Monitoring agencies report that more than 500,000 refugees from the Rohingya Muslim community have fled violence in Myanmar to safety in Bangladesh since the end of August 2017. Human rights groups have accused the military in Myanmar of crimes against humanity, citing reports of systematic and massive abuses of human rights following militant attacks on thirty police stations and an army post in Rakhine State in western Myanmar.
Eric Schwartz recounts his recent visit to Bangladesh and discusses what humanitarian organizations and international governments can do to address this crisis.
WHITE: OK. Good afternoon, everybody. I’m Maureen White. And I just think I’m supposed to remind you that you should turn off your cellphones, and that this is on the record? On the record, and so that means that you can ask anything you want and you can quote anybody you want. Yeah. I wanted to make sure I got that right.
Anyway, thank you for coming this afternoon. And I have the honor of introducing Eric Schwartz, who I have known for many years. And Eric is currently the president, as of last June, of Refugees International, a very powerfully influential advocacy organization for refugees. But beyond that, Eric actually has a very distinguished career. He has emerged, I think we can say, as one of the most effective and thoughtful advocates for humanitarian and human rights issues that we have in the country today. He’s been in the State Department as assistant secretary of state for refugees—population, refugees, and migration. He was on the Security Council—the National Security Council in the Obama—in the Clinton administration. And he was president of the Public Affairs—Hubert Humphrey Public Affairs Institute at the University of Minnesota. So he has had a public and—a public career, a career in public service, for almost 30 years now, focusing almost exclusively on human rights and refugee issues. And he has just come back from, I think, a very searing and heartbreaking trip to the border between Burma and Bangladesh. And so we are going to have a very interesting discussion with Eric. Thank you.
And before we begin, Eric has just a small video clip to share with us.
SCHWARTZ: Well, first, thank you, Maureen, for your very kind introduction. Maureen has had a distinguished record herself in government. And in fact, I think that’s when—and in humanitarian issues. I think that’s when we met, when we were both working on issues relating to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
WHITE: And we traveled to Pakistan.
SCHWARTZ: And we traveled together. So it’s—I was delighted to hear that you were going to be—that we were going to be appearing together.
I also just have to say, you know, this is—you know, I started my career at an organization which was then called Asia Watch—now it’s known as Human Rights Watch Asia—and so I am—I speak today with a—you know, with a keen awareness that I have to up my game because my professional mentor, Aryeh Neier, is sitting right there. So I will do my very best, and I’m sure I’ll hear how I’ve done when I finish. (Laughter.) But, you know, and if there is a—if there is a hero of the human rights movement in the United States, he’s sitting right there. He should be sitting here, but they invited me, so here I am.
So I thought we’d just—I would just set up the conversation with just I think it’s about a minute video. It’s just some takes from the field. But I will say that—(chuckles)—this particular video, for reasons—at least the first part of it, for reasons which I can’t explain, it has—or maybe the compelling nature of it explains it—but it was seen something like 400,000 times on our Facebook page. The more—we’ve never had a video that had this kind of reception, and it’s actually only about 30 seconds. So I think it really reflects the compelling nature of the—of the issue that we’re going to be talking about today, so.
MR. : OK?
(Begin video presentation.)
SCHWARTZ: (In progress)—at the border between Burma and Bangladesh in front of an area that they’re calling here no-man’s land between the two borders. Of course, some 400,000 other Rohingya have recently arrived in Bangladesh, and the situation and circumstances that they confronted really were unspeakable: crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and terrible abuses that the world should know about.
SCHWARTZ: We’ve arrived at the Thaingkhali Camp. This camp or this area was just established over the past many weeks. There are, believe it or not, 70,000 people living in this facility. Government officials are doing their best to provide services, but the situation is extremely challenging.
(End video presentation.)
WHITE: Eric, I think that the reason that people like you or me or others in our profession go to the field is because it is only when you actually see and touch the reality of these people’s lives that you can get that kind of not just intellectual understanding, but almost a physical response to the human suffering. And so one comes back from a trip like that with a very strong desire to bear witness so that other people—people like you in this room or people who watch that video on YouTube or whatever—and hope that somehow, by bearing witness to what you have seen, it breaks through the noise of our time and creates some kind of movement or response which can impel the kind of political action that we need to solve this problem. So I know those ultimate goals are behind the reason why you go—not just to know and to see, but to bear witness, and hopefully to create change and action.
Before we begin, Eric, I know this is a very informed group of people here today, but I do think it’s always very important to begin with some kind of clarification of terms, because it turns out that just calling these people Rohingya is problematic within Burma. So, Eric, do you want to begin just for a moment and tell us a little bit about the origins of the Rakhine State and the Rohingya people?
