Burma’s Ethnic Cleansing ContinuesStronger foreign pressure is needed on Suu Kyi’s government.
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Bangladesh bowed to reality Monday and postponed the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Burma, a process that was supposed to begin this week. More than 650,000 Rohingya have fled over the border since August to escape mass rape and murder by the Burmese military. Dhaka behaved admirably by caring for the refugees, but its eagerness to see them return home led to an ill-considered agreement with Burma last November. The deal, brokered by Beijing, allowed the government of Aung San Suu Kyi to deflect attention from the military’s crimes.
One flaw was the Burmese government’s insistence that the Rohingya prove their residency in Burma. That is virtually impossible. The authorities took away their citizenship in the 1980s and have refused to issue official documents to the Muslim minority. Many Rohingya fled with only the clothes on their backs after soldiers burned their homes. Few Rohingya are willing to return now because the Burmese military continues to burn villages. New refugees continue to arrive in Bangladesh, and more are still hiding in Burma.
The Burmese government pledged to house returning Rohingya in temporary camps until they can return to their homes. But the refugees are right to be suspicious. In 2012 Burma moved 120,000 Rohingya into “temporary” camps after communal violence in Rakhine state. They are still living there under horrific conditions, with children suffering malnutrition.
Despite credible reports of coordinated atrocities by soldiers, Ms. Suu Kyi’s government continues to cover for the military. Outside investigators including United Nations Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee are refused visas, and foreign reporters are banned from visiting where the Rohingya lived.
Last month Burmese authorities arrested two local journalists working for the Reuters news agency who had reported from the region. The police invited them to a meeting, gave them supposedly confidential documents and then arrested them under the Official Secrets Act. They are now on trial and could be sentenced to 14-year prison terms.
The repatriation agreement with Bangladesh gave Ms. Suu Kyi some breathing room internationally. But she failed to use this opportunity to pressure the military to stop its abuses. The Nobel laureate refuses even to acknowledge the seriousness of the crimes committed against the Rohingya.
That puts the U.S. and other Western countries in a tough spot. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the killings and expulsions of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing, but he ruled out sanctions on Burma because they might imperil the country’s transition to democracy. The Treasury Department placed one Burmese general on a financial blacklist last month for “widespread human rights abuse,” and penalties for others are being considered.
This measured response will become untenable as evidence of the Burmese military’s rampage emerges and the refugees remain in Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya inside Burma are still in danger. Instead of grasping at the false hope of repatriation, the focus should be on the U.N. and aid groups gaining access to Rakhine state. The abuses won’t end without stronger intervention.