Translating Awareness into Action: Human Rights Advocate Daniel Sullivan on the Fight to End Genocide in Myanmar

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Rohingya refugees walk to board a naval vessel to be relocated to to the island of Bhasan Char, in Chattogram, Bangladesh, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Azim Aunon)

Daniel Sullivan is the senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International. He previously worked at Save Darfur and United to End Genocide. He focuses on Myanmar, South Sudan, and atrocity prevention worldwide. He is on Twitter @EndGenocideDan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you please begin by describing your career and how you got started in human rights advocacy work? In particular, what led you to focus on Myanmar and South Sudan? 

Daniel Sullivan: I have been working in the field of atrocity prevention for around 20 years. I initially became interested in this field when I was learning about the Holocaust in school, and I thought that it was something that happened in the past and couldn’t occur today. But right at that time, the Rwandan genocide happened. It just blew my mind that something like that could take place today. Then, in graduate school, I was looking into conflict management and studying these issues — and Darfur started. So, at very defining moments, I saw mass atrocities happening, and I wanted to get into a career where I could try to raise awareness or push for policies that could ultimately end genocide and mass displacement.

I had the opportunity to work for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she was co-chairing the Genocide Prevention Task Force. I saw that that was a way that we could influence the U.S. government on these issues — the report that came out was able to lead to a real strategy from the U.S. government on preventing genocide. Then I worked with Safe Darfur and United To End Genocide, and that’s where I first learned about the Rohingya. At the time, we produced a report that said that the Rohingya exhibited the most known precursors to genocide. Fast forward several years, and we unfortunately saw that play out. Since I’ve been at Refugees International, I have had the chance to travel to meet with Rohingya refugees, to meet with people displaced in South Sudan and other places, and to do reports and advocacy to try to address the mass atrocities they face.

From your experience, have religious and ethnic tensions usually been at the center of the most pressing conflicts and human rights violations today?

Daniel Sullivan: I would say not exclusively, but yes, you often do see religious and ethnic differences behind conflicts and displacement. It’s very clear, for instance, in Rwanda. For the Rohingya as well, you clearly have an ethnic minority group that is Muslim in a majority-Buddhist country, but as with these things, it always gets a little more complicated and nuanced. There are other Muslim groups in Myanmar, so why the Rohingya specifically? It’s a mix of things. There has been a strain of ultra-nationalist Buddhist extremists who have pushed the narrative that the Rohingya are illegal people who came from Bangladesh and that they are an existential threat to Burmese society and Buddhism. That message really gained a lot of traction in Myanmar, which was for a long time controlled by the military and isolated from the rest of the world. Yes, religion and ethnicity are at the center of it, but it gets a lot more nuanced. Another example would be in South Sudan, where different ethnic groups and tribes fought in the civil war. But it isn’t just a religious conflict or an ethnic conflict. There are elites at the top who have used those affiliations to just stoke tensions for their own interests.

How are governments, leaders, and institutions able to turn a majority against a minority? If they are involved in this oppression, how do they justify their actions to their people?

Daniel Sullivan: I think it varies by case, but a lot of times the people who are elites often get their power by suppressing groups on the outside. We see that in Sudan, where there was a group that held power, and then they went after groups like those in Darfur or in South Sudan. In Myanmar, there are a lot of other ethnic groups — the Chin, Karen, Rakhine — in addition to the Rohingya, and there’s a whole history of suppression. There are different ways that elites can try to mobilize people against certain groups, or they can try to bring people together by creating the image of a common enemy. For some people, that was a convenient thing to do — to say, “Here are the Rohingya, they’re an enemy, let’s all be together against them.”

Today, we are seeing more and more that technology and social media are being used to stoke tensions. In some of the bouts of violence that happened in South Sudan, some of the most virulent hate speech that we saw was coming from outside, from the diaspora on Facebook or Twitter. Myanmar is a really interesting case in this regard as well. Most of the population had no access to the outside world, and then within the course of just a few years, the Internet and Facebook became available in Myanmar. Suddenly, people were able to have more contact with the outside world — which was a good thing — but it was also used by people to stoke tensions and spread negative hate speech. There have been some very robust conversations going on with Facebook about how to better regulate that and make sure things that are very clearly hate speech are taken down.

A biased and selective media is often at the forefront of allowing human rights violations to continue happening, but with social media, as you said, we’re beginning to see a direct line of contact between the world and those at the center of violence. Do you foresee a difference in the international response to humanitarian crises as a result of this change?

Daniel Sullivan: I think that technology, just like it has always been, is a double-edged sword. It can be used for good or for evil. It’s interesting to think about what has happened with COVID and the lockdowns. Refugees International is based in the United States, but we usually travel to the field to talk to people and get a firsthand sense of where things are. This year, we haven’t been able to do that. But technology has allowed us to speak directly with refugees and with humanitarian workers who continue to work in the field, whether it’s through WhatsApp or Signal. So in terms of our own advocacy work, technology has been really, really powerful. Even when there are not lockdowns, I have increasingly seen that refugees who aren’t able to travel to places to speak for themselves — whether it’s in meetings with members of Congress, with the U.S. administration, or with the United Nations — are still able to be connected via technology. When people hear directly from displaced individuals, that’s a lot more powerful.

