In 1994, the world wrung its hands and chose to observe – not stop – the brutal violence unfolding in Rwanda. And then, after hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost, the international community swore there would never be a repeat.
Now, an open letter from some of the most prominent South Asians in arts and media is reminding the international community of its promises, “Remember what happened in Rwanda? Now pay attention to Myanmar.”
Over 30 South Asians artistes, including Riz Ahmed, Shruti Ganguly, Heems, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Freida Pinto, Manish Dayal, Nandita Das and Kamila Shamsie, have signed an open letter condemning the world’s response to the Rohingya crisis and calling on world leaders to take action at the upcoming ASEAN Summit.
Titled ‘The Genocide Under Our Noses’, the letter draws attention to the fact that over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims – nearly half their total population – have fled state-sponsored persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state just in the past ten weeks. Reports say hundreds more continue to arrive on Bangladeshi shores, while thousands still remain stranded in Myanmar.
The unprecedented influx of refugees – bearing accounts of the Burmese military torching their villages, raping and murdering with impunity – has plunged Bangladesh into a humanitarian crisis. In late October, the United Nations declared the situation a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, and appealed for $434 million to tackle the worsening conditions in Bangladesh’s camps. With an estimated 12,000 children arriving every week, UNICEF has estimated that it will need $76 million to treat just the children, who form as much as 60% of the refugee population in Bangladesh.
And yet, international response has proven inadequate so far. The UN’s appeal remains underfunded and it was only this week that the UN Security Council released a presidential statement expressing “grave concern” over the situation in Myanmar, and asked the state “to ensure no further excessive use of military force”. Britain, France and others originally circulated a resolution for the same purpose, but dropped it since diplomats expected China and Russia to exercise their veto powers. Regardless, Myanmar retorted, saying that the statement could “seriously harm” bilateral negotiations with Bangladesh, negatively impacting efforts to repatriate the refugees.
But state actors are not the only players involved. “Myanmar is no longer a pariah state; it has a democratically elected government and has been flooded with foreign direct investment over the past few years,” states the letter, drawing attention to non-state actors. “The corporations who have invested in this region must speak up and divest, unless human rights are respected, or they too will be complicit in these horrendous acts,” the letter goes on to say.
Many are hoping that world leaders will use an upcoming trio of events – the APEC Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam on November 10, an ASEAN meeting in Manila, Philippines on November 12 and then the East Asia Summit in Manila on November 13 and 14 – to coax Myanmar into complying with international norms.
Referring to the ASEAN summit, the open letter calls on leaders to “pressure the Myanmar government to stop these atrocities, grant the Rohingya citizenship, and allow them to return to a place they call home.”
It adds, “Countries must fully fund the UN appeal and close the funding gap that is leaving traumatised children without basic food, water and shelter. Finally, member states of the United Nations must assess what diplomatic efforts can enable them to fulfill their responsibility to protect the Rohingya.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also released a statement ahead of the summits, demanding “concerted global action” from the countries that will be attending the summits, including the US, China, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia, Mexico, the EU, Japan and South Korea. Brad Adams, the organisation’s director in Asia, said, “World leaders shouldn’t return home from these summits without agreeing to targeted sanctions to pressure Burma to end its abuses and allow in independent observers and aid groups.”
The organisation has also said the Security Council should take “more meaningful action” and recommended imposing an arms embargo, economic sanctions and travel bans on members of the military. However, with China publicly praising Myanmar’s efforts to “maintain stability” and the US withdrawing its assistance to Myanmar’s military at the same time, unanimous action by the UNSC seems unlikely. Although, as HRW and the open letter points out, that shouldn’t stop countries from taking bilateral and multilateral action.
With the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson scheduled to visit Myanmar on November 15, and ministers from China, Japan, Germany and Sweden also visiting Myanmar and Bangladesh this month, the Bangladeshi government is hoping the international community “will continue building pressure on Myanmar”.
Currently home to about a million refugees and counting, the already over-subscribed state is struggling to keep its borders open and its refugee camps habitable. The thousands stuck at the mouth of the Naf river do not know or do not care about the conditions that await them. The letter’s premise is a simple one, “After Rwanda we said ‘never again’. We must mean it”.