It has been five years since the Burmese military launched a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, forcing some 700,000 people to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. This genocidal campaign was marked with mass murders, sexual violence and the razing of entire villages. It also signaled an escalation of violence that persists to this day against ethnic and religious minorities as well as pro-democracy activists. Last month, the government shocked the world by executing four democracy activists without due process.
The international response to these atrocities has been frustratingly inadequate. Though the same military that staged a coup in February 2021 has been terrorizing the Rohingya people for decades, the US only recently determined in March that their actions amounted to genocide – something we have been urging the US government do for years.
That declaration was followed by a new round of sanctions by the US, Canada and the UK against Burmese senior officials and businesses connected to the military. While these are all important steps forward, much more needs to be done. We call on the US to implement a holistic inter-agency strategy to bring democracy to Burma once and for all. And there must be a more coordinated international response that clears a path for refugees to access housing, jobs and educational opportunities in the countries they are in, until it is safe to return home.
Burmese government is following the playbook of extremist regimes like the Nazis
WE HAVE seen this scenario before. In many ways, the Burmese government is following the playbook of extremist regimes like the German Nazis. The junta stripped the Rohingya people of their rights with the Burma Citizenship Act in 1982, much like Nazi Germany did with the Nuremberg Laws in 1935; the sweeping assaults on Rohingya villages are brutally reminiscent of the Nazi pogroms of 1938; and the crusade to exterminate the Rohingya people echoes the spirit and intent of the Holocaust.
It is deeply frustrating to watch history repeat itself. In the 1930s and 40s, the Americans and the British intelligence knew of the extermination camps targeting Jews, but millions died before concrete actions were taken. Today, we are fully aware of the horrors being inflicted on the Rohingya people: tens of thousands have been killed since the 2017 offensive; more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees live in squalid camps in Bangladesh; some 100,000 Rohingya are being relocated to an isolated, storm-prone island (many against their will); still others who fled to countries like India, Malaysia and Thailand face discrimination, arbitrary arrest and forced deportation.
World leaders have condemned the junta’s actions and showed a willingness to support humanitarian relief efforts. But words ring hollow without meaningful action.
We know that the US can mobilize effective inter-agency networks in times of crisis. In January 1944, for example, president Franklin D. Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board which brought together members of the State, War and Treasury departments to coordinate rescue and relief efforts for fleeing Jews. The board set up a refugee shelter in Upstate New York, assisted private organizations with relief efforts, launched a media campaign to deter perpetrators, and even supported clandestine ransom negotiations – all of which saved tens of thousands of lives.
We know too that the world can move quickly, cohesively, and practically. Last March, within a month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US committed to providing more than $1 billion in relief for humanitarian assistance; granted many Ukrainians Temporary Protected Status, allowing them to stay and work for up to 18 months without the necessary papers; and committed to taking in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, among other provisions.
European nations launched their own coordinated response, easing immigration requirements and moving to reinstate the Temporary Protection Directive that would grant refugees rights to a residence permit, access to jobs, housing and education.
IN CONTRAST, the Rohingya people continue to face an uncertain future. If the world is not actively working toward safe, voluntary repatriation, then we are abandoning them; there isn’t a lot of gray area in between.
Now, when it comes to finding a solution to this crisis, we should center the voice of the Rohingya people. That is why together, with a coalition of more than 300 Rohingya activists, American Jews, rabbis, cantors and supporters, we have sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging that the US increase pressure on the Burmese military by sanctioning the oil and gas sector, the junta’s largest source of income.
Previous sanctions were welcome but have not hit the military where it hurts. The European Union has already sanctioned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. If the US follows suit, it will send a strong, unified global message that the junta cannot act with impunity.
The US must press Bangladesh’s government and the UN to improve conditions in refugee camps. Deteriorating conditions are endangering the welfare of refugees, nearly half of them under age 18. The US must increase its support of international cases against the Burmese military.
We welcome the genocide determination and pledges to support UN’s International Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar and the Gambia’s case. However, we also urge the US to refer the junta’s atrocities to the International Criminal Court to bolster global efforts to hold the Burmese government accountable.
We know that neither the State Department nor President Joe Biden can act alone; that Congress must also show serious leadership on this issue by passing the Burma Act. And we know the US alone cannot achieve justice for the Rohingya people; that a holistic, coordinated international response is key to that success. We know also that every day in which we do not act is another day in which people die.
One often hears the refrain “Never Again” when we recall the Holocaust. If, as a society, we are sincere about that, we must mean that for anyone, anywhere, anytime. “Never Again” should be more than a slogan about Jewish survival, it must be an anthem for human survival.
Wai Wai Nu is a Rohingya activist and Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves at Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky. They are allies of the American Jewish World Service, an international Jewish human rights organization supporting more than 500 social justice efforts throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.