In the past five months, things have gotten a lot worse in Burma. This calls for serious, collective and urgent actions by world governments, media, corporations, interfaith organizations, and individuals. None of us can afford to remain silent any longer. President Obama’s visit next week can definitely make a dramatic impact on the situation. Being the first ever U.S. President to visit Burma, he would have the opportunity to influence the Burmese government in a significant way. He must acknowledge the slow genocide of Rohingya people and should ask Burmese government to halt it right away. There should be a No Peace No Business policy with Burmese and all other governments that violate basic human rights of their people.
Rohingyas are an ethnic group in the Rakhine State in the southwest of Burma. They are mostly Muslims. Doctors Without Borders calls them among the most likely people to become extinct. There are roughly 3 million Rohingyas left in the world—with about six hundred of them living in the USA.
Although the Rohingyas have been living in Burma since the eighth century, the Burmese government revoked their citizenship by passing a Citizenship Law in 1982. In addition to claiming them as stateless, the current law also controls their everyday business and personal lives. They need the state's permission to get married. In most cases this permission is not granted for at least five years. They cannot have more than two children. They cannot attend schools. They need permission to move in and out of their own city. Their property has been confiscated. After the riots earlier this year, thousands of Rohingyas are being rounded up in temporary camps outside the cities.
Due to the systematic genocide by the Burmese military and civilian governments, the Rohingya population is diminishing dramatically. About 2 million have fled to the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Thailand and beyond. There are only 800,000 Rohingyas left in Burma. According to the reports compiled by Human Rights Watch, the current situation is horrific. They have found clear evidence of the involvement of the Burmese government of President Thein Sein in committing organized atrocities against the Rohingyas. And yet, for the most part, the world has remained silent.
About 100,000 Rohingyas are currently in concentration camps. Thousands of women and girls have been raped by security forces. Villages are burnt. According to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs, Rohingyas face deteriorating living conditions in the temporary camps run by the government.. “Their condition is worse than animals,” said Mohammad Nawsim, secretary of the Rohingya Human Rights Association (RHRA) based in Bangkok. Those in the refugee camps in the neighboring countries are living a miserable life as well.
Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher, rightly said, “Under international human rights law and standards, no one may be left or rendered stateless. For too long Myanmar’s human rights record has been marred by the continued denial of citizenship for Rohingyas and a host of discriminatory practices against them.”
The Burmese government has denied access to international media and human rights organizations, so the picture of what is happening to the Rohingya is incomplete.
The Reasons Behind the Persecution:
The most obvious reasons behind this persecution are religious intolerance and racism. But there might be a third emerging catalyst to the process: The Great Gold Rush of Burma.
Surprisingly, the religious intolerance is deeply rooted in this Buddhist majority nation. 90% of the population of Burma is Buddhist. Rohingya Muslims comprise only a small percentage within the three percent of the Sunni Muslim population. The reports of some Buddhist monks, alongside with the Burmese government, being actively involved in atrocities against Rohingyas are so shocking that the Buddhist spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently expressed serious concerns about them. He called these reports “very unfortunate” and talked about his efforts to contact pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese government over the issue. So far the Noble Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi has kept silence on the plight of the Rohingyas.
Racism also is a norm in Burma, unfortunately. Human Rights Watch’s 2009 World Report describes the military's abuse of ethnic minorities through forced labor, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, torture, and beatings, and notes confiscation of land and property is widespread. Tensions between the country's majority Bamar population and various ethnic groups are at a high. The dark-skinned Rohingyas are the most discriminated against, though. For decades, Rohingyas were called “kallar” a word equivalent to the “N Word” in the USA. They are wrongfully seen as illegal immigrants who need to be deported.
Rohingyas are the most convenient target of this religious intolerance and racism at the dawn of recent Burma Gold Rush, as Burma has opened its borders to foreign companies and the U.S. lifted trade sanctions against Burma, last month.
Burma is South East Asia’s poorest, and the third most politically corrupt country in the world. But it has abundant natural resources such as oil, natural gas, timber and minerals. According to Trust Law, it is indeed a perfect haven for the oil and gas companies who thrive by exploiting poor nations with corrupt governments. As the companies and their agents from all over the world are gathering in Burma, hoping to get the bigger piece of pie, Burmese government along with the elite class are doing whatever they can to seize more land and resources under their control, even if it means forceful displacement of lawful owners. The current ethnic cleansing and forced massive displacement of Rohingyas fits in with this goal of making money at any cost.
In the words of Lisa Misol, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Burma's really a prime example of how natural resource wealth and unaccountable government combine to lead to human rights abuses, corruption, mismanagement and leaving people poor and repressed when they actually should be benefitting from this wealth.”
Call to Action:
For the sake of humanity, justice, and the preservation of a global moral consciousness, the world community must take serious actions to stop the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, as well as other human rights violations in Burma. It’s upon us all to save the most vulnerable, endangered Rohingya population. These are stateless, homeless and voiceless people with no real leadership. They have nobody but us to fight for them.
The United States, other countries, and the United Nations must keep pressing Burma to deliver peace and justice to its people. The restoration of the citizenship of Rohingya people must be demanded, as the Citizenship Law is in violation of international laws. Although a couple of reminders have been given to the President Thein Sein and to the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi by the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they are not enough. There should be a concrete set of demands for the restoration of human rights, along with serious consequences, including trade sanctions, in the absence of the delivery of justice in a preset time frame.
President Obama is going to be the first ever American president to visit Burma. This is a big deal for Burmese government. He must use his power and presence to demand an immediate halt to the persecution of Rohingyas. He must communicate clearly to the Burmese government that the restoration of human rights for Rohingyas would be the basic ingredient of any business treaty between the United States and Myanmar.
The international media, along with interfaith organizations, must play their role in catalyzing this process. Their role is crucial in engaging the communities and raising a strong voice that can be heard all the way to the presidential corridors of Myanmar.
The moral and professional responsibilities also lie upon the shoulders of the CEOs of the corporations investing in Burma. They must exercise their power and investments in the favor of the vulnerable in that country. A Burma desperate for foreign investments gives us the best chance to exert pressure, and we should not let it go.
Last but not least is the role of individuals. None of the above will be accomplished unless we, the people of the world, ask our governments, media, leadership and businesses to do what is right.
At the verge of President Obama’s visit to Burma next week, it is imperative for Americans, individuals and organizations, to reach him now and ask him to help stop violence against Rohingyas.