IN JUST three weeks, the long-simmering conflict between the Burmese government and the persecuted Rohingya minority has exploded into the most massive and brutal episode of ethnic cleansing the world has seen in years. Since a militant attack on Aug. 25 provided a pretext, Burmese troops have driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh by systematically burning scores of villages and terrorizing their residents. Last week, more than 380,000 people were reported to have crossed the frontier; on Friday, U.N. officials said many thousands were still waiting to pass. An estimated 240,000 of the refugees are children, according to UNICEF.
What U.N. Secretary General António Guterres rightly called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” is the culmination of years of discrimination by Burma’s government and Buddhist majority against the Rohingya, Muslims who have been denied citizenship even though many have lived in the country for generations. On Aug. 25, a small militant group claiming to represent the Rohingya attacked a handful of police posts and army camps, killing about a dozen people. The government’s scorched-earth response has, by its own account, left 176 out of 471 Rohingya villages in the northern region of Rakhine state completely abandoned.
Evidence collected by human rights groups, including satellite photos, shows scores of villages burned to the ground. In a report released Friday, Human Rights Watch said it counted 62 villages targeted by arson attacks and 35 with extensive destruction. Journalists on the Bangladesh border Friday reported smoke still billowing up from Burmese territory. More detailed reporting, as well as relief efforts, has been impossible because of the authorities’ refusal to allow in most journalists, aid workers and diplomats — including the senior State Department official who arrived in the country Friday.
The international response to this crime, which rivals the cleansing campaigns in Darfur, Sudan, in the early 2000s and Kosovo in the 1990s, has been shockingly weak. After meeting behind closed doors on Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council used its lowest-order form of statement to express concern about “excessive violence during security operations.” The State Department has been equally cautious.
Too much attention has been focused on Burma’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been woefully silent about the atrocities but also lacks the ability to control the military. What’s needed instead is more direct pressure on the Burmese army. The Obama administration lifted U.S. sanctions on the generals and the businesses they control in an attempt to promote a democratic transition; these now ought to be reimposed by the Treasury and State departments. Some officials express concern that tough measures might cause the army to turn on Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian government. In fact, international censure could provide the Nobel laureate leverage — if she is willing to use it.
At the United Nations, Burma is shielded by China, which is untroubled by its atrocities and may even welcome them for their potential to ruin the country’s relations with the West. The United States should nevertheless seek to force a public Security Council debate on the cleansing. The more the crimes against the Rohingya are exposed to the world — and their authors made to pay a price — the more likely they are to stop.