By Megan Madeira
After 11 million lives were lost during the Holocaust, the notion of another genocide seemed inconceivable. And yet, since 1945, the world has witnessed such atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Sudan. Despite international doctrine calling for action to be taken against genocide, the global community seems unable to recognize and prevent it.
But for Burma’s Rohingya, it’s not too late. The precursors to genocide, including hate speech, denial of identity, restriction of rights to work, travel, access medical care, and even marry, and direct attacks by the military and ultra-nationalists are unmistakable. Furthermore, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project named Burma the number one country at risk of state-led mass killing, supporting the need for the United States and international community to act immediately.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from Rakhine State in western Burma. Despite having lived in Burma for generations, 1.3 million Rohingya are considered “foreigners” by the Burmese government, which claims they are illegal Bengali migrants. As a result, the aforementioned rights of the Rohingya have been continually denied by the state.
In 1978 and 1991, the Burmese military launched violent expulsion campaigns against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, destroying their homes and burning their mosques. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh to escape the killings, rapes, and arrests.
In 2012, the situation for the Rohingya became even more precarious. Allegations of a rape by a Rohingya man led to a series of deadly attacks by Rahkine Buddhists. While both sides were responsible for violent acts, the Rohingya suffered the most. Fleeing violence, over 140,000 Rohingya live today in what many describe as “concentration camps” in Rakhine State. In the camps, the Rohingya suffer from inadequate access to basic services including food, medical assistance, education, and clean water, along with constant flooding and a lack of security.
Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Kyung-wha Kang described witnessing “a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before.” As a result of these camps, another 100,000 Rohingya have fled Burma in a mass exodus by boat.
Once heralded for its democratic reforms that allowed democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected to Parliament, Burma’s government is now backsliding on its commitment to democracy. Questions remain about the extent to which President Thein Sein is truly in control of the oppressive military and whether or not he has the ability to cultivate peace. The government of Burma has been linked to attacks against the Rohingya, has failed to protect Muslims under attack, and has been seeking to establish even more repressive legislation against Muslims.
The most notable legislation draft has been the recent Rakhine State Action Plan, which offers the Rohingya the bleak choice between re-classifying themselves with the pejorative, inaccurate label “Bengali” or indefinite detention. In doing so, the Rakhine State Action Plan proposes permanent segregation and statelessness for the Rohingya. The plan builds off of Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Act that denies citizenship to the Rohingya and the census from earlier this year that excluded the Rohingya. According to Sein, “there are no Rohingya among the races [in Burma].” With this new plan, Burma’s government is seeking to write the Rohingya out of existence.
Now, the Burmese government has pressured foreign officials not to say “Rohingya,” the very word with which the Rohingya people choose to identify themselves, a point highlighted with deep concern by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights for Burma Yanghee Lee in her report last week. In this report, Lee discusses the deplorable conditions of the camps she saw in the Rakhine State and how the “conditions for Rohingyas are exacerbated by the fact that this community lacks legal status and thereby continues to face systemic discrimination.”
Lee’s statement in response to the repressive actions of Burma’s government stresses the need for the international community to step in and end the plight of the Rohingya. It is important for the global community to not only recognize the precursors to genocide, but to act on their knowledge of them.
President Barack Obama will have the opportunity to do just that when he travels to Burma today for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional summit and sits down with Sein.
Obama is starting to set the right tone. On Friday October 31, Obama spoke on the phone with Sein and stressed “the importance of the government of Burma taking additional steps to address the tensions and the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State including through revisions of the Rakhine Action Plan and other measures to support the civil and political rights of the Rohingya population.”
The international community has also responded with a new, non-binding UN draft resolution that seeks to put international pressure on Burma to end the aggressive campaign outlined in the Rakhine Action Plan and to give the Rohingya “access to full citizenship on an equal basis.”
These are small, but necessary first steps towards defending the human rights of the Rohingya.
It won’t be easy. After a decade of sanctions pressuring Burma to allow democratic elections two years ago, the United States and the international community rewarded the country by removing many of those existing sanctions. It is clear that once this economic pressure was lifted, reforms stalled, and now pressure is needed again.
Obama must take the opportunity to send the message to Sein and other world leaders that these indicators of genocide will not go unnoticed or unpunished, and that he will threaten the use of all diplomatic and economic tools at his disposal.
The warning signs are clear. The Rohingya are not just a name; they are 1.3 million people and a culture at risk of being erased, and they are depending on Obama and the rest of the world to act now.
Learn about the advocacy campaign for the Rohingya at Just Say Their Name.
Megan Madeira is an intern at United to End Genocide and a student at American University.
[Photo courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO]