Five years ago this month, white supremacists murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, spurring Joe Biden to run for president and later sign a bill named after Heather to fight hate crimes. Five years ago this month, Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas and Louisiana, and Congress responded with a $15 billion relief bill. And five years ago this month, the Burmese military launched a genocidal attack on Rohingya Muslims. But mass atrocities continue in my native land and the U.S. has done little to stop it. It’s time for the U.S. to take bold action to end impunity and create peace, security, and stability in Burma.
The Burmese military has been waging war against its own citizens for decades. My aunt and uncle were among the military’s victims in the late 1970s, and I was forced to leave Burma in 1995 to escape the violence. On August 25, 2017, the military launched a scorched-earth campaign of terror against the Rohingya Muslim minority that hasn’t stopped since. In five years of bombing, rape, and murder, the Rohingya people are being systematically erased. Entire villages, like Tula Toli and Inn Din, have been destroyed. These brutal attacks have forced more than 740,000 refugees to flee their homeland, the largest human exodus in Asia since the Vietnam War. There is only one word for these atrocities: genocide.
Impunity has only emboldened the Burmese military to continue their crimes. In February 2021, the military overthrew the elected government and inserted a self-made caretaker, known as the State Administration Council (SAC). The junta has spread violence across the country, torturing and killing those who stand up for their basic rights. On July 23 this year, the junta executed four activists — Phyo Zeya Thaw, Kyaw Min Yu, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw — after convicting them in sham trials. They are now among more than 2,100 civilians the junta has killed since 2021.
Why is the Burmese military able to keep perpetrating this genocide? Because the international community, including the U.S., is letting it happen. Last year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) published a five-point peace consensus, but that has done nothing to stop the bloodshed. Meanwhile, the U.S. has deferred to ASEAN instead of taking action. In March 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did declare that the military committed genocide against the Rohingya people, but he failed to announce any real consequences. In early August, Blinken attended an ASEAN meeting, where one minister excused inaction by saying “even Superman cannot solve” the crisis.
Every day that action isn’t taken against the junta, the Burmese people pay the price with their lives. Before the execution of those four activists in July, thirty-five unarmed civilians—including two humanitarian aid workers—were burned to death in a military massacre last Christmas Eve. Will the first anniversary of those horrific murders pass this December without any U.S. action?
There are five tangible steps the Biden administration must take now to hold the junta accountable and support the people of Burma. First, it must cut off the junta’s revenue sources by imposing sanctions on military-owned companies and their cronies, including Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises. Second, it must stop the flow of arms to the junta by coordinating a global arms embargo and sanctions on the supply of aviation fuel. Third, it must ensure humanitarian aid gets into the hands of internally displaced people (IDPs), and not the junta. Fourth, it must designate a safe zone for IDPs who have nowhere to go. Fifth, it must refer the junta to the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. These five important steps offer a clear path forward for U.S. action.
To be sure, the U.S. is struggling with many of its own challenges at home. But that doesn’t mean we can simply stand by as the lives and freedoms of 54 million people in Burma are under attack. As President Biden said in April following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, “We either back the Ukrainian people as they defend their country or we stand by as the Russians continue their atrocities and aggression in Ukraine.” The same is true for Burma. The junta was one of the few entities around the world to endorse Russia’s invasion, and Russia has been one of the main suppliers of arms to the junta. The Biden administration’s robust response to the atrocities in Ukraine proves that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Just a fraction of the action taken against Russia would be transformational in Burma’s struggle for democracy and human rights.
I have lost half of my immediate family members to the Burmese military. Too many others in Burma have suffered similar losses as every day brings new horrors under a genocidal regime. The people of Burma have been crying out for justice for years, but for years those cries have been ignored. The U.S. must do more to stop the Burmese military’s brutality. It is up to the Biden administration if the U.S. will be marking the next anniversary of the Rohingya genocide with deadly silence.
Crossposted from CommonDreams