Genocide, famine and a democratic retreat — all after one year of U.S. inaction

A Rohingya refugee boy stands barefooted with others waiting to receive food at Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh on January 18. (Manish Swarup/AP)
A Rohingya refugee boy stands barefooted with others waiting to receive food at Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh on January 18. (Manish Swarup/AP)

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but as the United States has retreated from international leadership in the past decade, several toxic global trends have gained momentum. Democracy is steadily retreating, according to Freedom House, whose annual study documents a decline for the 12th consecutive year. Famine is threatening more people than ever: Tens of millions are at risk of starvation in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia.

Worst of all, it’s getting easier for regimes to commit — and get away with — crimes against humanity, including genocide. The tragedy of Syria, with its gassed children and bombed hospitals, is headed into its eighth year. Now Burma, a country also known as Myanmar, is showing how genocide can be carried out quickly, comprehensively — and with virtually no consequences for the perpetrators.

The savagery erupted just five months ago, when ragtag militants from the long-persecuted Rohingya minority in the Rakhine state attacked some government police posts. Within days, the Burmese army launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the region, employing unspeakable tactics — the slaughter of children, torching of villages, mass rape — that by December had driven more than 645,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.

To cover up their crimes, the Burmese generals banned most humanitarian groups from entering the area, along with journalists and U.N. investigators. Two Reuters reporters who uncovered evidence of a mass grave are being put on trial in Yangon, the country’s largest city. Still, reporters from Western news organizations and human rights groups have made heroic efforts to reconstruct what happened by looking at satellite photographs and interviewing the survivors in their miserable Bangladeshi camps.

What is known is fragmentary but horrific. Human Rights Watch has counted 354 villages partially or completely destroyed. One of them, Tula Toli, was home to about 4,300 people when the army arrived on Aug. 30. According to a detailed HRW report released last month, hundreds of men were lined up and massacred on a riverbank. Women were taken to houses in groups and raped. Then the houses were set on fire with the women and their children locked inside. “Survivors described young children being pulled away from their mothers and killed — thrown into fires or the river, or beaten or knifed to death on the ground,” the report said.

Now the Burmese regime, nominally headed by badly tarnished Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is preparing a final depredation. Having decimated an already persecuted community — the Rohingya, who are Muslims, are denied citizenship — authorities have agreed with Bangladesh on a plan to begin transferring the traumatized survivors from the Bangladeshi camps, where they have access to aid and can tell their stories to investigators, to “relocation centers” inside Burma, where they will be isolated from U.N. humanitarian agencies. The vast majority of the Rohingya say they do not want to go back to Rakhine in this way. Nevertheless, the transfers are due to begin on Tuesday.

Naturally, this inhumane plan has provoked protests from the United Nations and Western governments. But the Burmese regime has responded the same way it has to all the statements and condemnations this fall — with total defiance and dismissal. “The government is thumbing its nose at everybody,” says Richard Weir, an investigator on Burma for Human Rights Watch. “It is getting away with murder — and no one has been able to make them pay for it.”

To be sure, the Trump administration has made some token efforts. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly called the campaign “ethnic cleansing” and said “the world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to [these] atrocities.” Last month the State Department included a Burmese general in a group of human rights violators sanctioned under a new global accountability act. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tried and failed to get the Security Council to take action; China stands in the way.

What the United States has not done is what it used to do during crises like this: use its convening power to bring concerted pressure to bear on the regime — and on Bangladesh. President Trump has said nothing in public about the Rohingya, even when he attended a summit of southeast Asian nations in the Philippines in November. The administration passed up an opportunity there to rally Burma’s neighbors against the atrocities. It hasn’t worked with European nations to collectively sanction the Burmese army officers and other officials responsible for the atrocities. Incredibly, Burmese officers are still invited to a U.S.-sponsored regional military exercise in Thailand this year.

A decade ago the United States was leading the international effort to force Burma’s military to accept a return to democracy. Now it weakly wrings its hands as that same army gets away with genocide. That’s one measure of how the world has changed.

By Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editorial Page Editor.

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