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Plight of the Rohingya in Burma: Time for Action

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Imagine a government that would take the only effective medical care away from part of its population for no reason other than that they are a reviled minority, forever outsiders, who are being subjected to murderous attacks – and the health providers could be witnesses to that violence. And that the organization providing the care even had the nerve to employ some members of this minority.
This ghastly crime is exactly what is happening now in Burma (Myanmar). There reside about 1.3 million Rohingya, part of the country’s minority Muslim population that has been the target of violence over the past several years, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands. More than 100,000 displaced Rohingya live in camps in the coastal city of Sittwe, in Rakhine state, camps that the New York Times described as “little more than sprawling prisons.” They have also been called “concentration camps,” and are so awful that children told U.S. investigators from United to End Genocide [page 1], “Your country is our only hope… If you will not help us, please bomb these camps. End this, please.”
The Rohingya are the outcasts among the marginalized, the detested among the despised. They have been subject to a shocking level of discrimination. Considered illegal migrants from Bangladesh by the Burmese government, citizenship is denied almost all, with only a tiny fraction having been granted citizenship. Most are stateless. 
In Rakhine state, where most live, they are limited to two children and face forced birth control. The government imposes numerous requirements before they can marry, and their freedom of movement is highly restricted. A February report from Fortify Rights details these restrictions, and argues that these combined with violent attacks against the Rohingya amount to crimes against humanity. Many of these official policies are driven by wild, unfounded, and indeed flat-out false, fears of the minority’s population growth, and a desire to create conditions so intolerable that they force the Rohingya to leave the country.
It was all quite awful already. Then, in February, it got worse when the government expelled the humanitarian aid group MSF (Doctors Without Borders). The likely reason? As the Times put it, they had cared for survivors of violence against a Rohingya village that left 40 dead “that the government denies ever happened” (asserting that there was only one death, a policeman). How inconvenient to have international witnesses to ugly truths [see page 4 of this United to End Genocide report]. And MSF had hired some Rohingya to join their staff.
MSF was the “lifeline” for the Rohingya of Rakhine state. Now the hundreds of people who had been receiving AIDS treatment are without their medicines, and the thousands under MSF care for tuberculosis or who rely on their services to treat malaria  will go without needed treatment. And as the Times and an AP article poignantly and devastating detail, growing numbers of mothers and young children are victims of this crime. They, too, are dying. Further, Like TB, “waterborne illnesses and malnutrition are endemic” in the state. Where will help come from now?
What is more, since MSF was forced to close, attacks on humanitarian aid workers and new restrictions on humanitarian aid has severely hampered other humanitarian aid. The displaced persons camps offer only a single emergency government health center, but it is rarely open. As with all else for the Rohingya, government health services discriminate against them; they require lengthy procedures to receive care at government hospitals outside the camps, while fear of mistreatment further reduces access.
All this comes in an increasingly poisonous environment for the Rohingya. Violence against Rohingya and other Muslims grows.
The Burmese government’s response to the attack that prompted it to expel MSF exemplifies the government’s role, a mix of denying and abetting, while with only very limited exceptions failing to hold those perpetuating the violence to account. The violence is perpetuated by radical Buddhists, often led by extremist nationalistic Buddhist monks. Meanwhile, with hate speech against Muslims on the rise, Buddhist boycotts on Muslim businesses, the removal of potential witnesses to violence (like MSF), United to End Genocide offers this grave warning [page 3] : “Nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide than in Burma today.” A report last year from Physicians for Human Rights details some of the violence and the government’s response.
Sadly, the Obama Administration has not responded with sufficient vigor. Yes, in many ways the democratic reforms in Burma of the past several years have been truly remarkable, from Aung San Suu Kyi going from political prisoner to member of parliament, many political prisoners released, and many of the media restrictions removed. Such change in Burma deserves a change relationship, and incentives for further change. Yet along with other severe human rights violations that remain (including continued military repression of ethnic minorities), the change in Burma has had its limits. So must our response.
Now, on top of the already shocking regime of discrimination against the Rohingya, in denying them health care the Burmese government has in effect declared a new stage in its war against a people already under attack. It is a stage that the world, and that the United States, cannot turn countenance. It requires more than vague presidential condemnation that the President offered during his recent trip to Asia, but rather an explicit response that leaves not only leaves no doubt of our outrage, but is also aimed at ending this outrage.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma and United to End Genocide [page 8] have issued recommendations to our government. These include (with a few modifications):
* President Obama should publicly demand that Burma immediately allow MSF to re-open all facilities in the state of Rakhine, without condition, and remove all restrictions to Rohingya accessing government health services, including violations of freedom of movement. In this context, he should also call for the end of all discriminatory measures against the Rohingya and for the government to ensure the safety of the Rohingya and all Muslims in Burma. He should make clear that any further easing of sanctions depends on these horrors being resolved, and that unless health care is immediately made fully available, including addressing nutritious food, clean water, and sanitation, the United States will impose strong sanctions.
* A national emergency designation under the 2012 Executive Order 13619 is necessary for investment sanctions on human rights abuses in Burma to continue. Yet the designation is set to expire later this month, having been renewed last May for one year (effective until May 20, the date of the original designation in 1997). President Obama should immediately renew the national emergency designation.
* The Treasury Department, in coordination with the State Department, should update the Specifically Designated Nations list, which names the individuals and entities covered under Executive Order 13619 and other authorities pertaining to sanctions involving Burma (and covers all countries subject to U.S. sanctions). And the Administration should develop clear and transparent criteria for adding and removing individuals and entities from the list.
* The Administration should urge Europe, which has more fully dismantled its sanction regime than the United States has, to re-impose at sanctions until human rights conditions improve and to also publicly demand that health services be fully and immediately be restored to the Rohingya, and other discriminatory policies ended.
* The Administration should suspend all military-to-military relations (except human rights training).
* The Administration should call an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to address the deteriorating conditions of the Rohingya, based on the international community’s “responsibility to protect.” The Burmese government, both in its complicity and own prosecution of terrible crimes against the Rohingya, as well as other Muslims, is itself manifestly failing to itself protect them from crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and even the risk of genocide. The flight of Rohingya from Burma also provides an international dimension. Already tens of thousands are estimated to have sought to escape this year [page 5], often taking the dangerously and sometimes deadly exodus by sea, and putting them at risk of being trafficked.
* The United States should push a UN or other independent investigation of the violence against Muslims in Burma over the past several years.
You can help. Write to or call the President [White House comment line: (202-456-1111) to raise the above issues. United to End Genocide’s report includes a sample letter [page 9]. You could also leave a comment for Secretary of State John Kerry (202-647-4000) or UN Ambassador Samantha Powers (212-415-4062). United to End Genocide has also launched this petition to President Obama.
Beyond these actions, help force the plight of the Rohingya onto a crowded international agenda – blogs, tweets, and the like can all help. The Rohingya are suffering from ongoing crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, with precursors of genocide in place. We can seek to influence our nation’s response, and even the world’s response. In the end, we may be unable to control these. But we can control our own.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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