Assessing U.S. Policy Towards Burma: Geopolitical, Economic, and Humanitarian Considerations

Chairman Corker, Ranking Member Cardin, distinguished Members of the Committee, we appreciate the invitation to appear before you today to testify on the devastating human tragedy that continues to unfold in Burma’s troubled and complicated Rakhine State. Violence and insecurity have exacerbated the longstanding suffering of ethnic Rohingya and other minority populations, created a massive displacement of populations internally and across the border, led to a humanitarian crisis in neighboring Bangladesh, and threatened to undermine Burma’s substantial gains in recent years on its fragile transition from a half century of authoritarian military rule to elected government, including efforts to end multiple armed conflicts and achieve a long elusive national peace.

We are grateful for the opportunity to update you on the current humanitarian situation facing those affected by the crisis, describe what the U.S. Government is doing through diplomatic engagement and the targeting of life-saving aid to address this situation, discuss the challenges the international community faces in delivering humanitarian assistance, and discuss next steps to achieve an end to the violence and restoration of security for affected populations.

Current State of Play:

We’d like to start by highlighting the latest developments since our testimonies to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 5. First, current estimates indicate some 589,000 people, mostly ethnic Rohingya, have fled to Bangladesh since the crisis began. These movements reflect a slowing rate of displacement, but nonetheless the continued flight of vulnerable populations. Refugees continue to cross into Bangladesh, and we continue to receive credible reports of sporadic violence in northern Rakhine State, including vigilante action such as arson and threats of physical harm to ethnic Rohingya. Reputable international NGOs have reported new satellite images that reveal nearly 300 villages were partially or completely destroyed by fire since August 25—more than half of the approximately 470 Muslim villages in northern Rakhine State. We have all seen the heart wrenching coverage of those refugees arriving in Bangladesh, having lost all their property and in some cases family members, and having suffered great insecurity, fear, indignity, and abuses as they fled for their lives.

Although some population movements continue and security has not been fully re-established in northern Rakhine State, most reports indicate that our efforts, working with others in the international community, to communicate our concerns directly with Burmese civilian and military authorities and at the United Nations and other fora have helped to decrease the scope of violence in recent weeks. On October 12, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi gave a second public address on the crisis. She laid out three goals for Rakhine State: (1) repatriation of those who have crossed over to Bangladesh and providing humanitarian assistance effectively; (2) resettlement of displaced populations; and (3) economic development and durable peace. Burma has created a funding mechanism to pursue these goals with World Bank support. The Burmese government also implemented a mechanism to coordinate its cooperation with the international community to address challenges in Rakhine State. Aung San Suu Kyi will chair this effort, but at the current time humanitarian and media access to affected areas of northern Rakhine State remains limited. At the same time, Bangladesh and Burma have entered into bilateral discussions on how to facilitate safe and voluntary return of refugees to Burma, a dialogue that we fully support.

The sources of renewed crisis this year in Burma’s Rakhine State include coordinated August 25 attacks on security forces and other violent acts carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a group of Rohingya militants; a disproportionate Burmese military response to those attacks; violence perpetrated by local vigilantes, often acting in concert with security forces; and insecurity for local populations. These developments have taken place against a backdrop of broad discrimination, repression, and violence against ethnic minorities in Rakhine State over many decades. The current crisis, now underway for two non-stop months, has exacerbated longstanding challenges for these vulnerable minorities, including, most acutely, members of the Rohingya community who lack basic rights, including recognition as a nationality and, for many, even citizenship.

The violence in Rakhine State has devastated vulnerable populations and caused families and unaccompanied minors to flee. This almost unprecedented population movement has worsened a desperate humanitarian situation in Bangladesh, which already provides safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled previous crises in Rakhine State. Approximately 87,000 had fled there in 2016 following separate violence last year, joining an estimated 200,000-500,000 undocumented Rohingya and over 33,000 registered Rohingya already living in southeastern Bangladesh for over two decades. With this last round of displacement, the Rohingya population in southeastern Bangladesh is now estimated to be between 800,000 and one million persons. There is a similar population crisis inside Rakhine State, where the precise number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) remains unknown due to ongoing population movements, limited humanitarian access, and a lack of official estimates. In September, the Rakhine State Government estimated the current crisis had created approximately 200,000 new IDPs; however, many of those displaced persons have since crossed into Bangladesh. Prior to the August attacks, 120,000 IDPs from various ethnic populations, including Rohingya as well as ethnic Rakhine, had already been living in camps following inter-communal violence in 2012.