I would also say that just in terms of documentation of abuses, we are at a level that we have never been at before. Refugees International was started in the late 70s, in reaction to the Southeast Asia crisis. Part of our theory of change, our way of working, was to be the first one on the ground and bring the pictures and bring the stories, because the rest of the world doesn’t see them. Now, often, those stories are out there immediately. The world can no longer say “We don’t know about this.” Now, it is a question of translating that into the right kind of political will, and that’s where the advocacy side of things comes out. Technology can allow for stronger messages when you’re hearing directly from the people who are affected.

What do you think is the humanitarian impact of the recent conflict that is taking place domestically in Myanmar? How do you think it affects the chances for resettlement of the Rohingya people in their homeland?

Daniel Sullivan: It’s a great question, and very central to what I’m working on right now. I actually have a report coming out soon that focuses exactly on how the coup and other political dynamics will affect the nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. That’s a topic I am very familiar with — I have been traveling to the camps there for a number of years, including before the mass exodus of Rohingya fleeing the genocide in Myanmar in 2017.

First, just a quick word on what happened with the coup. On February 1, the Myanmar military tried to take over after several years of movement towards what people call a “path to democracy.” There were decades of military rule before this, but over the past decade there has been a gradual opening — the military stepped aside and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and others to have a quasi-civilian government. Now, it wasn’t perfect, not even close, because during this time the Rohingya genocide happened, and there was a lot of abuse and crackdowns on journalists. But clearly having the Myanmar military — the ones who are directly responsible for the Rohingya genocide — come into power makes things even worse. This is a problem not just for the Rohingya and other minority ethnic groups, but for all civilians in Myanmar. I think that what the military didn’t expect was the extent of the civil disobedience movement and the creative protests that have prevented the military from consolidating the coup.

We are now in a really dangerous place, though. Some observers have said that we are heading towards a Syria-like situation, with a protracted crisis that is going to affect the whole region. That is something that we at Refugees International are very much keeping an eye on. We’re trying to push for the U.S. and other governments to put more pressure on the Myanmar military, to crack down on the money going into them, and to institute an international arms embargo. And then on the other side, we are preparing for the fallout from this coup and this conflict. We have already seen at least 70,000 people displaced internally within Myanmar, and at least 12,000 others have fled the country. One of the very worrying things is that countries like Thailand and India are pushing people back or closing borders. It’s really important that the U.S. and other governments are prepared for more people coming out and are allowing people who are fleeing for their lives to escape. And we are also working on finding ways to get aid into Myanmar — creative ways, including across the border with Thailand.

Now, on the Rohingya in Bangladesh. While all this is happening, a lot of attention has fallen on the coup — rightfully so, but the focus on the coup and on the challenge of COVID has allowed a cloud to fall over what is happening in the camps in Bangladesh. Almost 900,000 Rohingya have been living there since August 2017. Bangladesh deserves a lot of credit for accepting that number of refugees and working with the international community to try to provide aid. Certainly, they’ve saved countless lives. But at the same time, they have pursued some policies that are unnecessarily making the lives of Rohingya refugees worse. From the beginning, they have not allowed access to education or livelihoods. They have restricted the kind of materials that can be used to build shelters, which makes them more prone to fires or to damage from monsoons and landslides. Those issues have always been there, but over the past year, we have seen an increasingly securitized response from the Bangladeshi authorities. There have been further restrictions and a closing down of the humanitarian space. I have talked to refugees and humanitarian workers on the ground, and they described being on the edge of humanitarianism — they’re almost heading into a detention. 

The way you can see this is that the camps are now completely surrounded by barbed wire fencing. There was a huge fire that happened on March 22; the lack of gates and exit routes prevented people from escaping more quickly and prevented a quicker response. Bangladesh is also moving Rohingya refugees onto an island called Bhasan Char, which is more isolated. They haven’t allowed a real assessment of the safety and feasibility of keeping people there by the UN or others. Additionally, there has been a failure to include the Rohingya refugees themselves in the response, whether it’s on the daily ways that aid is given or on bigger questions of when they will feel safe enough to go back to Myanmar. Obviously, conditions are nowhere near that right now.

These issues are also affecting what’s happening with COVID — right from the beginning, there is a lack of trust between the refugees and the Bangladeshi authorities. And there is even a lack of trust among humanitarians, because there hasn’t been a lot of inclusion or enough efforts to inform them. So, a lot of people have refrained from coming forward if they have symptoms of COVID. When the pandemic started, rather than more people coming for medical help, we saw fewer people coming for any kind of medical appointment. It leaves us with a real lack of knowledge about how far COVID actually may have spread in the camps. Right now, the official numbers are very low, just a few hundred, but it’s almost certainly much higher than that. It’s just another symptom of excluding the Rohingya from the response.

