As Europe’s refugee crisis receives less and less media attention, the world finds itself facing another plight—that of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Since August 25, 2017, over six hundred thousand Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh to escape dire persecution; thousands more are still stranded in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Those who make it to refugee camps often arrive injured, with little more than the clothes on their backs, having faced unspeakable horrors—homes set ablaze, mass slaughter, and rape.
This crisis has been years in the making. The Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have faced systematic persecution since the 1970s at the hands of Myanmar’s government: they’ve been denied citizenship and access to social services and subjected to forced labor. Neither Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi nor the president U Htin Kyaw has condemned or even acknowledged the serious crimes that are being perpetrated against the Rohingya people by Myanmar’s government. The closest has been a recent recognition of the government’s role in ten deaths of “Bengali terrorists.” In the last few years, these acts of persecution have intensified and become increasingly violent. In 2015, researchers at Queen Mary University of London published a report revealing an increasing “ghettoisation, sporadic massacres, and restrictions on movement” on the Rohingya people. The report warned that the attacks against the Rohingya people amounted to the early stages of a genocide.
Europe’s Relationship with Myanmar
Despite the worsening of human rights conditions in Myanmar over the past decade, the Western world has increasingly come to support the Myanmar government under the mission of democracy promotion, with the European Union even stating that it prides itself on being “at the forefront of the international community's re-engagement with Myanmar.” In addition, the EU commends Myanmar for taking “positive steps” to improve human rights in the country. At the same time, the EU recognizes the existence of severe human rights issues in Myanmar. In response to the Rohingya crisis, the EU tabled a human rights resolution at the UN Human Rights Council and has established a fact-finding mission in 2016. Thus the EU’s current relationship with Myanmar is marked by conflicting signals: a hope for progress coupled with an acknowledgement of reality.
It is important to note that the EU is not completely wrong about the possibility of progress in Myanmar, as the country has indeed made dramatic moves towards democracy with its credible elections in November 2015 and the current de-facto leadership under Aung San Suu Kyi. Additionally, the genocidal acts against the Rohingya people are largely the work of the military, which is an independent political force. However, the EU cannot truly be engaged in democracy promotion while supporting a regime under which hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities are forced to flee, regardless of whether or not these actions are being committed by the government.
Current EU policy concerning the Rohingya crisis is largely centered on humanitarian aid. In 2017, the EU pledged €51 million to support the Rohingya refugees, with funds being earmarked for Bangladesh host communities, refugees arriving in Europe, and recovery efforts in Myanmar. The EU also has extensive long-term plans that would positively impact the Rohingya refugees in the future. In 2016, the EU authored a joint communication to the European Parliament and Council on strategic plans for encouraging the furtherment of democracy in Myanmar. In this joint communication, the EU mapped out strategies for helping the Rohingya, including ensuring that Myanmar’s human rights regulations are in line with international standards and working with local administrative governments to prevent discrimination and hate speech against the Rohingya.
This, however, is not enough. While the EU continues to provide monetary support to the refugees fleeing persecution and violence and has long-term plans for improving the situation in the future, it has not done enough to prevent persecution of the Rohingya at the hands of the military from continuing. With its abundance of monetary resources and international political and economic influence, the EU has a responsibility to do more now. None of the strategies the EU has developed to improve the lives of the Rohingya can provide them with immediate relief. The Rohingya—facing rape, violence, and intense suffering—do not have time to wait.
To work towards alleviating human rights violations against the Rohingya right now, the European Union ought to focus on four key areas—intelligence, humanitarian support, the military, and refugee relocation.
First, the European Union needs to guarantee access for the fact-finding mission. As of now, the government of Myanmar has not yet granted visas to the members of the mission. Consequently, the EU has only been able to investigate by visiting neighboring countries and examining satellite imagery. The Rakhine state is largely cut off from the outside world, and any first-hand information about the situation in the region can help the EU come to officially condemn the atrocities and potentially label the situation “genocide,” as has been hinted at by some officials, which would allow for stronger actions, such as the ones we describe below.
Secondly, the EU should increase its humanitarian support of Rohingya refugees and of Bangladeshi host communities. An estimated €370 million in total is needed to care for Rohingya refugees for six months, but only €290 million has been raised thus far, including EU contributions. Greater monetary aid to refugee camps will help ensure that a basic standard of living is met, including safety, sanitation, and access to food and medicine. Funds should also be partially directed towards the Red Cross, which is currently the only aid group allowed into the Rakhine State.
Thirdly, the EU needs to focus efforts on targeting the military. While the EU has an arms embargo in place against Myanmar, there are reports that Myanmar’s military has been using European equipment, which it appears could have been received through China, Russia, India, or Israel. The EU should ensure accountability from recipients of its military equipment or technology, and it should encourage its military partners to enact arms embargoes against Myanmar. Additionally, the EU should target two companies, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and the United Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) that are tied to the military and military personnel. Extending sanctions to other business dealings between European companies and the MEC or UMEHL, including related foreign direct investment, would allow the EU to directly affect the military, which is responsible for these horrendous acts against the Rohingya.
Finally, until it is safe for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, the European Union should help facilitate refugee relocation. While Bangladesh and Myanmar have recently reached a deal to have some refugees return to Myanmar, there is no reason to believe that the region that is supposed to receive them is safe or that it will be free of violence or persecution. However, Bangladesh cannot harbor the refugees for the long-term, as it is still a developing country incapable of carrying the burden of this crisis and plans to house the refugees on Bhashan Char, a flood-prone island. Thus a plan to start relocating the refugees to other areas, whether the European Union or neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, is necessary. The EU can lend its support, experience, and knowledge from its own refugee crisis to Bangladesh, working to ensure logistics, supplies, documentation, and security concerns are taken care of.
In its promotion of democracy in Myanmar, the European Union must not forget about the marginalized group of citizens who are suffering now. While future plans and a positive diplomatic relationship with Myanmar may seem attractive, any action that is not taken now comes at the cost of more Rohingya deaths. The EU needs to acknowledges that there must be present consequences for the actions against the Rohingya in order for the violence to stop. A future of peace for Myanmar starts with basic rights—including that of life—for the Rohingya people today.The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Claire Cappaert is a second-year majoring in Public Policy and (maybe) Russian & East European Studies. This past summer, she interned for Alderman Michele Smith and, as part of the Milgrom Social Justice Fellowship, worked at a non-profit that provides literacy programming to homeless youth. On campus, Claire is on the board of EUChicago and is part of NSP. She enjoys drinking excessive amounts of coffee and tea, exploring Chicago, and being near the lake.