SCHWARTZ: Yeah. At the risk of not talking—of talking too long, I’ll try to be brief, because I’m already seeing it’s 10 after one.
Burma, otherwise known as Myanmar, I tend to use the term Burma. I discovered that my organization uses Myanmar, but that’s a conversation that we’re having. The—you know, the country’s nearly 90 percent Buddhist. About just over 10 percent or more or less evenly divided between Christian and Muslim. And the largest Muslim population in Burma is the Rohingya population, which as of August 24th numbered about 1.2 million, with hundreds and hundreds of thousands, if not more, had already fled the country to Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, other parts of the world.
And this is a population that has—a Muslim population that has roots in Rakhine State for centuries. And although, you know, with the British colonialism in the 19th and early 20th century, there was also movement into the state from Bangladesh—from what is now Bangladesh, and other parts. And so—and this has been a people who, for decades, have been marginalized and progressively deprived of their rights over time. Before 1960, they had—this population had significant civil and political rights, participated in the parliament. But with the—with Ne Win’s takeover, some 70 years ago, over many decades this population has progressively lost more and more rights, beginning in the 1960s.
A seminal event was the 1982 citizenship law, which effectively made it nearly impossible for the Rohingya population to have the same status as other minority groups in Burma. But it continued beyond 1982. We can get into this later, but a year or two ago the government agreement to a commission to look at the situation in Rakhine State, chaired by Kofi Annan. And it reached the conclusion that this is a population that has been marginalized and discriminated against. And it came up with recommendations to essentially move this population into the mainstream and toward—to grant them the rights of citizenship and related benefits. There—you know, you can speculate as to whether that report may have been a precipitating element in the military’s action over the past many weeks. But that’s maybe for later in the conversation.
WHITE: So, but, Eric, over—in the past history, the Buddhist and the Muslim populations have gotten along from time to time. There have been periodic outbursts of violence through 2012 and 2016. This current violence is of a magnitude more aggressive, more brutal than before. What sparked it and why do you think it continues?
SCHWARTZ: Well, first, I want to talk a little bit because I don’t want this hour to go by without your hearing about the, you know, first-hand account of the conversations with refugees about the nature of this violence. I mean, you can read about it. There are many credible organizations that are doing really great reporting. But I want to take a minute or two to talk about it. And then we can talk about the precipitating element.
You know, we were there in September. And I—as soon as we saw what was happening—by September 5th, we felt we knew enough to say publicly that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity were taking place, unquestionably. That was—as I say, that was September 5th. So we wanted to get out as quickly as possible. And what was just so chilling to me was the—was the consistency of the conversations we had with people about what had happened, that the military would come into villages—often unannounced or without warning, at least with the testimonies we received that was generally the case. And then there was a combination of two things that would happen.
They would firebomb. They would launch incendiary devices into the village and either before or after or during people would flee. And as people were fleeing they would be systematically shot. And it was—and person after person after person told us the same story. It was heartbreaking to hear this, to hear a guy talk about the fact that he and his wife fled and his wife was running from—you know, from the village, and his—and her—and the baby in her arms was killed, either as a result of a gunshot wound or shrapnel, while she was running with the kid.
So, and—so the enormity of this situation. But of course, if you want to push 580,000 people out of a country in six weeks, that’s what you have to do. You have to terrorize them in ways that are sort of breathtaking. For me, the most heartbreaking dimension of our visit was a visit to a hospital, where we met with kids—not kids, but parents when the kids were there. Five-year-old, nine-year-old, a one-year-old with burns, gunshot wounds. And what really just hit me so hard was meeting a woman who had a 17-year-old daughter with the vacant look in her eyes. And the woman was talking to us about how the military—several people from the military had tied her up. And she was now complaining of, you know, these terrible pains in her abdomen, in her middle, which of course is code for sexual violence against her, which we’re learning has been part of this—part of this systematic effort that the military had undertaken. So this is as bad as it gets.
Now, why did it happen when it happened? Well, the military claims that—you know, that on some level this was in response to—or the perception—in response to an attack on 30 police stations in an Army base with homemade weapons, sticks and knives, at which—I don’t remember the precise number—I think somewhere between nine and 12 security people, force members were killed. But the—but the—this response—to call it disproportionate is just—is to understate the enormity what’s happened. More importantly, if you read carefully—or not even carefully—the report of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and it tracks with what we had heard from the conversations we had and we sort of wondered about. But what OHCHR has found was that as—in the period before August 25th, when this attack took place, the military had already begun to round up young men, to round up leaders—village leaders. And so there was clearly something going on prior to the events of August 25th. And so that’s the best answer I can give you to the question you’ve asked.
