The Washington Diplomat / April 2017
By Larry Luxner
With world headlines focused on North Korea’s nuclear tests, Russia’s ties to the Trump administration and landmark elections in France and the Netherlands, it’s easy to forget about three ethnic conflicts that show no sign of going away in 2017.
The ongoing civil war in Yemen, the continuing massacre of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Myanmar and escalating bloodshed in South Sudan — the world’s newest country — add new dimensions of suffering to what the United Nations is already calling the worst humanitarian crisis it’s seen in decades.
Long overshadowed by the fighting in Syria and Iraq, Yemen’s ongoing civil war in Yemen has killed 10,000 people and wounded another 40,000 in the last two years, according to the United Nations. The Independent, quoting Jamie McGoldrick, an official with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the figure is based on lists of victims gathered by health facilities, and that the actual number may be higher.
Yemen was already the poorest nation in the Arab world — even before March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government. That campaign has aligned the Saudis, other Sunni Gulf Arab countries and the United States against Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
In January, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN special envoy for Yemen, met with Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and other top officials in Aden, which the Houthis have established as the country’s temporary capital.
“The current political stalemate is causing death and destruction every day,” the UN official said in a statement. “The only way to stop this is through the renewal of the Cessation of Hostilities followed by consultations to develop a comprehensive agreement. Yemen’s political elites have a responsibility to shield people from further harm, protect their country’s future and commit to a peaceful settlement.”
Yet there’s no sign of any letup in the violence. So many people are dying that the Red Cross is now donating morgues to Yemeni hospitals. Last August, the international charity began sending body bags and refrigerated storage machines because hospitals in Sana’a and Dhamar, in southwestern Yemen, couldn’t cope with the influx of corpses.
Hospitals themselves have come under increasing attack. After Saudi fighter jets bombed a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, the NGO withdrew its staffers from six Yemeni hospitals; that attack prompted the State Department to condemn such bombings for the first time.
On Jan. 29, eight days after taking office, President Donald Trump authorized a raid on the Yemeni village of al-Ghayil. Trump later said the mission was “highly successful,” though eyewitnesses say it killed at least 14 people — including a Navy SEAL as well as women and children — and that the raid was anything but successful.
“With the SEALs taking heavy fire on the lower slopes, attack helicopters swept over the hillside hamlet,” British correspondent Iona Craig reported for The Intercept. “In what seemed to be blind panic, the gunships bombarded the entire village, striking more than a dozen buildings, razing stone dwellings where families slept, and wiping out more than 120 goats, sheep and donkeys.”
Despite the failures and the occasional unintended attacks on hospitals, markets and funerals, Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Center as well as its Global Energy Center, says Trump’s overall policy is to “limit, contain and eventually roll back the Iranian power projected throughout the Middle East” — from Yemen to Syria and from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, a span of more than 2,000 kilometers.
“The Trump administration is, in my view, justified in improving the intelligence capability and war fighting, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism skills of our Saudi allies,” said Cohen, who was formerly with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “This includes the provision of smart bombs and training for the Saudis so that they minimize the tragic loss of civilian life that was going on in Yemen for the last couple of years.”
Last October, following a Saudi airstrike that killed 140 people at a funeral in Sana’a, the Obama White House announced it would reconsider U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Under Trump, however, the Pentagon will likely expand its cooperation with Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis — and that’s a good thing, says Cohen.
“American policymakers, including our elected representatives in Congress, have to understand that what is at stake here is not just the engagement in Yemen, but also the important shipping lanes around the Yemeni coast, the Arabian Peninsula and the southern entrance to the Red Sea,” he said.
Cohen noted the huge amount of oil and petrochemical traffic in the region, and the importance of the southern port of Aden in controlling the Bab al Mandab, a narrow strait through which millions of barrels of oil pass weekly.
“The fact that the alleged Houthi rebels fired anti-ship missiles against maritime traffic suggests that the Iranians provided those missiles, and trained and equipped the rebels to disrupt seaboard trade. But possibly it was the Iranians themselves. Therefore, we need to take this very seriously.”
Cohen added that this is not just about “supporting our Saudi allies” in their fight against Iranian proxies.
“There’s a war in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and we need to engage them with drone strikes and special forces,” he warned. “Al-Qaeda and ISIS remain the principal radical Islamist enemies of the United States and the free world at large.”
Yet Mareike Transfeld, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says claims of Iran’s influence over the Houthis have been overblown.
