As world diplomats gathered in New York on Monday, more than 10,000 people marched on the Myanmar embassy in the Bangladeshi capital to demand that the Buddhist nation stop what one U.N. official has called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” that has killed roughly 400 and displaced more than 400,000 Muslims in little more than a month.
Protesters rallied in support of the Rohingya, a Muslim group that is being driven from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state by Myanmar’s military, which has burned villages. The protesters also called Myanmar’s leader, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a “terrorist” for not ending the bloodshed.
Meanwhile, the United States has said little publicly since the latest round of Buddhist attacks against the Rohingya flared up in August. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson did call for Myanmar to end the violence, but human rights advocates are demanding a much harder line.
Human Rights Watch, for example, wants the United Nations Security Council to issue targeted sanctions and an arms embargo against Myanmar, which gets its weapons from China, Russia, India, Israel and Ukraine.
It’s unlikely that the Security Council will pass any such resolution, but Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton told Newsweek, “We have to try.”
“There’s no silver bullet with any of this stuff, but we’re trying to do everything we can to stop the [Myanmar] generals,” said Sifton.
Policy makers are reluctant to take strong action against Myanmar because they’re worried that pushing the military “will imperil the transition to democracy” in Myanmar, which only emerged from five decades of military dictatorship in 2011, Sifton said.
The United States has shown no interest in military intervention. Barring aggressive action, Sifton’s group believes economic sanctions are the way forward.
“You can’t just condemn the [Myanmar] generals and state your concerns,” he said. “They need hard consequences to get them to realize their behavior needs to stop.”
Such consequences could include travel bans and asset freezes for top security officials, as well as an expansion on existing arms embargoes to include all military sales, assistance and cooperation.
Human Rights Watch is also calling on the US Treasury Department to place the senior leadership of the Myanmar military on its Specially Designated Nationals list, which would prohibit access to US financial institutions, restrict travel to the US and freeze any US assets. Sifton says Japan, Sweden, Norway, South Korea, Canada, and Australia should institute similar measures against Myanmar’s military.
Sifton also said the Myanmar military should have “the threat of international criminal liability” held over its head and hopes it will face consequences for “crimes against humanity” at some point in the future.
From 1962 to 2011, the deeply reclusive Myanmar, formerly Burma, was controlled by a military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, helped change this and won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
Suu Kyi has been under pressure to do more to address the Rohingya, even though she doesn’t directly control the Myanmar military. Some feel she hasn’t taken a more forceful stance because she’s afraid of angering the highly powerful military as well as the Buddhist population, which comprises roughly 88 percent of Myanmar.
The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations but aren’t recognized as citizens. They’ve been referred to as one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
Religious tensions between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority in the Rakhine state turned violent several years ago and have escalated into what a top United Nations official recently referred to as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Some have gone as far to call what’s occurring to the Rohingya as genocide amid reports of mass killings committed by the Myanmar military.
Suu Kyi says reports of violence against the Rohingya have been distorted by “a huge iceberg of misinformation” spread by “terrorists” — but undermined her case when she blocked a UN-fact finding mission from entering Rakhine.
“At this point, [Suu Kyi’s] behavior makes her complicit,” Sifton said, adding that pressure on the generals could free up Suu Kyi to be more vocal about the violence against the Muslim minority group.
She will address the Rohingya crisis for the first time in a speech to her nation on Tuesday. The speech is viewed by the international community as her “last chance” to urge the military to stop the violence.