Diplomatic Engagement:

The suffering of so many calls all of us to action. Secretary of State Tillerson stated last week that “the world can’t stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported.” This administration is undertaking all efforts to end the violence and suffering immediately. Our most pressing objectives are achieving protection for all local populations and meaningful, durable solutions for those who have been displaced, including the chance to go home again voluntarily, in safety, and with dignity when conditions permit.

We have made it clear to Burmese civilian and military officials at the highest levels, within the central government and in Rakhine State itself, that all stakeholders must end the violence, respect the rule of law, cease displacement, pave a path for Rohingya and others to return voluntarily to their homes, and hold accountable those responsible for violations and abuses. We have expressed alarm about continuing reports of violence perpetrated by security forces, as well as of civilian vigilantes operating outside the rule of law in committing arson attacks on Rohingya homes and blocking humanitarian assistance to many populations. Secretary Tillerson observed last week that “someone will be held responsible” for these acts.

We have communicated to relevant authorities that those who have fled to Bangladesh or are otherwise internally displaced in Burma must be able to return home voluntarily – and we welcomed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s re-affirmed commitment in her October 12 speech that Burma would allow them to return. Much depends on how quickly it will be possible to establish conditions that make repatriation possible and safe and the precise way in which people are repatriated. We cannot ignore that vulnerable people fled to Bangladesh because they felt it was unsafe for them to stay in Burma. Unless Burmese security forces create a secure environment for all populations, it would be unreasonable and unwise to expect or facilitate their return. We are encouraging closer communication between Burma and Bangladesh. A senior Burmese delegation traveled to Dhaka on October 2 and the two sides agreed to form a joint working committee on repatriation.

Principals in our government have been strongly engaged on this issue. President Trump has discussed the situation with multiple leaders from Southeast Asia. Secretary of State Tillerson called Aung San Suu Kyi to urgent action. Vice President Pence denounced the Burmese military’s disproportionate response in his remarks at the United Nations. USUN Ambassador Haley spoke at an open Security Council meeting and called for an international role in ending the violence. National Security Advisor McMaster and other officials spoke with the Burmese National Security Advisor. Our Ambassador in Burma has actively engaged top Burmese government and military leaders throughout this crisis. In September, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Murphy visited Burma, including Rakhine State, and met with Aung San Suu Kyi as well with other national and state government and military figures. All U.S. officials have urged authorities and stakeholders in Burma to protect civilians, pursue accountability, and cooperate with the international community, and made clear that this crisis has implications far beyond Rakhine State. We are also engaging and consulting with ASEAN member states, the European Union, international organizations, and many others on the crisis.

Rakhine State Crisis Humanitarian Challenges:

The humanitarian challenges before us are many. Our focus is on: (1) gaining access for assistance in Rakhine State; (2) working with host governments in the region to ensure refugees are offered safe haven and treated with respect, and that host countries have what they need to help the refugees; (3) specific contributions made by the State Department in coordination with USAID; and (4) ensuring that UN and other humanitarian agencies have the support they need to respond.

Humanitarian Access:

The number one humanitarian priority is gaining access to those in need in Rakhine State. Relief agency access to many of the affected areas remains severely limited. As of October 10, the Government of Burma (GoB) had granted travel authorizations in northern Rakhine State only to Red Cross agencies. Although the GoB has granted some international NGOs travel authorizations to work in central Rakhine State, other government regulations and procedures are hindering INGOs from accessing all IDP camps and affected communities. In addition, safety concerns, a local climate of intimidation, and restrictions on movements prevent many local Burmese staff of these organizations from accessing those in need.

We take every opportunity to emphasize to Burmese officials at all levels of government the need to allow humanitarian assistance to those in need. The White House, State Department, and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations have issued statements calling for immediate unhindered humanitarian access to all affected populations, including northern Rakhine State. The government’s commitment to do so is encouraging, but we seek further implementation on the ground.

We are working with international partners and stakeholders inside Burma to overcome challenges that have precluded humanitarian agencies and NGOs from reaching affected areas of northern Rakhine State. We have succeeded in securing Burmese government cooperation for the Red Cross Movement (RCM) to deliver assistance, but they alone cannot assess or meet all of the humanitarian needs in Rakhine State. Specifically, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Internatio