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Museum Briefs Senate Human Rights Caucus on Atrocities in Burma

“Rohingya people who have been through so much trauma are doing the difficult work of sharing their stories. Now it’s up to us to do something to end the violence.” Andrea Gittleman of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide shared these words with the Senate Human Rights Caucus on July 25 during a special briefing about atrocities perpetrated against Rohingya in Burma and their flight to Bangladesh.

Gittleman joined Daniel Sullivan of Refugees International, and Richard Weir of Human Rights Watch, in a panel discussion moderated by Tina Mufford of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Gittleman, Sullivan, and Weir have recently spent time in the region interviewing Rohingya refugees who were forced to flee to Bangladesh. Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), who co-chair the Caucus, joined the discussion to reiterate the importance of US efforts to encourage peace and stability in Burma.

The panelists shared their expert knowledge about the violence and persecution that successive Burmese governments have inflicted on the Rohingya community, a Muslim and ethnic minority group, most of whom live in Rakhine State in western Burma. This climate exposes the Rohingya to a high, ongoing risk of future atrocities. As Gittleman noted, the Museum’s Early Warning Project has consistently ranked Burma in the top three countries at risk of a future state-led mass killing.

The longstanding climate of oppression and impunity for violence against Rohingya has not improved since the election of the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, in 2015. In fact, as the panelists explained, Burma’s military and other security forces brutally cracked down on Rohingya civilians in October 2016 in so-called “clearance operations” following deadly attacks on police officers.

The panelists each shared the stories from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, which, as Gittleman put it, “were disturbing in their level of brutality.” These refugees, who fled during the military attacks, reported extrajudicial killings, rampant acts of sexual violence, and burning of villages. They told stories of fleeing for their lives, often leaving the bodies of loved ones behind. Underscoring the seriousness of the testimonial evidence shared by the panelists, Gittelman confirmed, “It appears more likely than not that the attacks were planned and premeditated, and that the elements of crimes against humanity, and potentially other atrocity crimes, have been met.”

All panelists expressed concern about government-imposed restrictions on humanitarian access to the region. Weir explained that these restrictions prompted Human Rights Watch to monitor the area by satellite. Expert analysis of the imagery picked up evidence of multiple large fires—the size of forest fires—throughout the region, which left over 1,500 structures destroyed. As Weir noted, testimonial evidence shared by Rohingya refugees supported the experts’ conclusion that the Burmese Army started these fires in a deliberate and concerted effort to force the Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, and to destroy their homes and livelihoods in the process.

This mass forced migration has had alarming consequences. Bangladesh has hosted 200,000–500,000 Rohingya refugees in encampments for many years, but the recent uptick in violence drove an estimated 74,000 more people across the border. As Sullivan explained, this influx has strained resources for those already in Bangladesh. Not only do these populations lack adequate food, shelter, health, and educational opportunities, they are also extremely vulnerable. Sullivan raised particular concerns about the ongoing threat of gender-based violence and the threat of human trafficking for Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh.

Moving forward, the panelists made multiple recommendations to the international community, and in particular to the US, Burmese, and Bangladeshi governments. All panelists recommended that the US government urge Burma to provide unfettered access for humanitarian assistance, journalists, and human rights lawyers to displaced people and refugees. Weir called for efforts to prioritize accountability and truth-seeking, and Sullivan asked that any further advancement of the US–Burmese relationship be conditioned on a concerted effort to improve the situation. In this connection, Senator Tillis expressed interest in limiting US–Burmese military-to-military relations.

Gittleman further pressed on the US government to “support Burma’s nascent transition to democracy while at the same time speaking out about mass atrocities committed by its security forces. We must demonstrate that we value human rights and the protection of civilians, no matter their identity—and that these values guide our relationship with Burma’s government.”

Read more about the situation in Burma and the Museum’s efforts to respond.