WHITE: I mean, so do you think that they were responding to things that were in the U.N. report that made them think they had to take preemptive action?
SCHWARTZ: This is a total surmise on my part. This is a total surmise on my part. But I have wondered about that, because if you—there was a lot—there’s been a lot of international support for what Kofi Annan has been doing with his commission. And if you look at the recommendations, that were sort of inevitable, to be expected, if the regime—and Aung San Suu Kyi and the government have expressed their support of the commission process throughout.
So you would expect that they would support the final report which was issued just around the same time, I believe, on the 25th—if those recommendations were implemented, the changes in Rakhine State would have been far reaching, significant, systemic, and changed the reality on the ground. So, you know, I wasn’t in the planning meetings with the military, but the enormity of what happened could only be the result of careful planning by a military that was just hellbent on ridding the country of the bulk of this population.
WHITE: Since you mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi, and she actually was one of the advocates for us setting up the committee to look into the conditions of the Rakhine State and to make recommendations, and the recommendations are very far-reaching, and it would have been a much-changed state—given her role as encouraging the international community to look at Rakhine State, it is clearly somewhat dismaying if not outrage-producing that she herself has not been an advocate or a spokesperson for the Rohingya people. And the range of response to her behavior or her speeches, or lack thereof, has gone—begun with dismay and gone to outrage. And some have suggested that she return her Nobel Prize—Peace Prize, which is a bit extreme. But do you have any thoughts or any insights into her position on this situation?
SCHWARTZ: Yeah. I do. I think I have to be careful, because I don’t—you know, people often ask me why she’s taking the position she’s taking. And, you know, I think you have to ask her those questions. But I do have some observations. First of all, you know, I was—I met with her in 2014 when I was a member of the—a commissioner. President Obama appointed me to the international—the Commission on International Religious Freedom. And we did a trip to Burma and we wrote a report. And I didn’t find—and much of the focus of that was the Rohingya population. And I didn’t find—she didn’t impress me at the time as a strong advocate for that population, I guess is the way I would say it.
But, you know, I think reasonable people can differ on—and I think you have to be very careful, because there’s no question that if Aung San Suu Kyi decided she was going to stand up and say: This is a horror. I can’t—I can’t associate myself or my government with these systematic and massive abuses of human rights, and they must end. You know, should we expect her to say that? I don’t know. It’s clear that had she chosen to say that, two things would have happened. Number one, she would have incurred personal risk. And I think it’s hard to—significant personal risk. But she would have, on a dime, changed the dynamic of this issue. I mean, she just would have. So the notion that she doesn’t have influence is just—that’s just nonsense. It’s a question whether she was going to use it, because a statement like that would have changed the international dynamic on the issue.
Now, but is it—you know, can we take the position that somebody should do that, that she should have done that and incurred those risks? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of, if she wasn’t going to take that position she shouldn’t have positioned herself as an apologist for the military. And that’s what—and that, in many respects, is what she did do. When she gave a speech, I think it was on the 19th of September, I think that was the date. And if you just listen to the speech, in which she talks about the fact that there is no discrimination in health care, in education in Rakhine State, in which—this is September 19th—or maybe the 17th, but I think it was the 19th—in which she says, you know, we are interested in finding out what’s happening in Rakhine State.
When there was just so much abundant evidence of what had happened, a certain kind of—what I would call a willful ignorance. When she—when her office accused the humanitarian aid providers of—you know, of working with the terrorists—international aid providers—that’s the kind of—those are the kinds of expressions that mystify me, and I think, you know, have had significant and substantial negative impacts. Moreover, I think they create inhibitions to governments standing up and taking stronger positions. So that’s been my principle concern.
WHITE: Yeah. And it would have helped motivate other governments to be more proactive including, perhaps, our government. And so—
SCHWARTZ: I’ve been thinking a lot about Vaclav Havel as I look at my former colleagues at Human Rights Watch these days.
WHITE: What would he have done? What would he have done, yeah.
SCHWARTZ: What would he have done, right?
WHITE: But is there a role for the international community? And the Obama administration clearly made an effort to be part of the opening up of Burma, in part of supporting and encouraging them in the initial steps towards a democracy. So we have fallen far away from that role that we played as a partner to Myanmar in its pursuit in democracy. Is the absence of the U.S. voice on this issue—and I can’t—correct me if I’m wrong, I can’t think of anybody in the administration who has spoken about this—but is that impeding of the kind of progress that we need?
