Children starve. Young girls sell their bodies to eat. There is no clean drinking water. There are no doctors. Refugees are not allowed to leave the camps. As the rainy season approaches, waterborne diseases will spread like wildfire. This is the plight of the over 200,000 Rohingya who survive in makeshift refugee camps along the Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. Although their situation is dire, they are better off than the Rohingya being slaughtered back in Myanmar. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are the world’s most ignored and persecuted minority. They have faced decades of neglect and dehumanization while the world stands by; it is time for the response of the international community to change. The situation in Myanmar has reached a tipping point and the country is a tinderbox, ready to ignite into violence. The inaction of the international community has allowed the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority to escalate into state-sponsored ethnic cleansing and a spreading humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.

The Rohingya Muslim minority, a group of roughly 800,000 people residing in the western Burmese state of Rakhine, faces a long history of persecution and alienation. They exist today as a stateless race denied basic human rights, unwanted in Myanmar or abroad. Their plight stems from the fact that they are not recognized as citizens by the Burmese state and are instead considered illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh, where they are not welcome either. In 1977, the military government commenced Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) to identify illegal immigrants residing in Burma. The violence and religious persecution that followed led more than 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. In 1982, former dictator General Ne Win enacted the Burma Citizenship Law, which identified 135 official ethnic minority groups, of which the Rohingya were not one. Immigrants that settled in Myanmar before independence in 1948 are considered legal immigrants; all others are considered illegal immigrants unless they can prove their ancestors immigrated to Burma before 1948. As the records needed to trace ancestry are not available to the vast majority of Rohingya families, the Rohingya minority remains a group without civil rights, official recognition, or justice. There exist many examples of the dehumanization of the Rohingya under national law: they have no property rights, they have no identification cards, they are subject to curfews, they are denied access to higher education or government positions, they have exorbitant marriage fees, and Rohingya couples are limited to two children.


This divide between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority erupted into violent clashes in 2012. It began on May 28 when three Muslim men raped and murdered a Buddhist woman in the state of Rakhine. About a week later Buddhist vigilantes retaliated by pulled ten Muslim men off a bus and beating them to death. This incident was the tipping point that set off waves of ethnic riots across the western state of Rakhine. However, it was not just Rakhine extremists and Rohingya clashing in these violent eruptions. Apparently, local government authorities aided Rakhine extremists in the destruction of Rohingya villages.


The conflict has escalated as the government has transformed regional ethnic riots into state-sponsored ethnic cleansing and genocide. In July, President Thein Sein released a statement saying that Burma could not accept an illegal minority group such as the Rohingya and that the Rohingya should be put under the jurisdiction of the UN and removed from Myanmar. Although the UN did not accept this statement, it is a shocking indication that the Rohingya are not welcome to remain in Myanmar any longer and undergirds subsequent government violence against the group.

Human Rights Watch has released a report titled “‘All You Can Do is Pray’: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State,” which the government has dismissed as “unacceptable” and one-sided. Survivors told Human Rights Watch how the army, the border control force, and the police have not intervened to stop the massacre of the Rohingya. In some instances, these security forces joined the killings or removed the Rohingya’s weapons so they could be more easily slaughtered. There are reports of as many as four mass graves with up to 100 bodies, Rohingya villages burned to the ground, and women and children hacked to death. The violence has reached a new level: in one daylong massacre in Yan Thei village in the Mrauk-U Township, 70 Rohingya were killed by a mob while security forces stood by. The government supports the complete removal of the Rohingya people and according to Professor William Schabas, former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, Burmese government policy and action against the Rohingya can be considered genocide.


However, the situation in Myanmar is not as black and white as one might think, making the violence even more difficult to resolve. On April 22, 2013, the same day Human Rights Watch released its report on human rights violations in Burma, the European Union permanently lifted economic sanctions against Burma and the International Crisis Group (ICG) awarded President Thein Sein the prestigious “In Pursuit of Peace” award for his political reforms and peace efforts with ethnic minority groups. It seems almost paradoxical that a president receives a peace award the day his government is accused of perpetrating genocide against its people, but the situation becomes clearer when examining the first few years of Thein Sein’s presidency.