As you’ve just described, there is still a lot of uncertainty, but what do you think a permanent settlement will look like for the Rohingya in lieu of being able to return to Myanmar? Would it be a permanent camp community in Bangladesh or the surrounding countries, or would it be more of a diaspora around the world?

Daniel Sullivan: A way forward needs responsibility sharing. This is something that has been talked about in regards to the Global Compact on Refugees and finding a new way to work. We are critical of Bangladesh because of these policies, but we’re also sympathetic to what they have been doing, and we know that this is not on Bangladesh alone. The world needs to come together, and there has been a lot of money and aid put in. But there’s no silver bullet. 

It’s going to take a lot of different things, and the ultimate solution is obviously to improve the situation in Myanmar and make it safe for Rohingya to go home. This is what they want to do — they want to go back, but they want to make sure that they are safe. They want to have their citizenship recognized, something that has not been done in Myanmar. They want to have basic rights — freedom of movement, freedom of education. So the number one solution is to improve things in Myanmar. That’s why increasing economic sanctions and pursuing accountability are so vital, but the Rohingya also need to be allowed to have education, skills building, and self-reliance while they are in Bangladesh.

The other thing is looking at ways to restart resettlement into third countries. For the past two decades, Bangladesh has had a policy where they haven’t allowed any resettlement of refugees from Bangladesh. They give the argument that that will just create more of a pull factor — more people will come to Bangladesh in the hope of being resettled. But when you have the majority of the Rohingya population fleeing genocide, it’s not so much a pull factor as a push factor; they’re being pushed out.

There have been some encouraging conversations. We have heard from Bangladeshi officials that they may be open to some sort of resettlement, and that is something we really want the U.S. and others to look at. We’ve been pushing the U.S. government to increase refugee resettlement numbers in general, because there was a historic low under the Trump administration. The Biden administration initially was keeping that low number but has now raised it to at least 62,500 this year and then hopefully up to 125,000 next year. And ideally there will be changes in the region as well, allowing the Rohingya to go to other countries for higher education or for temporary work opportunities. It will have to be a combination of things, because this is one of the largest refugee populations in the world.

As a closing note, is there anything that you would like to encourage young people to take on? Do you have any advice for those interested in a career in human rights advocacy?

Daniel Sullivan: Yes, definitely. I’d like to quickly first make sure everyone knows who Refugees International is. We’re an independent advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. We don’t take any government or UN funding, and we don’t have operations in the field. But we often travel to the field and talk to the people who are affected by mass displacement. That allows us a certain level of independence in our reporting, so we can say things that groups that are on the ground or are sensitive to how the government might react cannot say. It’s a unique niche that we can fill, and I look at us as a translator or conduit from the people in the camps to the U.S. government foreign policy network and the UN. We try to translate what we hear into actionable recommendations for improving the situation.

I can give some examples of things we have done that had a strong influence. Number one was when the Rohingya crisis started in August 2017. When people were fleeing from genocide, my boss and I were among the first people there interviewing people coming across the border. We came back to the U.S. and right away, we were asked to testify before Congress. We were able to make sure that stories directly from people who were affected made it to the halls of Congress, and we pushed for further attention and action from the U.S. We also did a campaign called the Call It Genocide campaign, which urged the U.S. government to recognize what happened to the Rohingya as genocide. We’re still working on that, but it helped bring a lot of attention to the crisis; it has gotten right up to the top levels and is now being reviewed by the secretary of state. A really important part of that campaign was that we had actual Rohingya refugees who were featured in videos and events and who signed a petition that we had.

That’s the unique advocacy angle that a group like Refugees International can take, but there are a lot of different needs and a lot of different ways to contribute. Some people will go into the field and give aid directly; others are going to go into the U.S. government or the UN and be dealing with policy issues; some will be in think tanks or academia and contribute through research.

In terms of what can be done where you are right now if you’re a student: It’s very important to just be aware of humanitarian crises and to follow groups like Refugees International, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch that are exposing what’s going on and pushing for change. It can also make a big difference to sign on to petitions, write op-eds or letters to the editor of your local newspaper, and be involved with groups on college campuses that work on preventing atrocities, such as STAND. And in a more general sense, Refugees International has been working on pushing back on the politicization, or negative portrayal, of refugees, particularly in the United States. It is really important to talk about how refugees are contributing to society, how the U.S. can be welcoming, and how refugees can enrich our society. Sharing those positive stories can make a big difference.

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Photo courtesy of Daniel Sullivan

Mr. Sullivan’s recent reports on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar are published here. More information about Refugees International is available on its website.