Congress has the opportunity and the necessity to end Myanmar’s system of entrenched impunity for security forces. For years, the Myanmar security forces have been allowed to get away with ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, with devastating results for the people of Myanmar, in particular its ethnic minorities. Since the House of Representatives voted 382-30 to approve the Burma Act, Congress, and by extension the U.S. government, should now speak with one voice and swiftly make the provision into law. As the House of Representatives and Senate negotiate a final agreement on legislative text on the National Defense Authorization bill, it should include language that would pressure the Myanmar military to end its human rights abuses.
Ten months have passed since the Myanmar military began their so-called “clearance operations” which sought to ethnically cleanse the Rohingya and drove more than 700,000 women, men, and children - over 80 percent of the Rohingya who lived in northern Rakhine State - into Bangladesh. Since then, the international community, including the U.S. government, has failed to hold senior military officials accountable. There have only been a handful of military prosecutions, including for one incident that occurred in Inn Dinn village, Rakhine state, where journalists (who have since been imprisoned) uncovered a mass grave. Everywhere else, the Myanmar military has whitewashed and denied that any crimes were committed.
In a comprehensive report, released this week, Amnesty International conducted more than 400 interviews on both sides of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and documented our most comprehensive account to date of what occurred in northern Rakhine State. The stories featured in the report are haunting and should compel the international community to act. We have evidence that nine of the 11 crimes against humanity listed in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court have been committed since Aug. 25, 2017, including murder, torture, deportation, or forcible transfer, rape and other sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts, such as forced starvation. Make no mistake: what has occurred was a systematic and widespread campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes so serious they shock humanity.
Our conclusions also present overwhelming evidence that these crimes against humanity under international law were overseen and approved by senior levels of the Myanmar military. In a historic rarity for Amnesty, “We Will Destroy Everything”: Military Responsibility for Crimes against Humanity in Rakhine State, Myanmar” names 10 senior military officials, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and three Border Guard Police officials who should be held accountable for crimes against humanity whether it was for their command responsibility, their direct responsibility, or both. Failure to hold them accountable will only embolden abusers in the future to act with impunity and the cycle of violence and apartheid will continue. Amnesty found that several commanders who were involved in ethnic cleansing were subsequently promoted, which says a lot about how the Myanmar military views these operations. Congress should take a stand and bar U.S. security assistance or cooperation with Myanmar’s military or security forces until they have made progress on human rights by adding it to the NDAA.
In June, I visited the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, known as the world’s largest refugee camp, currently host to half a million people that fled the Myanmar’s military persecution. The desire for justice and accountability came up in several of my conversations. Eighteen-year-old Nuri Mohammed became orphaned after Aug. 25 of last year, losing 10 of his family members, including his mother and father, as part of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign. He told me he does not see what life can await him in Myanmar: what he wants is justice for his family.
Nuri is also worried about the rain and monsoon season that had just begun in Cox’s Bazar. Most shelters in the camps are made of bamboo and tarpaulin, where what used to be land full of forest and vegetation, is now fully exposed to rains and mudslides. It’s evident that despite all of the international community’s preparations, a significant number of the Rohingya population will still remain at risk from the monsoon, and almost all of them will be in extreme danger if a powerful cyclone hits.
These people escaped ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Myanmar military only now to face natural-made catastrophes. Since I was there, only 22 percent of the needs identified by a joint United Nations agencies’ assessment in the form of financial support had been met by the international community. Congress should continue to fully fund humanitarian assistance for Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the region and signal to the international community that it sees this a long-term crisis that requires long-term significant investments.
While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Development Program signed an agreement with the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments on repatriation, the Memorandum of Understanding has not been made public nor include consulting the Rohingya. Without addressing issues of citizenship and dismantling the systems of apartheid still found in Myanmar, it is unclear how any repatriation deal could be seen as safe, dignified, and voluntary, and the international community should take serious caution.
The United States has the opportunity and obligation to act. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should support the Myanmar NDAA provision, which very narrowly targets senior military officials, and not the civilian government. The National Defense Authorization conferees have an opportunity to take a historic step towards holding senior military officials accountable. For the 700,000 Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, and for Myanmar and the world, failure is not an option.
Francisco Bencosme is Asia Advocacy Manager at Amnesty International USA.
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