SCHWARTZ: Well, let me say that, you know, I wasn’t—I was in the Obama administration, and I was on the losing side of some conversations about the pace of the warming to the Burmese. But while I—but I do believe—and, you know, we can speculate on this as much as—but I do believe that any administration, the Obama administration, any administration that witnesses what is going on—and I think the Obama administration would have jumped at the importance of responding in some way here. I don’t think this administration has been silent. Vice President Pence at the United Nations last month spoke about Burmese military savagery and said that he and President Trump—he made expressions—joined himself with President Trump and said that they were strongly opposed to this, that the U.S. was going to take action. I don’t remember the exact words, but he did talk about military savagery.
About the same time, Nikki Haley spoke about the apparent effort to ethnically cleanse a population. And then day before yesterday Secretary Tillerson spoke about accountability and that the world needs to do something. Each one of those statements was great, but they were snapshots. They were moments in time. And there’s no evidence—there’s no evidence, no indication that they’re part of a broader strategy or effort to reverse what’s happening. And they could be. They could be part of an effort. I think the worst thing to do in a situation like this is to throw up your hands and say: This is a—you know, this is a done deal. It’s happened. It’s terrible. Now let’s try to just deal with the humanitarian situation. We don’t have to do that. We don’t have to do that.
But right now U.S. policy has got to be more than three snapshots in time. There has to be—and I’m told—I’m told that there is a policy development process going on at the National Security Council. There’s one going on at the State Department. But it’s two months—(laughs)—it’s two months after this has all become known to the world. And, you know, I was asked yesterday, Tillerson made those comments, what should he do now? And what I said to—on MSNBC, I said he should get on a plane and go. And if you do that—if you do that as a senior official, what you’re doing is you’re holding yourself and your government hostage to some sort of successful action, because you’re saying this is important enough to us that we’re going to take this action.
And then, you got to do something. And, you know, and I would say, if you don’t know—if you don’t know—if you don’t have a plan yet, just do something and then come up with the plan. But my point is, there’s plenty of things we should be done, very few if any of which we’re doing. We had a State Department witnesses on Capitol Hill the week before last. The most detailed explication of U.S. policy towards Burma. And the poor members of Congress—the poor congressmen couldn’t get deputy assistant secretary for East Asian affairs to say that ethnic cleansing is taking place in Burma. He was—they got him to say it’s a “cauldron of complexities”. And that—you know, you hear that and you think, that’s Rwanda. That’s what we did in Rwanda. That we sort of—you use these expressions.
And why is it important to—you know, what I learned at Human Rights Watch, where I cut my teeth—professional teeth, is the first thing—the thing you can never sacrifice is truth, because if you have truth, if you speak out about what’s actually happening, then that create the impetus for policy, right, because if the world knows there may be a genocide going on, then people say, OK, well, now what we do, right? But if it’s a “cauldron of complexities,” well, then you go back to your next meeting.
I’m sorry. I should calm down. (Laughter.)
WHITE: No. No, you shouldn’t clam down, Eric. That’s why we love you and that’s what we need, actually. But you know, again, we did the same thing in Bosnia. You know, President Clinton read “Balkan Ghosts” and decided that these were ancient hatreds that had been going on for centuries and there was nothing you could do about it. Once we take that position, we have locked ourselves into passivity and inaction. And only if we point out that these people—that it’s not that the Muslims and the Buddhists are fighting against each other. It’s that a military determined by the powerful government at top has exercised authority to take military action against these people.
So it is not—it’s not like, well, how do we say, bad guys on both sides? There’s only one side, which is the bad guys, and there’s very obviously that it is the Burmese military. And as often as we speak out about it with the clarity of those facts, the more pressure there is put on, hopefully, government officials to take some action. Well, what do you—what kind of international action could you foresee happening that might bring the—it’s not going to happen by the Burmese alone. They’re going to be stopped unless we put—the world puts pressure on them.
SCHWARTZ: Oh, I’ll tell you what I would do, if I were in charge. First, I would bring—I might appoint a special envoy, if I was the U.S. president. But if I did that, I’d make sure I appointed somebody who was tough and senior and commanded respect, not a special envoy to get this problem off my desk. I would engage—I would—I would announce sanctions against the Burmese military. I would prohibit all military-to-military contact. I would announce targeted sanctions against the military leaders in Burma. I would press hard at the Security Council for a multilateral arms embargo—understanding that that probably won’t happen.
And then I would quietly meet with—if I were the secretary of state—I would meet with Antonio Guterres and the Chinese perm rep and we would have a conversation about the need, if there’s ever the possibility of deploying—of return of these people in safety and dignity, some sort of United Nations peace operation, U.N. observers, U.N.—but it would have to be a conversation—a quiet conversation with the Chinese. And people say, oh, that’s just completely unrealistic, but the Chinese have an interest in their relationships with the Muslim world. The Chinese have an interest in—and in their relations with Bangladesh.
