The United States should sanction Burma for its genocide against the Muslim Rohingya people, and lead an international effort to assist impoverished Bangladesh in supporting Rohingya refugees.
That's my conclusion based on the testimony coming out of southeast Bangladesh, where over 500,000 Rohingya civilians have taken refuge to avoid slaughter in Burma. My concern greatly increased after I spoke, Wednesday, with my aid worker aunt, Pat Kerr, who has taken a team to southeast Bangladesh.
Kerr described the situation at the Shah Porir Diip boat station, which sits between Burma and Bangladesh:
"Most of the refugees who arrive in Bangladesh take a boat to this station, and then barter (for example, giving jewelry for the fare) or borrow money to get to the mainland. It is tragic to see families with many young children and all their belongings in a few rice sacks. One young girl was so traumatized she couldn't speak or communicate in any way. Some refugees don't even have a full set of clothes, many don't have sandals. There are more women and children than men, as the Burmese army is killing many of the men. The tales they all told were consistent: many men being killed and all villages burnt. The pattern seems to be that this started in the north of Burma's Rakhine state and is spreading across the whole state to the south. There were 20,000 new refugees yesterday and we saw many boatloads today so the violence has definitely not stopped."
Still, Kerr says, the Bangladeshi Army is doing exceptional work in providing for those in need. She references one officer, Major Tanim, who has established an efficient supply of aid and provision of security for the thousands of refugees in his area.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also playing a critical role, she says, describing one camp where, "Every day, 12,000 children are given a meal of meat and rice. This is one of four sites giving a hot meal of meat and rice in the middle of the day. A total of 84,000 meals are served to women and children. This is not including the sacks of dry food (rice and lentils) that are also distributed to thousands, or the medical clinic with free basic medicine."
Unfortunately, it's not enough. The current global strategy towards the Rohingya crisis is the equivalent of bandaging an arterial bleed. More must be done.
First, the U.S. should lead a global diplomatic effort to sanction Burma. At present, the only serious reprisal Burma's government has faced for its genocide is the announcement that Aung San Suu Kyi will be stripped of the freedom of Oxford. That's a very unfunny joke. Considering the scale of this crisis, the Trump administration should immediately call for wide spectrum economic sanctions on the Burmese government and its financial industries. The need for this leadership is even more urgent in the context of reporting by The Guardian, Thursday, that the United Nations has suppressed evidence of its failure to plan and respond to Rohingya refugee needs.
Here, it won't be enough to simply sanction a few random Burmese officials, the U.S. must bring the diplomatic heat. If tough sanctions push Burma into the hands of the Chinese government, so be it. America should seek good relations and strong economic ties with all nations that share our values or support a realist U.S. foreign policy. But at present, Burma offers neither of those things. Incidentally, it says much about the nature of Xi Jinping's foreign policy vision that he is willing to align himself with a genocidal regime.
Second, the U.S. should strengthen its aid to Bangladesh as that nation saves those civilians the Burmese Army has failed to kill. To do so, Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson should send the head of Pacific Command, Admiral Harris, and the State Department's relevant Assistant Secretary, Alice Wells, to visit Dhaka and meet with top Bangladeshi officials. This would consolidate Bangladesh in the knowledge that its humanitarian efforts have not gone unnoticed in Washington. Bangladesh is often low-down in the U.S. foreign policy priority list, but that must now change.
More broadly, President Trump should prioritize the Rohingya in the same way that he has pushed Venezuela's situation up the international agenda. Utilizing his good will with the Sunni-Arab monarchies and recognizing Saudi Arabia's evolving interest in humanitarian issues, Trump should push those governments to increase their aid to the Rohingya (many of whom are Muslim). Additional funds are specifically needed in order to provide the Rohingya with longer-term shelter in Bangladesh. Kerr notes that one need in the camps is a "nighttime service for pregnant women and those in labor, because at the moment, the NGOs only offer treatment during the day."
Ultimately, this isn't that complicated a foreign policy issue. America doesn't need to keep the Burmese government happy, but we must confront this human suffering.
Photos provided by Pat Kerr.