“Although Iran sees cooperation with non-state actors as an integral part of its foreign policy to protect and expand its influence in the region, its support for the Houthis has been marginal,” she wrote. “The military support Iran has provided to the Houthis since at least 2011 has largely been limited to training and mostly channeled through Lebanese Hezbollah.”
Another factor that helped the Houthis was Saudi Arabia’s March 2014 decision to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization — as well as the fact that Yemen’s former president, Ali Sabdullah Saleh, indirectly supported the Houthi takeover of Sana’a by urging his loyalists within the military and tribes not to resist.
“Although Saleh was pushed out of office in November 2011, he used his influence to sabotage the political process to regain power,” she wrote. “This alliance has driven the Houthis’ expansion and attempts at governance to a much larger degree than Iran ever could.”
Tucked into a forgotten corner of South Asia, the Rohingya Muslim minority of Myanmar (formerly Burma) face a large-scale military and police crackdown that has left hundreds dead and sent tens of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.
About one million Rohingyas live in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 54 million. Yet they’re officially stateless — and are not considered one of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the government in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). In fact, the regime considers the Rohingyas undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, and therefore ineligible for citizenship.
“While a previous Myanmar government stripped the Rohingya of a path to full citizenship in 1982, in more recent years, the plight of the Rohingya has gone from bad to worse,” said Debra Eisenman, executive director of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a leader in the ASPI’s Myanmar Initiative.
In February 2015, then-President Thein Sein effectively revoked the Rohingyas’ newly gained right to vote following pressure from Buddhist nationalists. Interestingly, in Myanmar’s 2015 elections, not a single parliamentary candidate was of the Muslim faith.
Following an armed attack against border guards last October in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, authorities raided Rohingya villages and sparked a mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar. ASPI estimates that 65,000 to 100,000 refugees have fled to the relative safety of Bangladesh since then; others have attempted to reach Malaysia, Thailand and even Indonesia.
In December, 11 Nobel Peace Prize winners and a dozen other prominent people — writing in an open letter — called the crackdown “ethnic cleansing,” while Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak went even farther, labeling it “genocide” and calling the current situation an “insult to Islam.”
“I will not close my eyes and shut my mouth,” Razak declared at a protest rally in Kuala Lumpur. “We must defend them [Rohingyas] not just because they are of the same faith, but because they are humans. Their lives have value.”
Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, warned recently that the escalation of violence could incite jihadist extremism in Myanmar.
“If mishandled, Rakhine state could be infected and infested by jihadism, which already plagues neighboring Bangladesh and other countries,” Russel told VOA News.
Priscilla Clapp, who was U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002 and is now a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace, said she objects to extreme words like genocide, holocaust, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, “because that is not what this is. This is not Yugoslavia.”
Many groups on both sides of the conflict are working “very quietly” in Myanmar to resolve it, Clapp recently told a reporter for Claremont-McKenna College’s website.
“An international response that consists primarily of assigning blame for this humanitarian tragedy is no longer tenable,” she said. “It is time for the international community to organize a realistic, workable solution.”
Asked what the Bangladeshi government is doing, Clapp replied: “They are not doing anything, and that is part of the problem. They are very unhelpful.”
But journalists are banned from the area, so it’s very difficult to verify reports of rapes and killings by Myanmar’s soldiers. After the Oct. 9 border attack, reporters and photographers from several news outlets including The Irriwaddy, Myanmar Times, Democratic Voice of Burma and 7 Day Daily were blocked from traveling to the region on the grounds it was “unsafe” for journalists.
“Myanmar’s democratically elected government should assert civilian control over its security forces and command senior officers to allow journalists to freely and safely report on the evolving crisis in Rakhine state,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “The best way to prove or disprove allegations of rights abuses is to allow independent media to probe the accusations. If the government truly has nothing to hide, then there is no need to restrict media access to the areas in question in northern Rakhine state.”
One famous person who hasn’t said much at all on the Rohingya refugee crisis is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and former political prisoner.
“In recent years, she’s been fairly quiet on the Rohingya, in a way that’s been surprising for a lot of people,” said ASPI’s Eisenman. “She’s also said at times that the international community has made too big of a deal out of the issue — creating problems at a level that didn’t exist. However, she established a commission last August, led by Kofi Annan, to review and create dialogue on solutions to ethnic conflict in Rakhine state. I think the UN report detailed something of a different magnitude, and she has vowed to investigate what is happening. But it remains to be seen who will investigate.”
