The news from Burma is horrifying. Nearly half a million Rohingya refugees – an ethnic minority population – have fled Burma into Bangladesh in response to the Burmese military burning their villages and indiscriminately killing and raping their people. With no home, and very little access to food, shelter, and medicine they are fighting for their life. A humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions continues to unfold.
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UUSC and our partners on the ground continue to advocate at all levels for a resolution to this crisis and work to provide humanitarian assistance on the ground. These efforts are critical steps in supporting communities at risk in Burma. Please make a donation to support this work today.
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Background and History
UUSC has been partnering with grassroots organizations in Burma (Myanmar) since 2002. In that time we have responded to natural disasters, including Cyclone Nargis in 2008, considered the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of the country. We have also worked with rural villagers to protect their rights to land and livelihood and supported efforts to assist the country in making the transition to democracy and deescalate the violence against ethnic and religious minorities.
Within the last several years, Burma began the process of transitioning from a military dictatorship to a quasi-civilian government. This transition made UUSC and many others throughout the world hopeful that after decades of repressive military rule, the lack of national unity and numerous structural issues facing the country would be addressed. However, despite some positive aspects of the political transition, the human rights situation in Burma remains dire. The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic population, continue to suffer from systematic human rights violations, including the denial of citizenship rights, lack of access to healthcare and education, forced labor, and sexual violence. More than 100,000 Rohingya remain in internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine state and survive only with the assistance of strained humanitarian organizations.
Today, UUSC’s work in Burma centers around advancing the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Rohingya. Our approach is two-fold: Inside the country, we work to strengthen the capacity and coordination of organizations who document human rights violations committed against minority groups and who work to build inclusive communities that value and respect diversity. Here at home, UUSC engages in strategic advocacy designed to influence the United Nations and the U.S. government to take a rights-centered approach to diplomacy in Burma and exert pressure on the Burmese government to protect ethnic and religious minority rights.
In October 2016, attacks perpetrated by a Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) prompted a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in which Burmese military forces perpetrated mass gang-rape, killings, disappearances, beatings, and other grave human rights violations. In response, UUSC participated in a coordinated advocacy campaign that resulted in the U.N. Human Rights Council establishing an international fact-finding mission (FFM) to establish facts of the alleged atrocities “with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.”
UUSC’s primary role in the campaign was to ensure the United States supports the establishment of an FFM and to exert pressure on the Burmese government to accept its terms. UUSC, together with our partner Fortify Rights, mobilized thousands of individuals to take action by signing a petition urging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to support the FFM. Additionally, UUSC President and CEO Tom Andrews joined a panel including Mohamed Naeem, an ethnic Rohingya and human rights leader; Co-Founder and CEO of Fortify Rights Matthew Smith; and Program Manager of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide Andrea Gittleman in submitting testimony to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan body of the U.S Congress. The full hearing can be viewed here.
UUSC continues to work with our partners to ensure the FFM is an effective mechanism and to call on the Burmese government to allow investigators free and unfettered access to the affected region. The FFM experts are expected to give an oral update on their findings at the Human Rights Council’s 36th session in September 2017 and present its full findings at the Council’s 37th session in March 2018, although this timeline may be extended.
An Escalation of the Crisis and UUSC’s Response
More recently, in August 2017, just hours after Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State released their final report and recommendations, ARSA militants attacked thirty police stations and an army base in Northern Rakhine State. The Burmese military again responded with a brutal crackdown, shooting indiscriminately at civilians and burning entire villages to the ground. Current estimates are that nearly 400,000 Rohingya arrived in Bangladesh between August and September 2017, and the U.N. human rights chief has called the military’s response a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” It is both a human rights and humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. The region is under complete lockdown, making access to reliable information extremely difficult, but reports coming from those who have made it across the border into Bangladesh are horrifying.
In response to this escalating crisis, UUSC is providing emergency assistance to our local partners, who are well-positioned to respond. Fortify Rights has been on the Burma-Bangladesh border for the last week taking testimonies of survivors. Another partner, the Center for Social Integrity, is working to deliver critical humanitarian aid in the form of medicine and phone cards. UUSC also recently advocated for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to ensure that the United States does not expand military-to-military cooperation with Burma.
Along with our allies and partners UUSC continues to monitor the situation closely and explore all opportunities to offer our support and work toward peaceful resolution.