Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General, for the briefing.
For over four weeks, the world has endured images from Burma we should never have to see. Much more importantly, we have seen images of acts no person should ever have to endure. We have seen terrified women and children fleeing their homes with only the clothes on their back. We’ve watched people drown trying to cross rivers to safety. We’ve seen bodies floating down rivers and villages burned to the ground. We have heard reports of men, women, and children rounded up, detained, and some brutally killed. We saw the haunting image of a young mother and father cradling the body of their infant son – a baby who died fleeing the violence in Rakhine State.
Secretary Tillerson has spoken with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. I’ve also met with Burma’s National Security Advisor during High-Level Week. We have tried to engage the Burmese military at the highest levels. We’ve supported regional efforts to de-escalate the violence and expand humanitarian access. And still, the exodus of terrified, injured people out of Burma continues while the government refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. Now, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees remain in Bangladesh, in fear of returning to their homes. And Burmese leaders must come to terms with the facts on the ground.
When we last met to consider the Burmese crisis I expressed our condemnation of the August 25 attacks against security posts. I reiterate that condemnation today. I also condemn reported violence against other minority communities in Rakhine State. But what has happened since dwarfs these attacks in its disproportionate, indiscriminate violence.
We cannot be afraid to call the actions of the Burmese authorities what they appear to be: a brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority. And it should shame senior Burmese leaders who have sacrificed so much for an open, democratic Burma. The Burmese government claims it is battling terrorists. If this is true, let them allow media and humanitarian access to back up their claim. If terrorists are the problem, let the military explain how killing children and forcing families from their homes will make Burma any safer.
The Burmese military has ignored calls to respond to these attacks by focusing on identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators. Instead, what has taken place is a brutal assault that doesn’t advance justice in Burma; it puts it further out of reach. The government’s response has undermined Burma’s security, stability, and its fragile democratic transition.
The government has a responsibility to restore the rule of law and prevent attacks by citizens in its name. And this responsibility holds regardless of what individual or group is the target of these attacks. An already dire situation has been made even worse by some of the rhetoric coming from official military channels inside Burma. Worse, this language encourages this ugly view among the Burmese people. History has shown us what happens when such views go unopposed.
The time for well-meaning, diplomatic words in this Council has passed. We must now consider action against Burmese security forces who are implicated in abuses and stoking hatred among their fellow citizens. The actions needed now to resolve this crisis are very clear.
First, the Burmese military must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Those who have been accused of committing abuses should be removed from command responsibilities immediately and prosecuted for wrongdoing. And any country that is currently providing weapons to the Burmese military should suspend these activities until sufficient accountability measures are in place.
Second, Burmese authorities must immediately allow rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access for UN agencies and other relief organizations. We have noted the government’s decision to work with the International Red Cross to distribute aid. But the government has not allowed other relief organizations meaningful access to the northern Rakhine State. If the Burmese authorities are sincere about wanting those displaced to come home, why would they not want food and treatment to get to them? The government needs to work with all partners who can help to get assistance to all affected communities. Otherwise, there is a significant danger that life-saving assistance will be delayed in reaching those who need it the most.
Third and finally, the government must commit to welcoming all who have been displaced to return to their original homes. We were glad to see the commitment made by the State Counselor during her State of the Union address to allow those who fled the violence to voluntarily return to their homes when it is safe to do so. We will all watch to see if the government follows through on this pledge. We call on Burmese officials to work with the Government of Bangladesh to develop a framework on returns that is agreed to by both governments and has international support.
In the meantime, we have seen the generosity of the Bangladeshi government in accepting and sheltering Burmese refugees. The United States is providing $95 million to support urgent humanitarian needs in Burma and Bangladesh. But given the likelihood of more people fleeing across the border, plus the ongoing monsoon season and the humanitarian need already present in Bangladesh, this generosity will not be enough.
The risk that this conflict spills over to other countries in the region is real. Additional support will be needed to head off a wider conflict.
What is perhaps most frustrating about this conflict is how we should have seen it coming. The different communities in the Rakhine State have had periods of peaceful co-existence. But they have also seen periods of extreme violence, and between these outbursts, the Rohingya have suffered discrimination and been denied basic rights as citizens of Burma.
In concluding my remarks, I would like to speak directly to the Burmese people. I would like to appeal to the goodness and hope for the future that exists in the hearts of the overwhelming majority of you. So many of you have sacrificed so much for a better country. I know you’re sickened by the images of violence coming from Burma and being seen around the world. But the goal of an open, democratic Burma is still possible. Hold fast to that vision. Don’t give up on it. And don’t be satisfied with leaders who give up on it either. Every Burmese man, woman, and child is a child of God with equal moral standing. Stay strong in this belief and you will have the future you have dreamed of – the future you deserve.