The Republic of South Sudan, which came into being July 9, 2011, amidst joyous celebrations in Juba, the capital, is today a war-ravaged, barely functioning state — and home to one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
Famine has been declared in South Sudan, most of whose 12 million people live in poverty. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) considers 4.9 million of them “severely food-insecure,” while another million are on the brink of starvation. Last year, the WFP distributed a record 265,000 metric tons of food supplies by air and truck across South Sudan, but fighters from both the government and the rebels have blocked food aid, making delivery of desperately needed supplies impossible.
“Famine has become a tragic reality in parts of South Sudan, and our worst fears have been realized,” Serge Tissot, local representative of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told The Guardian. “Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive.”
Yet in the midst of famine, the South Sudanese government has reportedly raised visa fees for humanitarian workers to $10,000 each, claims J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
In a lengthy interview with The Diplomat, Pham blames the country’s chaos on “an absolute failure of leadership in South Sudan” as well as a rush by the Obama White House to recognize the new country, which broke away from Sudan following a January 2011 referendum on independence approved by more than 98 percent of the population.
“This is a country that came to independence with all the goodwill in the world,” said Pham, noting the presence of many world heads of state — even including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir — at South Sudan’s official independence ceremony in July 2011. “This is a place with extraordinary potential. There’s no reason why there should be food insecurity. South Sudan has more uncultivated arable land as a percentage of its size than any place in Africa.”
The current fighting is an outgrowth of what South Sudanese President Salva Kiir claims was a Dec. 15, 2013, coup attempt staged against his government by the former vice president, Riek Machar. But an African Union investigation turned up no evidence of such an attempted overthrow. It found, instead, that the dispute may have been triggered by a mutiny or disagreement among members of the presidential guard, and that “the ensuing violence spiraled out of control, spilling out into the general population.”
The report, led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, also concludes that people were targeted for their ethnicity when the fighting erupted.
“There was no coup attempt. The fact is, Salva Kiir is criminally incompetent,” Pham told us. “There was a political dispute that began in the summer of 2013, when Kiir fired his vice president. But Kiir wasn’t content with that. He tried to eliminate his opponents by claiming they were staging a coup — for which there was no evidence — and then tried to kill them in December 2013. But he couldn’t even do that competently. So the government then took its wrath out by slaughtering around 10,000 people near Juba and thus starting a civil war which is still going on, three years later.”
The fighting has displaced nearly 1.9 million in South Sudan itself, while another 1.5 million have fled to neighboring countries including Uganda (750,000 refugees); Ethiopia (340,000); Sudan (310,000); Kenya (90,000), Democratic Republic of Congo (70,000) and Central African Republic (5,000).
But as is the case with Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims, journalists find it impossible to cover the war because the Kiir government intimidates them.
“The U.S. has provided more than $2 billion in humanitarian assistance, and yet they thumb their nose at us to the extent that they even expelled an American journalist,” said Pham, referring to the December 2016 expulsion of Justin Lynch, a freelancer for the Associated Press, for his critical coverage of the leadership in Juba.
“The expulsion of Justin Lynch is yet another illustration of how much President Salva Kiir’s government fears independent media coverage,” said CPJ’s Murithi Mutiga. “South Sudan needs independent journalism now more than ever.”
George Clooney and John Prendergast, co-authors of a March 9 opinion piece in the Washington Post, said the Kiir government is “using the same destructive strategies” that Sudan’s Bashir used against the rebellious South Sudanese for years before it won independence.
“In South Sudan today, war crimes pay,” they wrote. “There is no accountability for the atrocities and looting of state resources, or for the famine that results. Billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars have supported peacekeeping forces and humanitarian assistance already, and one peace process after another has tried to break the cycle of violence. But nothing attempts to thwart the driving force of the mayhem: the kleptocrats who have hijacked the government in Juba for their personal enrichment.”
Yet Pham puts a lot of the blame on Washington itself and the “hysterical advocacy groups” that supported South Sudanese independence in the first place.
“In many respects, under the Bush administration and certainly under Obama’s, people were so personally invested in the creation of South Sudan by dint of their long activism that they were complicit,” said Pham, who advocates “tough love” and an arms embargo against South Sudan, at the very least. “These people were the ones who railroaded us into the creation of this non-viable state. Some people are now calling for trusteeship, but the last thing Africa needs is another failed state.”