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Burma Edges Closer to Ethnic Cleansing

Witness all the hallmarks of the tragedies in Bosnia, Darfur, Kosovo, Rwanda.

A human tragedy approaching ethnic cleansing is unfolding in Burma, and the world is chillingly silent. In recent weeks, hundreds of Muslim Rohingya people have been killed, and more than 30,000 displaced. Houses have been burned, hundreds of women raped and many others arbitrarily arrested. Access for humanitarian-aid organizations has been almost completely denied. Thousands have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, only to be sent back. Witness all the hallmarks of past tragedies: Bosnia, Darfur, Kosovo, Rwanda. This isn’t the first explosion of violence against the Rohingyas, who are among the world’s most persecuted minorities. For decades these Burma-based Muslims have been subjected to a campaign of grinding dehumanization. In 1982, they were stripped of their citizenship rights and rendered stateless, with restrictions on movement, marriage, education and religious freedom. The Burmese government and military claims that the Rohingyas are in fact illegal Bengali immigrants. But Bangladesh doesn’t recognize them. As some Rohingyas say, “We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake.” Their plight intensified in 2012 when two severe outbreaks of violence resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands and a new apartheid emerged between Rohingya Muslims and their Rakhine Buddhist neighbors. Conditions have since become increasingly dire. The latest episode was sparked by an Oct. 9 attack on Burmese border-police posts, which killed nine officers. While no conclusive findings have been made about the attack, Burma’s military alleges that a group of Rohingyas were the perpetrators. Even if that were true, the military’s response has been grossly disproportionate. Rounding up suspects, interrogating them and putting them on trial would be one thing. It’s quite another to reportedly unleash helicopter gunships on civilians, rape women and throw babies into a fire. According to one Rohingya interviewed by Amnesty International, the military “shot at people who were fleeing. They surrounded the village and started going from house to house. They were verbally abusing the people. They were threatening to rape the women.” Another witness described how her two sons were arbitrarily arrested: “It was early in the morning, the military surrounded our house, while some came in and forced me and my children to go outside. They tied my two sons up. They tied their hands behind their backs, and they were beaten badly. The military kicked them in the chest. I saw it myself. I was crying so loudly. When I cried, they pointed a gun at me. My children were begging the military not to hit them. They were beaten for around 30 minutes before being taken away.” She hasn’t seen them since. Two people may be able to prevent this crisis from further deteriorating: Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ms. Suu Kyi is already facing increasing criticism for her failure to act, though she faces severe constraints. She won an electoral mandate last year and runs Burma’s first democratically led government in more than half a century, but the military still holds enormous power. Under Burma’s constitution, the ministries of home affairs, border affairs and defense remain in military hands. Her caution is thus understandable, denying the military any pretext to destabilize her new and fragile government. But the priority must be to save lives and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. In September, Ms. Suu Kyi invited former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to head a commission and find solutions to the Rohingyas’ plight. But her response to the latest abuses has been disappointing. At the very least, she should lift all restrictions on humanitarian aid so that people can receive emergency assistance. She should allow access for journalists and human-rights monitors, and set up an independent, international inquiry to establish the truth about the current situation. She should call for an end to mass attacks on civilians. As for Mr. Ban, his visit and negotiations to lift the military regime’s block on international aid after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008 saved thousands of lives. In his final weeks in office, he should repeat this strategy: Go to Burma and, using his good offices, bring together Ms. Suu Kyi, the military and the Rakhine state authorities and insist on humanitarian access. John McKissick, head of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the Bangladesh side of the border, has accused Burma’s government of ethnic cleansing. The U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, has condemned the lockdown on Rakhine State as “unacceptable.” It’s time for action from the very top. It’s also time for the international community to speak out. If we fail to act, Rohingyas may starve to death if they aren’t killed by bullets first. We could end up as passive observers once again wringing our hands belatedly, saying “never again.” Let us act now before it’s too late. Mr. Ramos-Horta is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president of East Timor. Mr. Rogers is the East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads” (Random House, 2015).

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