Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh after fleeing Myanmar in September. A State Department report estimates that 688,000 Rohingya have made the journey. Credit: Tomas Munita for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Myanmar’s military campaign to kill or drive away its ethnic minorities is worsening despite a growing international outcry, according to a State Department religious freedom report that was released on Tuesday.
Violence against the Rohingya, nearly all of whom are Muslim, in the country’s Rakhine state has been likened to ethnic cleansing and has tarnished the reputation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate whose party now controls Myanmar. The new report found that an unknown number of Rohingya are displaced throughout Myanmar, formerly Burma, and an estimated 688,000 have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.
Additionally, the State Department said authorities in Myanmar were “doubling down” against ethnic minorities with a new campaign against the largely Christian minority in Kachin state. Fighting between the government and rebels in Kachin has flared for decades but restarted in earnest in 2011, according to the report.
The United Nations estimates that 100,000 civilians remain displaced in both Kachin and Shan states as a result of that fighting, the report said. Religion and ethnicity in Myanmar are closely linked.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued the annual report on Tuesday with Ambassador Sam Brownback, the former governor of Kansas who now serves as the State Department envoy for international religious freedom. Mr. Pompeo also said he would hold an international symposium on religious freedoms in late July in Washington.
“The ministerial will also be my first to host as the secretary of state, and that’s very intentional,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters. “Religious freedom is, indeed, a universal human right that I will fight for.”
The Trump administration has tended to de-emphasize human rights as a foreign policy priority. Former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson often said that life-or-death issues, such as terrorism, were far more important than those of individuals’ rights.
But the administration’s evangelical supporters see the issue of religious freedom, particularly that of Christian minorities in places like the Middle East, as deeply important. The continuing detention and trial in Turkey of Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor, has caused serious strains in relations between Ankara and Washington, with some on Capitol Hill proposing to apply sanctions on Turkey in response.
“International religious freedom deserves to be a front-burner issue, and Ambassador Brownback and I, with him leading the way, will ensure that it continues to be so,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Rob Berschinski, the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First, said the administration did not practice what it preached.
“Right now the Trump administration is blocking the entry into the United States of refugees fleeing religious persecution, having decreased the number of refugees admitted into the United States to an all-time low,” Mr. Berschinski said. “This policy has negatively impacted tens of thousands of Muslims and Christians alike.”
Among the other findings in the State Department report is that North Korea is holding 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners — including some for religious reasons.
Additionally, only five religions are sanctioned by China’s government, but restrictions against even those can be severe, the report said. It said that China had forcibly sent hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims to re-education centers, and that dozens of Falun Gong members had died in detention last year.
(c) 2018 The New York Times