The Department of State announced Wednesday that it will give $32 million worth of humanitarian aid to help Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, responding to ethnic cleansing in a country the Obama administration once hailed as a shining example of democratic reform.
The funding for food, shelter and medical care comes from an existing pot of money for refugee issues and will be coordinated through the International Red Cross, department officials told the Associated Press. Global aid groups expect that the new funds will cover about one quarter of what will be needed to solve the humanitarian crisis.
The U.S. has given nearly $100 million in humanitarian aid to assist Myanmar’s displaced population over the past year, according to State Department officials.
“The new funding brings U.S. humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons in Burma and refugees from Burma in the region to nearly $95 million in FY 2017, and it reflects the U.S. commitment to help address the unprecedented magnitude of suffering and urgent humanitarian needs of the Rohingya people,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “We applaud the Government of Bangladesh’s generosity in responding to this severe humanitarian crisis and appreciate their continued efforts to ensure assistance reaches people in need.”
About 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh since the outbreak of violence Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants allegedly attacked government troops. The United Nations human rights agency says Myanmar security forces are engaged in what amounts to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority, razing villages and targeting women and children, as well as militants within the population.
Rohingya Muslims are a hated minority group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The government considers them to be Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, while Bangladesh says they are Burmese. Around 85,000 Rohingya poured into Bangladesh in 2016, fleeing rape, torture and murder at the hands of Myanmar security forces.
The latest round of persecution is less than two years removed from Myanmar’s celebrated but tenuous transition to democracy. The country’s democratic opposition, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won a historic national election in 2015, ousting the military junta that had ruled the country for five decades.
Former President Barack Obama heralded the election as a major victory for human rights in Asia, and one of the signature foreign policy achievements of his second term. As CNN noted at the time, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was particularly eager to claim credit for Suu Kyi’s win, devoting an entire chapter of her memoir “Hard Choices” to her efforts to get Myanmar’s ruling generals to accept democratic reform.
The continuing ethnic violence in Myanmar casts doubt on the true extent of the country’s progress and tarnishes the sterling reputation of Suu Kyi, whom Clinton and other Western advocates have held up as a human rights icon.
Many of Suu Kyi’s former admirers now accuse her of standing by while security forces brutalize the Rohingya, and her public remarks about the violence have done little to dispel that characterization. Suu Kyi has referred to reports of ethnic cleansing as “fake news,” and in a speech Tuesday, she downplayed the severity of the conflict and said most Rohingya villages have not been affected by the violence.
U.S. officials dispute that assessment, pointing to to the number of Rohingya that have been displaced from Myanmar’s Rakhine state into Bangladesh.
“We don’t have the access to evaluate that,” Simon Henshaw, the top U.S. diplomat for refugee and migration issues, told the AP. “But 420,000 people moving into Bangladesh suggests the vast majority of Rohingya are affected.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke with Suu Kyi on Tuesday, urging her to “facilitate humanitarian aid for displaced people in the affected areas, and to address deeply troubling allegations of human rights abuses and violations,” according to a State Department readout of the call.
Suu Kyi’s defenders say she has little control over Myanmar’s military, despite her position as the highest-ranking civilian in the government.
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