The sanctions imposed in the 1990s were permanently lifted to reward the Burmese government for its recent pro-democracy strides. After a half-century of brutal military dictatorship and ethnic violence, the people elected President Thein Sein in 2011 to head a quasi-civilian government to oversee the transition to fully free and fair elections by 2015. Since Thein Sein’s election, the human rights and political freedoms have greatly improved in Myanmar. Hundreds of imprisoned political prisoners have been freed including Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD).


In April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members swept parliamentary elections, leading the EU to temporarily suspend economic sanctions for a year. Since then, Thein Sein has relaxed state censorship by abolishing pre-publication censorship and ending half-century of state monopoly of the media. Twenty private newspapers have been licensed, with four already appearing on daily newsstands. Furthermore, sectarian violence has also decreased, as the government has engaged twelve ethnic rebel groups in peace talks and successfully brokered eleven ceasefire agreements.


As a result of these strides, the sanctions, designed to target military officials and organizations involved in hu- man rights abuses, were completely lifted across the board on more than 800 companies and 500 individuals without regard for the continuing ethnic violence and human rights abuses reported in the Rakhine state. The only sanction that remains in place is the arms embargo, a sign that full trust between the international community and Myanmar has yet to be completely restored. Although some, like Aung San Suu Kyi, believe the international community’s stance on the economic embargo should not be influenced by clashes with the Rohingya Muslims, this position overlooks serious human rights violations in favor of promoting business interests. Myanmar remains one of the last untapped Asian markets, rich in gas, oil, and minerals. After being cut off from the rest of the world for 60 years under a military dictatorship, Myanmar’s central location between India and China and its extensive coastal access make the country an ideal trading partner in Southeast Asia with abundant opportunity for investment.

Despite these opportunities for investment and growth, the EU may have lifted sanctions prematurely and sent the wrong message to the Burmese government, that human rights abuses will go unpunished in favor of economic development. This move by the EU has influenced the US to ease its sanctions against Burma, although it has retained visa and investment bans against select individuals involved in repression. The premature move removed leverage that may have proven vital for a democracy movement in its infancy, with the military still commanding immense clout over national affairs with no civilian oversight of its operations. Indeed, the move seems extremely premature considering none of the benchmarks set a year ago with the temporary suspension of sanctions were have actually been met. Two hundred and forty political prisoners remain imprisoned, the government has not recognized the Rohingya as an official ethnic group, the army still perpetrates abuses in Kachin State, and the government still detains humanitarian aid workers, denying them access to desperate conflict zones and the hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya in critical condition.


Now that sanctions have been removed as ethnic violence continues unabated, the question remains of what is to be done in Myanmar to ensure the pro-democracy movement succeeds and violence against ethnic minority groups is prevented. It cannot be denied that sanctions were an extremely useful tool and a large factor in Myanmar’s transition from military rule to a quasi-civilian government overseeing democratization. The sanctions, such as visa bans, trade restrictions, asset freezes, and the prevention of financial transfers, should be selectively reinstated against the individuals and entities found responsible for the human rights abuses against the Rohingya. These abuses cannot be allowed to continue with impunity. The sanctions should be reinstated until the previously mentioned benchmarks have actually been met. To this end, the international community must pressure Burma to release the last of its political prisoners, end government violence in the Kachin and Rakhine states, and give aid workers access to some of the world’s most desperate refugees. A UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should be established in Myanmar to monitor human rights abuses, as Thein Sein promised President Obama in November 2012. The international community should push for legal reform in Myanmar so that the government ratifies and implements the major human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Only with crucial reforms such as these will the human rights situation in Myanmar meaningfully improve.


In 1948, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined genocide as the “intentional destruction of a national, ethnic, racial, and religious group, in whole or in part” in peace or in wartime. Despite the official condemnation of the crime of genocide, however, the international community has been slow to act to prevent its occurrence. Indeed, the United States stood by during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and watched 800,000 people died in 100 days.


The international community must learn from its past mistakes and not repeat the inactions of the past. It must demand that the draconian 1982 Citizenship Act be amended. The hundreds of detained NGO workers must be released and given access to the country’s neediest regions. UN security forces must be deployed to protect aid workers and deter violence. Increased aid is necessary to support the refugee camps in Bangladesh and minimize further suffering. In the end, it is international attention that is paramount to ensure that the world’s most neglected, persecuted minority is not exterminated in an atrocity that could have been prevented.