Why is President Obama about to meet with leaders in Burma who are systematically fomenting hatred and violence that has already claimed innocent lives, destroyed entire villages and displaced tens of thousands?
In just a few days, President Obama will travel to Burma to recognize progress that one of the most brutal regimes on the planet has made toward democracy. Now that modest improvements have been made or pledged by the regime, and Aung San Suu Kyi is free, the U.S. government has decided to lift the economic and diplomatic pressure that made reform in Burma possible.
That is bad news if you are part of an ethnic minority in Burma. And it is life threatening if you are a member of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Systematic hate speech and entreaties for the local population to isolate and attack the Rohingya Muslim minority is pervasive in western Burma. The Burmese military stand aside or actively participate in attacks against innocent men, women and children. More than one hundred people have already lost their lives, tens of thousands have lost their homes, and over one hundred thousand have been displaced.
What is the U.S. government doing about it? On Monday, President Obama will become the first President to visit Burma. He is there to recognize and congratulate the military dominated government for making modest reforms toward democracy. As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya continue to live in fear, President Obama will be congratulating a government that wants to ethnically cleanse every one of them from Burma.
Burma’s President, Thein Sein–who Obama will be sitting down to dine with–has been actively fomenting hatred against the Rohingya community. He has gone so far to ask the United Nations to help him ethnically cleanse Burma by forcing 800,000 Rohingya people out of their home villages and into refugee camps or out of the country altogether!
I saw what violence and persecution looks like first hand in Burma when I snuck into Kachin State last May. I saw entire villages abandoned, its population driven into makeshift camps filled with desperate people without adequate food, shelter or medical care. I spoke with families whose loved ones had been tortured, raped, incarcerated or killed by Burmese troops. Without international pressure on the regime, I know what the Rohingya are experiencing will only continue to get worse.
An entire people are under attack not because of what they have done but because of who they are. Instead of traveling to Burma, President Obama should be leading the call for a United Nations observer mission to investigate the violence in Rakhine State, deter the escalation of the violence and hold the perpetrators accountable. The leading role that the Obama administration played in scaling back sanctions on Burma obligates the U.S. government to act urgently to hold the Burmese government to its responsibilities to protect its ethnic populations.
We’ve seen these warning signs before. The hateful rhetoric of Rakhine monks is reminiscent of the hateful propaganda directed at the Tutsi population and their sympathizers leading up to, and during the Rwandan genocide. While renewing calls for their expulsion from Burma, several Rakhine monks have urged the local population to sever all relations with the Rohingya, including trade and the provision of humanitarian aid and have called on Rakhines to expose Rohingya sympathizers as national traitors, potentially exposing them to violent attacks.
There is no word to describe the response from the United States and the international community other than inadequate. The conditions that led to two major outbreaks of mass killings in the last few months are worsening daily. Greater loss of life and displacement are a certainty without a change of course.
In a day and age in which technology affords us the ability to connect with people across the world, we can no longer claim ignorance to the fact that the Rohingya people are being slaughtered, displaced, and terrorized. When we look back on the books of history, will this be another example of when we failed to show up or showed up too late?