Why finding a solution to Myanmar's Rohingya 'ethnic cleansing' is easier said than done

  • At least a million Rohingya reside in Myanmar, which has marginalized the ethnic group for decades by refusing to recognize them in an official capacity.
  • Insurgent attacks have drawn a fierce response from Myanmar's military, and sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fleeing to other countries.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently acknowledged the crisis as "ethnic cleansing," but experts are divided on whether a peacekeeping force will help.
After crossing the Naf river Rohingya refugees walk to entered Bangladesh border area at Anjumanpara in Coxsbazar, Bangladesh.
K M Asad | LightRocket | Getty Images
After crossing the Naf river Rohingya refugees walk to entered Bangladesh border area at Anjumanpara in Coxsbazar, Bangladesh.

Slowly but surely, the world is taking notice of the crisis affecting Myanmar's Rohingya population, a mostly Muslim minority who have lived in the country for hundreds of years.

The question now is exactly what can governments do to halt what the United States recently called ethnic cleansing?

With escalating attacks on Rohingya villages in the state of Rakhine by Myanmar's security forces and Buddhist civilians, an estimated 35,000 Muslim refugees per day have fled mostly to neighboring Bangladesh, the United Nations said in September. International say the situation could be considered genocide.

At least a million Rohingya reside in largely Buddhist Myanmar, which has marginalized the ethnic group for decades, in large part by refusing to officially recognize them.

"There is a long history of [an] apartheid state in Myanmar, said Yusuf Iqbal, founder of Americans for Rohingyas. He said the Muslim minority is frequently "used as a pretext for military aggression."

Amid the crisis, many international observers have criticized Myanmar's leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to halt the violence. That pressure intensified last month, after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the violence ethnic cleansing.

"Myanmar is not a trustworthy partner in this negotiation," Adem Caroll, director for the nonprofit advocacy group Burma Task Force, told CNBC recently. "It is troubling because the Myanmar government officials have said on the record that they will not take back the displaced people of Rakhine state."

With the U.S. and the international community appearing to be on the same page, a number of questions about the festering crisis remain unclear. History suggests that when "ethic cleansing" and "genocide" are invoked, such as in Bosnia and Sudan, it is usually accompanied by a worldwide call to action.

The plight of the Muslim minority has been magnified by the behavior of Myanmar's military. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented evidence of mass rape by the military as part of what the organization called a "mass campaign of ethnic cleansing."

"'Ethnic cleansing' is not really a legal term, but regardless of the term we give it, there needs to be international action, concrete actions against the atrocities committed," said Richard Weir, Asia fellow at Human Rights Watch.

"There are more than 400 Rohingya families in Chicago, and we all have ties to the Myanmar conflict." -Nasir Bin Zakaria, president, Rohingya Culture Center

For governments and international bodies, there are a range of possibilities to tackle the violence. Options include boosting funding to specific countries, agreeing to resettle refugees and deploying peacekeepers. A potential first step could be taken by the U.N. General Assembly, which is expected to approve a resolution that would request the secretary-general to appoint a special envoy.

Since the crisis flared in August, the financial response has been relatively small. The U.S. has committed $87 million in humanitarian assistance to those affected by the crisis, Canadian donors have given $50 million and other international donors have pledged $344 million, according to U.N. data.

This summer, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan led a commission to bring a solution to the humanitarian conflict, which recommended the creation of a safe zone for the Rohinygya. The commission also called for the Myanmar military to stop the violence.

Yet according to Weir, if safe zones are created in Myanmar, they will require protection that only a U.N. peacekeeping force could provide. Safe zones have to be monitored by the international community, and cannot be government-declared, such as the one created in Sri Lanka in 2009 that ultimately became known as "kill zones."

For its part, Myanmar has set up an agency called Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine to collect funds. However, some experts doubt the agency's effectiveness, given that it is the brainchild of Suu Kyi, who has taken much of the blame for the flare-up in violence.

In November, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to cooperate on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, while taking measures to bolster border security between the two countries. However, even that comes with a host of problems: When Rohingya refugees retruned to Myanmar in 2012 and 2015, they were placed in internment camps.

To establish a peacekeeping operation, the U.N. Security Council needs to adopt a resolution, but such a move lacks consensus among major powers, observers say. According to Iqbal, the United Nations is not be best platform because Myanmar enjoys the support of China, a permanent Security Council member that could block or veto a resolution.

Instead, Iqbal believes the U.S. Congress could have more sway over the Myanmar government through the issuing of targeted sanctions. Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin have co-sponsored a bill that calls for such sanctions. The bipartisan legislation excludes the finances of Suu Kyi, who has remained largely silent in the face of the mounting violence against the Rohingyas.

Meanwhile, the condition of refugees outside Myanmar's borders has grown increasingly desperate. There are more than 800,000 displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh, including 600,000 who crossed the border in the last five months.

Two workers from the Hope Foundation assist a women at a Rohingya Refugee Camp in Bangladesh.
Source: The Hope Foundation.
Two workers from the Hope Foundation assist a women at a Rohingya Refugee Camp in Bangladesh.

They are not allowed to move freely within Bangladesh and are kept in a refugee camp, something that Doctors Without Borders president Joanne Liu calls "a public-health time-bomb."

"I asked two women [Rohingyans] if they'd go back, they said they'll starve to death but won't leave," said Anam Ali, a doctor with the Hope Foundation in the Cox's Bazar refugee camp, whose team helps treat over 1,500 refugees a day.

"The patients we see are still in trauma," Ali added, including a number of women who have been raped or burned and are suffering from malnutrition.

Even the delivery of aid can be problematic, with Myanmar having blocked U.N. assistance to Rakhine state. All aid organizations, including the U.N. World Food Program, have suspended operations.

Zakaria, the president of the Rohingya Culture Center in Chicago, told CNBC that his parents are "blockaded" in Rakhine, a state of affairs affecting many U.S.-based Rohingyans.

"There are more than 400 Rohingya families here in Chicago and we all have ties to the Myanmar conflict," Zakaria said.

— Reuters and CNBC's Nyshka Chandran contributed to this report.