And the United States of America has an interest in not, you know, having a population of half a million or more—a million legitimately angry Rohingya refugees with the support of the Muslim world, right, in creating a situation in which you may have pretext for the military in Burma to reassert authority in the country. I mean, so there are both security—there are national security reasons as well as value-based reasons for the United States to really—to really press hard on these issues. I would—what else would I do? Well, that’s a start. There are plenty of other things I would do.
WHITE: Thank you, Eric. I would like to open it up to questions.
Q: Bettye Musham.
For more than 40 years this problem has been in existence and has been growing to the climax it’s at right now. And many people are aware of it—universities, NGOs, everything. So we have a State Department that doesn’t function in the United States. So who is going to take responsibility for the refugees? And who do they really come under? So what is the solution to these people, half a million? And you say the Muslim world supports them. There is no Muslim world. There’s Muslim groups.
SCHWARTZ: Let me answer your question with respect to the refugees. And don’t get me wrong. I mean, I run an organization called Refugees International. So the humanitarian response and the humanitarian architecture is critically important. But I just—I think we have to be very careful that we don’t turn what is a human rights disaster into a humanitarian challenge, right? I mean, there are critically important issues.
So, on the humanitarian side, there are going to be about a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. And right now, the U.N. has announced an appeal for the next six months of about $440 million. That’s probably not enough, but that’s the appeal. UNICEF yesterday has 77 million of that appeal, and they said that it’s 7 percent funded—7 percent funded. So the first thing is resources. We’re going to have to—the world is going to have generate a significant and substantial amount of resources. But that’s a do-able objective. That’s a doable proposition. In the grand scheme of things, $440 million is not a lot of money. So we ought to be able to raise those funds.
The issue is going to be the organization of the relief effort. Right now in Bangladesh you’ve got the International Organization of Migration, which is playing a very significant role in providing assistance. UNHCR is increasing its role day in and day out. UNICEF is on the ground. The Bangladesh government and military has pretty reasonable capacity in terms of working with the international organizations. So I think it’s a terrible situation. You’re dealing with one of the most densely populated countries in the world in a very densely populated area, to which you’re adding, you know, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people in the monsoon season. The risk of the spread of communicable disease is significant and substantial.
So this is a very, very, very challenging situation, but I also think it’s a situation that the international community can, to a great extent, come to grips with. The real question will be, you know, how—the government of Bangladesh is talking about a more—I wouldn’t say permanent, but a more durable response. They’re talking about building a very large area, you know, that would handle the bulk of the people who are coming in. And, you know, there are concerns in the humanitarian community about some of the implications a huge camp in terms of adequate provision of services, et cetera. So that’s a dialogue, a discussion that’s going on between the government of Bangladesh and the aid providers.
Short answer to your question, which I didn’t give you, is a huge challenge. We do have agencies and resources to address it. But it’s going to be an incredible, uphill battle.
Q: Thank you. Joanna Weschler with Security Council Report.
Eric, you mentioned the 1992 citizenship law. I wanted to ask you whether this is going to be a factor in any future solution of the refugee crisis and what does one do for people who are essentially stateless, as far as I understand?
SCHWARTZ: Well, this is why the world has got to do something—governments of the world have to do something extremely profound here, because in the normal course of events the way you do—I mean, the problem with the 1992 citizenship law it creates—you don’t need to know the details, and I don’t know all the details—but the problem with the law is essentially it—a significant problem with the law is not only does it not recognize the ethnic minority status of the Rohingya, which creates an obstacle, right, to citizenship, but it also has evidence production requirements—(laughs)—that are wholly unrealistic in that sort of a context, right? So it essentially deprives the population. And Kofi Annan recognized that.
So in the normal order of things, you’d have the commission’s report, it would be endorsed by the government. I think it’s been endorsed by the government. And you would—you would put working groups together and you would come up with solutions, and it would create opportunities for the enfranchisement of this population. But how do you reconcile that with a decision that was made by the military to rid the country of the Rohingya? That’s was what was decided. And so the only way you undo that decision is you—figuratively, you hit the military upside the head.
I mean, you have to—there’s got to be a political will in the world to say, you know, this cannot stand, because they know what they were doing. This isn’t—this isn’t an overreaction to a—to a—you know, to—this isn’t collateral damage in the context of responding to an insurgency. So that’s why the, you know, governments of the world need to be—you know, need to be far more coordinated and need to be far more assertive in terms of changing the calculus of the military. That’s not happening now.
WHITE: The gentleman right here in the middle table. Thanks.
Q: I’m Gerald Pollack.
