is not enough to stop ethnic cleansing. World leaders in positions of power must confront Myanmar’s military with multinational pressure, condemnation, and threats of trade sanctions to prevent more human suffering at the hands of Myanmar’s military regime.

A number of factors play a role in the inaction from global leaders and the UN, including regional interests of China, Myanmar’s history in world politics, and the complex position of Myanmar’s de facto leader Suu Kyi.

China, a veto-wielding power in the UN Security Council, is one of few countries to openly support the military’s actions. “The stance of China regarding the terrorist attacks in Rakhine is clear, it is just an internal affair,” said Chinese ambassador, Hong Liang, to state-run news source Myanmar News Agency. “The counterattacks of Myanmar security forces against extremist terrorists and the government’s undertakings to provide assistance to the people are strongly welcomed.”  Chinese leaders would attempt to block any proposed economic sanctions against their close ally.

Controversy surrounding Nobel Prize recipient Suu Kyi’s silence has also contributed to the inaction.  While Suu Kyi has faced international scrutiny over her mishandling of the crisis, many politicians, including US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, hesitate to condemn the de facto leader for her silence. Suu Kyi played a critical role in Myanmar’s slow transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, and many believe that she and her administration are the key to continued democratic progress in Myanmar in the future. However, her silence has restricted access to critical information for humanitarian aid operations, decreased the effectiveness of international aid groups’ call for military and financial aid, and de-legitimized the suffering of the Rohingya people.

Suu Kyi is in an exceedingly difficult position with no formal authority over the military, and harsh criticisms of the leader will not stop put an end to the horrors occurring in Myanmar. However, she has a powerful voice within her country that could and should be used to help alleviate the crisis. Suu Kyi’s illustrious history  cannot excuse her silence, which often borders on denial, of human rights violations taking place in her country.

Perhaps the leading factor in the world’s collective inaction is the desire to maintain a working relationship with Myanmar in global politics that didn’t exist two decades ago. Long considered one of the most isolated countries in the world, Myanmar began engaging in normalized global affairs during the latter end of the Obama administration. It is reasonable for world leaders to be invested in maintaining a normalized relationship with Myanmar; the preservation and promotion of Myanmar’s fledgling democracy is, and should be, a priority in international politics. However, human life must be considered a priority above all else.

The US has pledged 32 million dollars in funding toward the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh refugee camps, and the Bangladesh Prime Minister has committed to help as many Rohingya people as the country can afford.  However, monetary aid and promises of hope, though desperately needed, are only band-aids on a gaping wound.

Human Rights Watch has called for the UN to expand an existing arms embargo, impose a travel ban on military officials accused of serious abuses, and enact a total ban on all financial proceedings with military owned or affiliated establishments. It’s unlikely that the UN will place such  severe sanctions on the country, but the multinational threat of their imposition is a critical first step in the global fight against this ethnic cleansing.

Security officials have razed villages, slaughtered innocents, and misplaced hundreds of thousands of people with blatant disregard for the global condemnation of their actions. The time has come for leaders of the world to replace their words of sympathy with clear, decisive action that the military leaders of Myanmar will be unable to ignore.


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