Considered by the United Nations to be one of the most persecuted groups in the world, the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Burma are the victims of a mass ethnic cleansing movement.
But wait. You’ve probably never heard of the Rohingya, their plight, or the atrocities committed against them. And that is all the more reason it is important for the international community, and the United States government, to step up.
The Burmese government has isolated and demonized the 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma as part of a plan to promote a singular nationalist and Buddhist identity. This was formalized in the 1982 Citizenship Act when they were declared “non-national” or “foreign residents.” Today, the Rohingya have become outsiders in a land they have occupied for generations. They are prohibited from marrying, having children, working, obtaining healthcare and going to school.
In this climate of hatred, violence has escalated quickly after a series of attacks in May of 2012. Thousands have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, only to be turned away. Burmese security forces are alleged to have participated in anti-Rohingya riots, opened fire on the Rohingya and orchestrated mass arrests where prisoners were taken to undisclosed locations.
Humanitarian aid has been ineffective as aid workers have been killed, offices attacked, and operations disrupted by rioters. In March, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the largest healthcare provider in Rakhine State, was banned by the Burmese government who claimed the organization favored treating the Rohingya. This came after Doctors Without Borders reportedly treated 22 people for stab and gunshot wounds in the area where a massacre in January took place.
So who can the Rohingya rely on for protection? Instead of taking a hardline approach against Burma’s repressive government, much of the international community is fighting for the economic spoils of a resource-rich country that is now opening its economy to the world.
Eager to please the Burmese government, the international community is now honoring Burma’s request not even to mention the name Rohingya.
In August, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Burma, he met with President Thein Sein and other leading officials, and did not use the word Rohingya. When questioned, a State Department representative said the name issue should be “set aside.”
Earlier this summer, Tom Malinowski, the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights, visited Burma and failed to say the word ‘Rohingya’. When giving a presentation on the status of the Rakhine state where the majority of the Rohingya live, he did not even acknowledge the group.
But Malinowski was fully aware of the worsening conditions for the Rohingya. When he testified before the Human Rights Commission in 2013, he observed, “[they] bore the brunt of the violence. Human Rights Watch obtained satellite imagery showing entire communities burned systematically to the ground.”
It’s not just the United States who’s falling into line. In June, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) apologized for saying “Rohingya” during a presentation outlining development plans, saying “the term was used in an oral presentation and was an oversight, as UNICEF had no intention of engaging in a discussion on sensitive issue of ethnicity”. In fact, many United Nations agencies working in Burma have adopted a policy of avoiding saying Rohingya completely, because it angers officials who can block them from carrying out humanitarian work.
Few within Burma are willing to stand up to repressive government policies or speak out against campaigns of hate and bigotry. We cannot let the international community do the same with the lives of over a million innocent people at stake.
President Obama and world leaders will be traveling to Burma in November to participate in a major regional economic summit (ASEAN). The meeting gives President Obama the opportunity to take a stand for the Rohingya. It is crucial that he stands up against Burma’s government by not only saying the name “Rohingya” but by demanding their immediate protection during this visit.
When President Barack Obama visited Burma in 2013, he told students at Rangoon University: “There is no excuse for violence against innocent people. And the Rohingya hold themselves—hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”
Over a year later, and with conditions further deteriorating for the Rohingya, he must make it clear to the Burmese government that the United States is prepared to use all of the political and economic tools available, including sanctions, to protect the lives and the rights of the Rohingya.
Saying the word the Burma’s government is afraid to hear – Rohingya – is just the first, but an important step in a country where even Burma’s President Sein Thein has declared “There are no Rohingya” in Burma. We are here to say yes there are Rohingya in Burma and they deserve our protection.
President Obama, say “Rohingya”
Burma’s government is so extreme they won’t even mention the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority by name. With the Rohingya under attack, join us in asking President Obama to say their name and demand their protection when he visits Burma.