A number of organizations have been mentioned as helping in this effort. There’s your organization, the International Refugee Committee, UNICEF, and so forth. How well are these organizations coordinating their efforts here?
SCHWARTZ: You know, that’s a great question, especially—you know, I think some people here are of the NGO community, but others aren’t. And so, you know, there are—there are really at least three types of organizations that are engaged here. And I—and I think—and I think coordination becomes the biggest—well, there are the advocacy organizations, the organizations whose reason for being is to—you know, to report and to advocate. To report based on careful research and to advocate.
And what distinguishes our organization as an advocacy organization is we brought—the principles of humanitarianism, refugees and displaced persons, are not part of our mandate, they are our mandate. That’s what we focus on, right? And that’s Refugees International. But our reporting is very similar, in this instance, to the reporting of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in that—in that those are all organizations that are principally defined by their institutional mandate to provide information about human rights, humanitarian conditions, and to advocate, right? Both, you know, to bear witness to abuses but also to advocate with policymakers.
Separate from that are a whole range of nongovernmental organizations whose principal focus is the delivering of services to people in need. Now, some of those organizations, like the International Rescue Committee, also do advocacy. But their principal focus in the delivery of services. And they coordinate on the ground with what we call—what is called the United Nations funds and programs. That’s UNICEF, the UNHCR, the United Nations—the World Food Program. And that second half, those nongovernmental implementing organizations—that often get money from governments to do these programs—and these U.N. funds and programs operate under a structure, a loose structure, that is coordinated by the U.N. system, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Although—(laughs)—it gets complicated because, because this is a refugee emergency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees would normally be the coordinating body. In this case, for reasons which I don’t have to go into, that’s not exactly happening. It’s really happening more like the former structure. So what’s the short answer to your question? Coordination is always a challenge. And it’s—and my—the information we’re getting now is that it is—you know, that there are serious and significant efforts to coordinate the response. I think they’re going reasonably well. But the situation is so awful that there are going to be gaps, and there are going to be challenges, and there are going to be problems.
WHITE: So many questions. David.
Q: Thanks, Maureen. Thanks, Eric.
Q: So I headed Columbia’s Myanmar assistance program for some years starting in 2012. And one of the things that I was most struck by was the profound racism among Theravada Buddhists towards Rohingya. And that came from the highest levels all the way down to civil society groups that we worked with. We had an interreligious dialogue between Theravada Buddhist and Muslims. It’s been proposed to use that we pivot and focus on historical issues. So picking up on Joanna’s question about the citizenship law, do you think a lot of the problem is rooted in the perception that Rohingya are Bengalis, that they have no historical place in the country? And can we start to shift the center of gravity on this view through a historical dialogue? Or is this just too small an effort with too vast a problem?
SCHWARTZ: (Laughs.) Look, David, I wouldn’t discourage you from those kinds of efforts. Far be it for me to discourage you from those kinds of efforts.
But I really think, you know—and what I—I saw the same thing you saw in Burma, and it reminded me a whole hell of a lot of Sri Lanka. But Sri Lanka’s an important example because, to me, the critical dimension is leadership. And in Sri Lanka, we saw how the political wind could shift when political leaders are prepared to articulate principles of inclusion, of dialogue. And so I think—I wouldn’t discourage your efforts, but I really think—I really think, you know, it’s really incumbent upon leaders to set the tone and the example.
When I was in Burma in 2004, it was chilling to see the way, you know, the voices of intolerance were tolerated and even stoked by leadership. And so, you know, I think if I were going to do—I’m kind of talking myself into my view here—but I think if I were going to do engagement, I think I would start with the leadership, at that level.
WHITE: I’m going to go way to the back of the room, to that gentleman with the blue shirt on. Thanks.
Q: Thank you. My name is Manik Mehta. I am a journalist.
My question to Eric: Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN community. Is there something the ASEAN can do? And, if so, to what extent?
SCHWARTZ: I think that’s what you have to ask, you know, the leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia. I mean, I think, you know, unfortunately—the short answer is yes, and what you have to—and what you have to push up against is that the—as the Palestinians have discovered, the realities of realpolitik often take precedence over, you know, expressions of ethnic or religious human solidarity. But I think—I think—I think some of the governments in ASEAN have expressed deep concern about what’s happening with the Rohingya. And I think advocates like Refugees International, international advocates, I think it behooves us to try to engage those governments.
Q: Hi. John Eastman.
Can I ask a much more basic question? You have the movement of millions of people. And as a million people settle in the most densely-populated country in the world, Bangladesh, it becomes a permanent refugee camp. And everyone is right-thinking about how to deal with these issues, but it’s destabilizing in Jordan, for example, with 600,000 or more Iraqi refugees. Lebanon, goodness knows, has those camps along their borders. How do you deal with, 20 years later, of right-thinking people just placing those people there and leaving them there really just to languish?
