image via UN
by Michael Nachman
On August 25, 2017, a small group of Rohingya Muslim militants in Myanmar (formerly Burma) staged an ill-fated attack on police posts and an army base, killing ten police officers, a soldier and an immigration official. The militants are affiliated with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group of Muslims formed to oppose decades of oppression at the hands of Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority government. In response to the attack, Myanmar labeled ARSA a terrorist group and began a campaign of violent persecution against all Rohingya Muslims involving extrajudicial killings, rape and torture. As the conflict has devolved into genocide, the United Nations and United States are not taking sufficient action to protect the Rohingya, and the long-term implications of this inaction will be disastrous.
Since the attack, the Myanmar military has engaged in clearance operations with the aim of driving Rohingya out of the country. In the last month, over 500,000 Rohingya have been displaced from the impoverished Rakhine region of Myanmar and crossed the border into neighboring Bangladesh. As the Rohingya are driven out, Myanmar’s forces torch their villages and indiscriminately slaughter, torture, and rape Rohingya, killing all from men of combat-age to infants in mass executions. Myanmar prohibits the entry of any UN forces or observers, so no count exists of the total number of Rohingya murdered in the last month; we only know of the 500,000 to cross the border into Bangladesh, where UN aid workers wait for them to arrive. Zeid Raad Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, labeled this tragedy “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” while others, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have plainly declared it a genocide.
So far, the international response to the Rohingya persecution has been embarrassing. The UN has a humanitarian aid presence for Rohingya on the Bangladesh side of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, but UN and humanitarian aid partners have amassed only $36 million in aid for over 500,000 victims, less than half of the $77 million deemed necessary to handle the crisis by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. More importantly, the UN and the US are taking no action to stop the genocide itself. The UN possesses the authority, granted by Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, to employ “peace enforcement” to halt human rights abuses with the implantation of a comprehensive conflict-prevention force. Two decades after the UN faced international backlash for not implementing peace enforcement to prevent the Rwandan genocide, the UN has taken no steps in this direction to prevent genocide in Myanmar.
Intervening is in the overwhelming best interest of the world as a whole, as well as the Rohingya. The lack of direct international intervention creates a vacuum for ISIS and other terrorist groups to enter and radicalize an oppressed and subjugated Muslim population that wants to fight back. More direct international intervention from the UN has stalled primarily because China, the only country not to condemn Myanmar for their transgressions, threatens to use their UN Security Council veto to block any intervention. They see the crisis as inhibiting Myanmar’s transition to democracy, allowing them to maintain control of the region and constrain US influence on Myanmar. Chinese officials profess to fully support Myanmar’s efforts to “uphold peace and stability” in the Rakhine region and promote Myanmar’s claim that accusations of genocide are falsified.
Overall, for the UN to truly fulfill its duty, it must actively force Myanmar’s hand and prevent this genocide from occurring, not just try to put the pieces back together for those who successfully cross the border. Humanitarian intervention will always come with costs, but to combat the most rapid current killing and displacement of civilians requires dramatic action. The most legitimate form of peacekeeping intervention is one that is multilateral and internationally supported, so the US must be bold enough to force a vote by the UN Security Council on the implementation of a peacekeeping force in Myanmar, akin to the employment of troops used to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. Hopefully, by giving the Rohingya the international attention they deserve and sending a resolution to the UN General Assembly, China will be pressured into approving intervention. However, if international outcry is not enough to earn China’s approval, the United States is responsible for stepping in under the UN’s “Responsibility to Protect” clause, which legitimizes genocide prevention efforts that lack multilateral support. Only then will the horrific abuse of Rohingya Muslims come to the end, but time is running out.
The call for action necessary to build support for big ideas begins in small places like Hanover, New Hampshire. We have a voice; the power to speak and be heard in a way the victims of this tragedy cannot. A protest or demonstration of support for Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar at Dartmouth College could be the spark needed to galvanize a moment the world desperately needs.