This week, President Obama set off for a much-anticipated trip to East Asia where he will engage regional leaders in four major meetings: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in China (APEC), the G-20 Summit in Australia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia (EAS) Summits in Burma. The ASEAN and EAS meetings will cover economic policy in East and Southeast Asia. In the midst of dealing with important economic and foreign policy questions, President Obama has the opportunity to make an important political statement in support of the rights of the Rohingya in Burma.
Who are the Rohingya and where are they from?
There are an estimated 1.5 million Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim community, in the world today, the majority of whom live in Burma with other sizeable communities in Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, and Malaysia. Formerly known as the Arakanese, the Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state in Burma for over 500 years. Once living under their own rule, the Rohingya were conquered by the Burmese in the 1780s, then ruled as a colony by the British, occupied by the Japanese in the 1940s, and finally ruled by Burma’s military junta.
However, the Rohingya’s very existence is currently subject to great controversy within Burma and Bangladesh and they are described by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted peoples. The Myanmar government deems the Rohingya illegal migrants and refers to them only as “Bengalis,” hence tagging them as coming from Bangladesh and as foreigners. In 1982, during Burma’s military dictatorship, a citizenship law was passed to exclude the Rohingya as citizens on the justification that they are foreigners–despite the fact that many Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations. Bangladesh reluctantly allows Rohingya to live in camps near the Burma border, but deny them any government assistance. It has been reported that Bangladeshi authorities have turned back boats carrying Rohingya refugees from Burma’s Rakhine State.
What sorts of abuse are being committed against the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are not allowed to travel or marry without permission, are forbidden to own land or have more than two children by the Myanmar government. Additionally, they are frequently subjected to land confiscations, arbitrary taxes, forced evictions, and police brutality. It is also common for the Rohingya, as well as other minority ethnic groups in Burma, to be used as forced laborers as porters of the military or construction workers. They are denied access to public resources in both Burma and Bangladesh, including schooling and medical attention. Both the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments have specifically prohibited humanitarian organizations from helping the Rohingya.
What originally caused today’s sporadic, yet ongoing conflicts in Rakhine State?
On May 28, 2012 a group of men robbed, raped, and murdered Ma Thida Htwe, a Rakhine woman. Eventually, three Rohingya men were arrested and sentenced to death, contributing to the already tense relationship between the Rohingya and Rakhine. The following month, violent protests erupted throughout northern Rakhine State in which Myanmar security forces declared a state of emergency and were authorized to use deadly force to quell the demonstrations. Both the Rohingya and Rakhine contributed to the violence that erupted. However, Rohingya shops and homes were frequently burned down, causing mass displacement of the already marginalized community. Violence spread to parts of central Burma in early 2013 with additional reports of violent Buddhist mobs roaming the streets.
Is this genocide?
Violence, primarily beginning in mid-2012, continues today between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine in which 192 people have died, over 140,000 have been displaced, and thousands of homes have been destroyed. The international community has continuously expressed criticisms of Burmese President Thein Sein’s Administration’s treatment of the Rohingya. Human Rights Watch has voiced perhaps the harshest condemnation of the Burmese government in citing numerous crimes against humanity and acts of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in a 2013 report. The conflict remains unresolved and possesses an alarming potential to become increasingly violent and devastating to the region due to its deeply rooted ethnic and racial tensions.
What can you do?
The Burmese government has pressured the international community to stop using the name “Rohingya” to describe the Rohingya people, denying them the history connected to their name while furthering new oppressive legislation. The genocide prevention community has launched a petition asking President Obama, one of the most visible people in the world, to use the name “Rohingya” during a public address while visiting Burma this month. Join thousand of others across the U.S. in calling on President Obama to address the Rohingya by name. After signing, share the petition on social media using the hashtag #JustSayTheirName.