SCHWARTZ: That’s a—I’m glad you asked that question because this is an issue which has increasingly consumed individuals and organizations that are concerned about the fact that most of the world’s refugees have been refugees not for a few months, but for years, right? And the—in September of 2016, largely, I think, in ways that we don’t have time to talk about, sort of pressured by the Obama administration, the U.N. held a summit on refugees and migrants. The next day, the United States convened a summit on refugees, and the two ended up being pretty complementary. And, growing out of that effort and some earlier efforts, I think—and this is a—this is a slight good-news story in a world of hurt right now—but growing out of that effort has been an appreciation of the fact that governments need to do more to recognize the reality that many of the world’s refugees are not going home.
And, you know, traditionally, there are three solutions for refugees. They can go home to their countries of origin when the conditions that prompted their flight disappear and things are better. It happens. Not so often, but it happens.
The other options on the other side is third-country resettlement, in which the refugee goes from the country in which he or she is finding refuge and goes to a third country that has agreed to resettle them. But that is under the best of circumstances only going to be a solution for a very small minority of refugees.
And then the—and then the third option is local integration. And essentially, that has traditionally meant, you know, maybe even a movement towards citizenship. And that’s happened in some—in some cases, but not often because governments are very wary about providing those kinds of rights to refugees.
So, short of that, the outcome of this September ’16 meeting and additional efforts has been work on a refugee compact, a—based on something that was in the 2016 document called a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, which envisions—and governments are cautiously—some governments are cautiously supporting it—envisions more meaningful self-sufficiency opportunities for refugees: access to education, access to employment. Pushing the question of citizenship and permanent status down the road a little bit, but focusing on these issues that turn a refugee into somebody who is being supported by the international community into an individual who actually can have access to education, can have access to the labor market, and thereby be in a stronger position to realize, you know, her or his, you know, dreams in life, and ultimately become productive members of the societies in which they’re living. And that may make the issue of citizenship a little less difficult.
In fact, we are—just a team that Refugees International sent out to Turkey is returning today, and they’re looking at Turkish government’s willingness to provide permission to work for Syrians. And our effort to do that is part of this—is part of this broader initiative relating to increase refugee self-sufficiency.
Q: Can I just follow up quickly?
Q: What about—sorry. (Comes on mic.) What about the destabilization while this long process goes on, especially in a country like Bangladesh or Jordan, which is really, you know, economically on tenterhooks?
SCHWARTZ: Well, that’s—I mean—
Q: And how do you deal with that question of destabilization with—
SCHWARTZ: Well, that’s why, for example, the World Bank is now in this business. Everything I just described, the World Bank has become a major partner. And why are they a major partner? Because they bring huge resources to the table, and one way to deal with some of these challenges is through resources. If you have—if you can build more schools so more kids—so you have places for Syrian kids, or if you—or if you’re going to provide additional, you know, investment opportunities, then that’s how you address some of those concerns.
The problem in the Rohingya case, though—and this is the problem in—is that, you know, I’m certainly not ready to take the position that, you know, this is a done deal. And so—and that’s the problem with sort of an emergency, a crisis like this one. If you start saying, well, let’s figure out how these people can have meaningful opportunities to live forever in Bangladesh, maybe that’s the conversation we’re going to be having, you know, six months from now, but I’m not sure this is the time for that conversation.
WHITE: I think we have a few more questions. I should go for a little gender balance, but I don’t see any—how about this gentleman right—
Q: Thank you. My name is Matt (sp), and I work for BRAC. We’re one of the largest responders to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh right now. We’re the largest civil—
WHITE: What does BRAC stand for?
Q: So it doesn’t actually stand for anything. It used to stand for Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee back in the ’70s.
But I just wanted to point out for folks who are interested we are the largest direct implementer. And I want to thank Eric for pointing out and making that distinction between U.N. agencies. And we actually have a staff of 800 people on the ground right now in water and sanitation, education, health. We just took part in the second-largest cholera immunization campaign. So I’m available as a resource if anyone would like to talk to me afterwards.
SCHWARTZ: Terrific. Thank you.
Q: Thank you very much.
WHITE: Thank you very much for making that point. Thank you.
SCHWARTZ: And thank you for what you’re doing.
WHITE: Yes, thank you.
This woman right—this redhead.
Q: My name is Elizabeth Holtzman. Oh, thank you. (Comes on mic.) My name is Elizabeth Holtzman. I worked with your predecessor, Lionel Rosenblatt, a long time ago.
