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Monthly Archives: September 2022

Rohingya Update: A Lingering Humanitarian Crisis in 2022

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The persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar burgeoned into genocide in 2017 and has since then expanded into a full-blown humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh. This crisis is characterized by the approximately one million refugees who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh during the last five years. These refugees face internal conflict a lack of resources in an already poverty-stricken area. The political situation in Myanmar also remains dire as the government fails to address military corruption, violence, and human rights violations toward both the Rohingya and other ethnic groups within the country. These humanitarian and political crises threaten the stability of southeast Asia, the checks and balances on Chinese power, and human rights around the globe, and thereby impact United States interests and security.

There are 135 distinct ethnic groups recognized by the Myanmar government. Rohingya Muslims, however, are not among these recognized groups; Myanmar’s 1982 Nationality Law stripped them of their citizenship and labeled them as foreign trespassers from Bangladesh. This pointed discrimination is related to ethnoreligious divides dating back to World War II, when Rohingya sided with British colonizers against the Rakhine Buddhist population amid promises of a Muslim state. Myanmar claimed independence in 1948 under a Buddhist-majority government and the Rohingya suffered persecution as a result. However, this persecution did not seem to reach the level of ethnic cleansing or genocide until this past decade. A Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, targeted Burmese border posts in 2016, and carried out several other attacks on police posts and other locations. These attacks prompted a military crackdown in August 2017 consisting of targeted violence and human rights violations against the Rohingya that constitute ethnic cleansing. The violence has resulted in the forced exit of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh, with thousands also fleeing to Thailand and India. The United States officially acknowledged these actions against the Rohingya as genocide earlier this year.

The current humanitarian situation is marked by the large number of Burmese refugees living in camps in a Bangladeshi border town called Cox’s Bazar. Already facing immense poverty, Cox’s Bazar and the Bangladesh government have struggled to provide resources and aid to the thousands of refugees who flooded their borders in 2017 and in the aftermath of the 2021 military coup against the Myanmar government. These refugees include mostly Rohingya Muslims but also other groups whose rights are also being violated under the Tatmandaw’s military regime. With international aid, Bangladesh was able to provide refuge for one million Rohingya refugees. However, the country does not have the resources to provide work and education opportunities, and it struggles to meet basic hygiene and nutrition needs in overcrowded conditions. Refugee camps in Bangladesh are also plagued by tensions with the Bangladeshi host community, dangerous weather conditions, and gang violence.

The goal of the UNHRC and the Rohingya themselves is to return to Myanmar rather than settling permanently in Bangladesh, but the political situation in Myanmar is worsening rather than improving. In addition to the Burmese refugees in Bangladesh, there are thousands of displaced persons throughout Myanmar in need of humanitarian assistance. The Tatmandaw’s human rights violations seem to include every form of violence imaginable, and no one is exempt from these atrocities. Beyond targeted and explicit violence, the military junta also subjects Burmese citizens to inhumane detention conditions and collective punishment.

To date, the military has yet to be held accountable by the international community for these atrocities and humanitarian efforts are gravely underfunded, but progress is being made. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is pursuing prosecution of Myanmar on genocide claims. The UN Human Rights Council has developed strategic development goals for Myanmar and has begun to implement a joint response plan to address the humanitarian crisis, though only fourteen percent of the plan was funded as of May 2022. Despite the steps taken by international entities, the United States has been relatively absent from the dialogue and aid efforts up until this year.

Myanmar’s current political situation and humanitarian crisis pose a security threat to the entirety of southeast Asia as well as to the United States. The underlying political issues in Myanmar still pose a risk to human rights worldwide, not to mention the continued corruption, ethnic conflict, and potential for additional or exacerbated humanitarian crises from the country that could destabilize the region as a whole. From the economic side, Myanmar is a gem mine overflowing with natural minerals and resources, and therefore has abundant potential for either business that boosts the economy, or exploitation at the hands of neighboring countries (or a few powerful Burmese leaders). The country also has premier access to the Bay of Bengal, which sits between itself and India and is home to its own slew of natural resources. This is also a strategic point for southeast Asia because it is a key maritime trade route, one to which China has wanted direct access for a long time. China is poised to expand its influence in southeast Asia via Myanmar’s current situation; China is the leading foreign investor in Myanmar and has openly expressed support for Myanmar’s military junta. It is unclear if this support for Myanmar post-coup is genuine or if China is attempting to salvage its plans for the China Myanmar Economic Corridor. Beyond geographic considerations, there is also concern that Rohingya refugees have been or are currently being recruited and radicalized by Islamist extremist groups.

The United States has a wealth of potential policy options, from maintaining the status quo to full intervention. The international community expects the United States to be at the helm of the UN’s humanitarian efforts in some respects, including providing funding for the joint response plan. Humanitarian intervention poses a significantly lower risk to the United States’ resources and its reputation in southeast Asia than military or aggressive political intervention, though the latter may be necessary if the situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate and threatens the economic and political stability of surrounding countries. More pointed action may also be needed if China makes bold moves to seize control of Myanmar’s natural resources and strategic location.