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U.S. Diplomatic Team Witnesses Tough Conditions For Rohingya Refugees

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And sometimes a number just conveys so much about a story. Six hundred thousand - that is about how many Rohingya people have fled Myanmar since late August. They're now living in camps in neighboring Bangladesh. They have been forced there by Myanmar's military and what the United Nations has called a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some background here - the Rohingya are a Muslim-minority group who've been persecuted for decades in Myanmar, also known as Burma. And that persecution got even worse since Rohingya militants carried out some attacks over the summer.

GREENE: Now, next week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Burma. One of his deputies, Simon Henshaw, just got back from there. Henshaw focuses on refugees and migration. He has been a diplomat for more than 30 years. And yet, this overwhelmed him.

SIMON HENSHAW: I've been to a lot of camps, and I've never quite seen something like this. This was like a transit camp one would see somewhere else on a massive scale. So there were hills and hills of muddy - dried muddy terrain covered with makeshift shelters with people in them as far as you could see. Very disorganized, not the usual lanes and grid squares of a normal refugee camp because people have just shown up and set up their own camps. You got in a car and drove for miles, you would see them off to either side as you drove along the one road.

GREENE: Wow.

HENSHAW: Children everywhere.

GREENE: And this is in Bangladesh. This is across the border of Burma.

HENSHAW: This is in Bangladesh, just across the border from Burma, just a few miles.

GREENE: Is there a moment or a person or an image that has stuck with you since getting back?

HENSHAW: Yes, it's hard not to tear up, but there is an image that I can't get out of my head, which is I was coming out of a meeting and a woman grabbed my hand. A small Rohingya woman with tears in her eyes and just begged me to help her. And she was there on the side of the road inside the camp with two young girls - I'm guessing 8, 9 years old - and I got an interpreter. And she told me that she'd been in the camp for three days after walking for something like 15 days.

Her husband had been killed and that for three days in the camp, she got no food, nothing, no support, no shelter. So, you know, I got some local aid workers and pointed her out, and they said they'd take care of her. But just the look in her eyes, the desperation.

GREENE: I mean, they have been stateless and lacking citizenship for so long. To the outside world, this looks like nothing but the persecution of a Muslim minority. I mean, is there any other side to this story? Can the Burmese government make any legitimate argument here in terms of why they treat Rohingya this way?

HENSHAW: The Burmese government will tell you that their actions are a reaction to the August 25 ARSA attacks inside Rakhine against security forces.

GREENE: And Rakhine, we should say, is the state in Burma where many Rohingya live.

HENSHAW: Right, and which is right up against Bangladesh. And they feel that the world community is paying too much attention to the Rohingya and not to the attacks that caused them some deaths. We've condemned the attacks by ARSA. We don't support...

GREENE: Just remind people who ARSA is.

HENSHAW: ARSA - it's the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. So it's an armed group that's carried out some attacks against the Burmese state, has the ability...

GREENE: And so the U.S. government recognizes that Rohingya did carry out those attacks.

HENSHAW: We recognize that this group of Rohingya carried out these attacks, and we condemn them.

GREENE: But the response has just been...

HENSHAW: The response doesn't explain why 600,000 people were forced out of the country.

GREENE: A lot of people, when they hear Burma, they think about the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and they have heard about her as a hero. I mean, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and fighting for democracy in her country. How is her government letting this happen?

HENSHAW: Burma's not an easy or simple subject. It's a country that's come out of 50 years of authoritarian rule, and it's been very isolated from the rest of the world. The transition they're going through is - towards democracy is difficult. So the power sharing between the civilian side, which she controls, and the military side, which are the old leaders, is a difficult path to follow.

GREENE: But is this erasing much of the progress that she has made over the years and in some ways tarnishing her credibility?

HENSHAW: I don't feel that I can really comment on her credibility. She has a long history of taking really difficult steps and putting up with house arrest for years. But I do think it's important that she and others and the government take steps forward to solve this crisis.

GREENE: If the military is really controlling the situation, the Burmese military, and carrying out a lot of these atrocities, were you able to meet with anyone from the army?

HENSHAW: I have not. We did not meet with anyone from the military, though we met with heads of security forces like the Border Guard and immigration. I know that when Secretary Tillerson goes next week to Burma that he will meet both the military side and the civilian side.

GREENE: Do you have any optimism that they can be persuaded to do something here?

HENSHAW: The government has committed to repatriation. I think they understand that that's important and that what we need to do is make sure that they come up with a realistic plan that will work relatively quickly, that will lead to the voluntary return of the Rohingya.

GREENE: Did you get guarantees from government leaders that they're committed to that?

HENSHAW: We got guarantees that they're committed to repatriation. The details still need to be worked out.

GREENE: What more can the U.S. government do right now?

HENSHAW: I think we can do a lot. No. 1, you know, I come from the humanitarian bureau at the State Department - is continue humanitarian help. We were the first to donate, supporting the Bangladeshi government, supporting the international organizations and NGOs that are supporting the refugees, using all our efforts to make sure there is a clear, centralized plan to move forward and give them as much support as possible.

GREENE: President Trump has used the term, America first. And I wonder if that approach makes it less likely that the United States would really dig in in a crisis like this.

HENSHAW: I think we have dug in. Ambassador Haley's spoken out. Secretary Tillerson has spoken out. The White House has spoken out. I led this delegation out. The secretary's going next week. I think that's a pretty strong response.

GREENE: So does that mean you've been pleasantly surprised that you are getting that commitment in a moment like this dealing with the crisis?

HENSHAW: I'm not going to use the word surprised or unsurprised, but I'm going to say that this administration has shown strong commitment to humanitarian affairs, both budgetary and politically.

GREENE: Thanks so much for coming in.

HENSHAW: Thank you.

GREENE: Simon Henshaw is Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. He joined us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.