The Burmese government blocked Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, from traveling to the country's Rakhine state to witness first-hand the ethnic cleansing targeting Rohingya Muslims.
Brownback, as he unveiled the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom Tuesday, reported that Burmese officials denied him access to the country's northern Rakhine state where the violence against the Rohingya has been the most severe.
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"I was denied those accesses," Brownback said. "So, they might let me in, but they weren't allowing me to have the meetings or access to the places I needed to go."
The ethnic cleansing hasn't stopped despite growing condemnation from the international community, which has led to a mass exodus of 680,000 refugees fleeing Burma to neighboring Bangladesh to try to escape the violence
"I don't think we've seen progress there in that country," Brownback said. "If anything, the administration there is now doubling down its efforts and going after the Kachin in the northern part of the country."
Brownback was able to travel to Bangladesh, where he said there was an epidemic of diphtheria that recently had killed 28 children.
"It's a terrible situation that requires the world's attention," he said.
Brownback and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later this summer hope to shine an international spotlight on the problems in Burma and other countries around the globe where religious minorities have experienced persecution.
Pompeo on Tuesday announced plans to gather "like-minded" allies in Washington July 25-26 to focus on advancing the cause of religious freedom around the world.
"International religious freedom deserves to be a front-burner issue," Pompeo said.
Asked whether Saudi Arabian officials would participate, Brownback declined to say exactly which foreign ministers will be invited. Despite being a strong U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia gets poor marks in the State Department report on religious freedom for persecuting its citizens who try to practice other faiths besides conservative Islam.
Brownback also stressed the administration's focus on helping the persecuted religious minorities in Iraq rebuild and overcome security challenges in returning to their homelands after facing ethnic cleansing and genocide by the Islamic State.
"Some people are starting to move back, but not enough, and security needs to increase, and the aid funds need to go into those areas to help rebuild that region," Brownback said.
The International Religious Freedom report covered 2017 and highlighted several U.S. concerns, including:
- The plight of 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some of them held for religious reasons, in remote areas of North Korea in prisons with "horrific conditions."
- At least 50 people in Pakistan imprisoned on charges of blasphemy last year, with at least 17 given death sentences.
- Hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims in China forcibly sent to re-education centers in China.