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Engel Remarks on the Rohingya Crisis and U.S. Response to the Tragedy in Burma

Oct 5, 2017
Press Release

 

- As Delivered –

WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks at a Committee hearing on the Rohingya crisis and the U.S. response to the tragedy in Burma:

“Well thank you very much Mr. Chairman, and as always, thank you for calling this hearing.  And let me thank our witnesses and welcome you all to the Foreign Affairs Committee.  You’re very welcome.

“The Rohingya crisis is raging more than 8,000 miles from Washington.  At that distance, events like this can seem remote. So during my statement, I ask that we display some images that show the reality facing the people of Burma right now, as a reminder of the human tragedy unfolding as we sit here today.

“These images are the result of the unprecedented level of violence in Burma's Rakhine State over the past six weeks. Violence that police and security forces have inflicted on civilians, inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya. 

“Because of this bloody conflict, more than half-a-million Rohingya—60 percent of whom are children—have fled as refugees across the border into Bangladesh. More than 400,000 people left in the first 30 days, the swiftest exodus of any population since the 1994 Rwanda genocide and Serbia’s 1999 ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

“Now, nearly three quarter of those who have fled don't have adequate shelter and half have no safe drinking water. It's a heartbreaking humanitarian disaster, and it's getting worse.

“The Burmese military has claimed that this brutal crackdown is the response to a clash that took place on August 25th, in which border security forces faced off against Rohingya insurgents reportedly using knives, small arms, and small explosives.

“But this isn't just some skirmish that's gotten out of hand. It isn’t a legitimate counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operation. The Burmese military and border security forces have specifically targeted Rohingya using medieval tactics: slash and burn, rape, indiscriminate killing. Twenty-one square kilometers of villages systematically burned to the ground. The UN's top human-rights officials have called this a ‘textbook case’ of ethnic cleansing.

“This flare-up is not an isolated event, but the latest chapter in a long history of discrimination against the Rohingya, a history in which they have been denied citizenship, the ability to work, freedom of movement.

“A few key Burmese leaders have figured prominently into recent events.

“As I see it, the only person in Burma who could put an end to this violence, clear the way for humanitarian aid, and allow for a full accounting of what has occurred is Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese military. Unfortunately, the intentions of the military are clear: to remove the Rohingya people from Burma.

“Some of those watching this horror have laid part of the blame at the feet of Aung San Suu Kyi, the moral and civilian leader of Burma. There’s speculation that she’s either not getting accurate information or is severely constrained politically. Some assert that she’s unsympathetic to the events in Rahkine, but I personally have a hard time believing that a Nobel Laureate, a champion of democracy, and a person of her moral fortitude—she’s come here, we’ve met with her—would turn a blind eye to the immense human suffering taking place in her country.

“I think American policy towards Burma has complicated the situation.  The Burmese military drafted the constitution, which allows the military to operate with impunity, maintain veto power in the Parliament, and legally retake control over the government.

“And yet, when the United States lifted economic sanctions against Burma, we also lifted sanctions against the military and the businesses that fund them. So while Aung San Suu Kyi has little leverage to reign in military forces that run amok, it’s now legal for American companies to do business with Burmese military-owned companies. It seems to me, at a time that the Burmese military is waging this sort of violence against innocent people, we should reconsider our policy on targeted sanctions.

“And in the meantime, we need to confront a serious humanitarian crisis that’s going to persist for years to come. The United States has allocated $38 million to assist with the crisis. That number seems grossly inadequate considering the scale of the humanitarian nightmare now facing the Government of Bangladesh. And this is in addition to the Rohingya still trapped inside Burma.

“Bangladesh—a country with an average income of around $1,300—is currently supporting nearly a million refugees. This is a country that already has close to the highest population density in the world. I want to recognize the Bangladesh’s Ambassador Mohammed Ziauddin, who’s here today. Your government has shown tremendous generosity in welcoming these refugees. Thank you.

“And while your country opens its doors, I consider it an embarrassment that the United States is closing ours. The Trump Administration has lowered our yearly cap on refugees from all over the world to 45,000 per year, the smallest number ever.  As this crisis grows worse and as it grew worse, Bangladesh took in that many people every four days.

“This policy harms American leadership on the global stage. It undermines our ability to speak credibly about refugees, human rights, or living up to basic international humanitarian principles. It diminishes our standing in a part of the world where China is only too happy to fill the void.

“So I do want to hear what our approach is: how the Administration plans to deal with the crisis facing not just the Rohingya, but the Kachin, the Shan, and other ethnic groups under assault by the Burmese army; how this violence subverts the peace process and undermines the democratically elected government.

“So, I look forward to your testimony, and I thank you again Mr. Chairman and I yield back.”

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