INTERNATIONAL REACTION to the ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the Burmese military against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority gathered some momentum this past week. On Tuesday, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning Burma, also known as Myanmar, for the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity.” The next day, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution demanding an end to the military’s attacks and the restoration of humanitarian access to Rakhine state, from which more than 625,000 people have been driven since late August.
Both Congress and the Trump administration are moving toward sanctions, including against the military leadership and, in the case of Congress, the industries that supply it. So is the European Union. Pope Francis met Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh at the beginning of December after visiting Burma and spoke out about “the immense toll of human suffering.”
Unfortunately, there is not much evidence the pressure is having an effect on Burma’s generals or even the civilian government under once-revered Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. By most accounts, Burmese society is united to an extraordinary degree in its contempt for the Rohingya, a long-despised community, and in its rejection of international criticism. Far from being willing to investigate reports of systematic brutality — murders of children, gang rapes, the torching of scores of villages — the military is insisting that its troops are innocent of any offense.
Rather than speak out or pressure the generals, Aung San Suu Kyi has been telling Western officials they are only endangering Burma’s nascent democracy by protesting what the U.N. human rights chief has called “elements of genocide.” On Dec. 1, she followed the Burmese army chief in traveling to Beijing for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose regime has predictably opposed any U.N. criticism or action on Burma.
Even China’s support is not absolute, though. Like the United States and United Nations, it has called for a return of the Rohingya massed in squalid camps in Bangladesh. In theory, Burma has accepted repatriation; the government signed an agreement with Bangladesh last month and says returns can begin in a couple of months. But as U.N. refugee officials pointed out this past week , the conditions for a voluntary and sustainable return of the refugees don’t yet exist. Many Rohingya are traumatized. There is no provision for international monitoring, humanitarian aid, secure places to live or the granting of basic rights such as citizenship.
These hard realities mean that the United Nations and Western governments must begin to focus on improving conditions for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Bangladesh, who are likely to remain there for the foreseeable future and who face grave humanitarian risks — such as an incipient diphtheria epidemic. Their temporary settlements — which have quickly become one of the largest refugee camps in the world — could become a recruiting ground for extremists if they are not well managed and secured.
At the same time, Western governments must not allow the intransigence of the Burmese elite to deter the pursuit of justice for the Rohingya, including prosecution of those responsible for the ethnic cleansing. Allowing crimes against humanity to go unpunished is an invitation for more and worse atrocities.