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What can stop the extreme violence against Rohingya Muslims?

The mass exodus from Myanmar continues for Rohingya Muslims, who are fleeing what the U.N. has called “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” Judy Woodruff speaks with Eric Schwartz of Refugees International and Daniel Russel of Asia Society about the horrific accounts of murder and sexual violence, the roots of the humanitarian crisis and what can be done.

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    Now: what's been called a textbook case of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

    That is how the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights describes what has befallen the Rohingya ethnic minority. In a new report, the U.N. agency said government forces and Buddhist extremists have executed — quote — "a well-organized, coordinated and systematic" campaign of human rights violations against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine State.

    An estimated 520,000 have fled their homes for neighboring Bangladesh.

    Myanmar's de facto leader, the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, called for national unity today and said she had created a committee that will oversee all international and local assistance.

    We turn now to Eric Schwartz. He was assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration. He is now president of Refugees International. He recently returned from Bangladesh. And Daniel Russel he was a career Foreign Service officer and served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He's now a senior fellow at the Asia Society.

    And we thank you both for being with us.

    Eric Schwartz, to you first.

    You just did return from Bangladesh just a few weeks ago. What was your main takeaway?

  • ERIC SCHWARTZ, Refugees International:

    My main takeaway, both for policy reasons and moral reasons, is, we have to come to grips with the enormity of these crimes.

    A population larger than Atlanta, larger than Miami has been forced out of their homes in a matter of five weeks. The testimonies we received were heartbreaking, of systematic firebombing of villages, people being shot systematically when they tried to flee, cases of sexual violence that, as a father of two girls, was one of the most difficult sets of testimonies for me to hear.

    And so the starting point for me has to be absolute outrage. And we have to recognize the enormity of this situation.


    Daniel Russel, I don't think anyone doubts that this is going on, despite the denials of Myanmar's government. And we know there has been discrimination against the Rohingya for a very long time.

    But what is the source, the explanation for this kind of violence against them by the majority?

  • DANIEL RUSSEL, Asia Society:

    Well, the context, Judy, is a series of very longstanding ethnic insurgencies and hostilities between communities.

    But, to Eric's point, look, the starting point may be outrage, but we can't stop there. We have to collaborate to find a way to stop the violence. This is an appalling humanitarian crisis. We have to find a way to protect the displaced people and engineer their safe return and to design a pathway for the two communities to live and work together.


    And I want to get to that in just a minute.

    But, Eric Schwartz, I still want to understand what explains the extreme violence that's being visited upon these people.


    Well, first, with all due respect to Danny's comment, the idea that insurgency is the route of the problem in Rakhine State is nonsense.

    This is not insurgency. There are parts of Burma where there are insurgent issues. This is not an insurgency-driven conflict. This is a pretext that the military has given us, by all evidence.

    But I agree, this is the result of decades of discrimination against a Muslim minority population in a back to Buddhist-majority country. And it goes back for decades. And, unfortunately, the civilian leadership has not been very helpful in addressing this issue of discrimination.


    Daniel Russel, during the Obama administration, was there knowledge that this kind of thing was going on, could be going on, when the opening was created to Myanmar?



    There's been, over the span of many decades, tremendous tension and cyclical outbreaks of violence between the Rakhine community and the Rohingyas.

    The civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi is the first administration in Burma in decades to try to come to grips with this problem.

    But Aung San Suu Kyi has only been in power for 18 months. The constitution doesn't give her authority over the military. And there is no solution to the problem that doesn't involve helping to ensure that there is civilian authority exercise over the armed forces.


    Eric Schwartz, there are a lot of questions about Aung San Suu Kyi and why she hasn't been more outspoken about this violence. What is your understanding of why she has not been?


    Well, I think you would have to ask her why.

    But my concern is that, while it may be understandable that she is not going to be the pointy edge of the spear against the military's action, but it's very tragic and unfortunate that she served to be an apologist for the military. She made statements on September 19 about the fact that there was no discrimination in education or health care in Rakhine State.

    She said that they wanted to find out whether there was evidence of human rights violations, a sort of willful ignorance. Now, I think the real question is, what do we do?

    Unless the international community is prepared to take strong measures, sanctions against the military, a demand that Aung San Suu Kyi's willingness to take people back, which is an articulated willingness, is matched with a willingness to have international observers in Rakhine. Otherwise, nothing is going to happen.


    Daniel Russel, what would you add to that? What does the international community need to do, and what more can Aung San Suu Kyi do?


    This is a country which, less than 10 years ago, refused international assistance in response to Cyclone Nargis, which was devastating to the country, because of the degree of paranoia and isolationism, xenophobia.

    So it's no small matter politically for Aung San Suu Kyi to work to help build conditions that will allow for the safe return of the Rohingya, allow for a pathway to citizenship, and allow for development of this impoverished area, all of which she said that she seeks to do.


    Well, it is a horrific situation now. And I know we are going to continue to watch it.

    Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

    Daniel Russel, Eric Schwartz, thank you.


    Thank you, Judy.


    Thank you.

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