SCHWARTZ: Oh, my predecessor several times back, but yeah. (Laughter.)
Q: Several times back, right, in dealing with the boat people crisis.
Q: And it seems to me that if the Obama administration had put its foot down when the Burmese government was starting the boat people crisis with the Rohingya, maybe that would have sent a different message.
However, what can we do to get this government off the dime? Because if we look back—I mean, my experience was in the resettlement of the Vietnamese boat people, which was an amazing success. And the U.S. played an immense leadership role there, as did other countries going along, organizing that. Without U.S. leadership, it seems as though there’s just chaos. How do we—can we change that? And, if so, what are your suggestions?
SCHWARTZ: Well, thank you for that easy question. (Laughter.)
You know, I—that’s a question a lot of us are asking in Washington right now because, I mean, the—look, don’t get me wrong, the United States is responsible for a lot of things that we’re not so proud of. But on some of these issues historically over the past several decades, if the United States was not prepared to stand up, articulate, frankly, the liberal perspective on an issue like this one; and be prepared to roll up our sleeves and lead an international effort to get things, if not right, at least less wrong; it just wouldn’t happen. It just wouldn’t happen.
And so, for me, there’s no alternative but to be trying to press buttons within the administration to kindle some sense of obligation and ownership on this issue. And the strategy to do that is to identify people in very senior positions whose instincts and inclinations are to play that role. I don’t know what other strategy you use, but that’s the strategy. And there are. There are people, and—as reflected in these snapshot statements that I’ve described to you over the past, you know, couple of months. But I don’t think there’s an alternative to—there may be alternatives, but we’re foolish if we forego that effort. And that’s—and that’s what we’re doing. And that’s what we’re doing, talking to people like Nikki Haley, the vice president’s office.
Q: What about Congress?
SCHWARTZ: Congress? Oh, that goes without saying. I mean, we’ve been—we’ve been all over the Congress on this issue, you know, and there will be a senatorial—I think there will be a senatorial—a bunch of senators, very much at our behest, will be going to Bangladesh and hopefully, I think, Burma as well next month, and all of that is great. All of that is great, and we—and we have to push that with every ounce of energy we have. But it’s just—it’s just not a substitute for administration leadership. It’s just not.
WHITE: So I think we’re—
SCHWARTZ: Thank God for it, though.
WHITE: Yeah. I think we have time for just one last question, and you have been very persistent and patient.
Q: Thank you. This is Shihabuddin Kislu (sp) from Somoy Television based in Bangladesh.
I have two things to know, actually. There is another stakeholder, a regional player, India. And what—any observation why India is leaning towards China, you think?
And, number two, in the question of leadership of the U.S., my just interest to know whether U.S. does at all understand that it is not a bilateral issue only, it can destabilize the whole world. And do they understand, actually, the U.S. administration?
SCHWARTZ: Let me answer the second question first. I don’t—if, by destabilization, you mean—I mean, let me—let me start with your second question, and then you’ll have to—oh, yeah, first question about India.
I mean, there is—I was at a—I did the “NewsHour” with Danny Russel, the former assistant secretary of state. And Danny—when they asked Danny about—I don’t mean to cast—when they asked Danny about what’s this about, and he—and Danny responded by saying, well, it’s one of many different ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar. That’s what he said. And I—when Judy Woodruff turned to me, I said that’s nonsense. This is not an insurgent—insurgency-based, you know, situation. Yeah, after decades and decades and decades of the most ruthless kind of repression, 30 police stations get attacked in 2017. But that doesn’t mean—(chuckles)—that this is—you know, that this is—but if your comment is—if what’s behind your comment is, yeah, but if you move a million Rohingya, you know, you abuse them terribly, you move them into Bangladesh, then you’re creating the potential for real security concerns, I think there’s something to that.
And if you’re asking me has the American government recognized that, my answer is I’m not aware of any evidence that they have. That’s my answer. Now, maybe they have, but I’m not aware of any evidence that they have. Their policies certainly don’t suggest that they have.
On the first issue, it’s been a great disappointment, the policy—the approach of the government of India, which prides itself as the world’s most populous democracy. We’ll the world’s most populous democracy should not run roughshod over, you know, basic principles of refugee protection. And I think it’s kind of—it kind of points up the fact that just because you’re a democracy doesn’t mean you can’t abuse the human rights of people. And so, you know, I—for an analysis of that, I think you’d have to go to somebody else. But it’s been a great source of disappointment.
WHITE: With that note, Eric, thank you very much for a very informative and interesting—(applause)—and thank you for the work you do.
SCHWARTZ: Thank you. Thank you very much. This has been a real pleasure.
WHITE: Yeah. It has been great listening to.