There are 60 million refugees and displaced people in the world today, the most since the end of World War II. Almost half are Muslim. After Afghan refugees, the largest group is Syrian, with Turkey and Lebanon receiving most of the millions struggling to survive. After four full years of the Syrian conflict, the United States has taken in only 2,000 refugees from there.
Against this bleak backdrop, there is another very similar disaster taking place with far less news coverage: Burma. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims, or Rohingya, are fleeing Burma by boat. The long-persecuted minority population of at least 1.3 million is being driven off ancestral lands and confined to camps in half a dozen countries without medical care, education, the right to work or other basic human rights. Once thought to number more than 3 million, this abused and persecuted Muslim minority has in the last year been excluded from the national census and disenfranchised from voting. To even say “Rohingya” in their home country provokes angry denunciation or even violence.
The 2015 elections, which will be held Sunday, were once seen as a sign that the Burmese military was releasing its hold on power. But this appears unlikely. Working with the Burma Task Force USA for the last two years, I offer a short primer on this crisis in the hope that there is still room in readers’ hearts and heads to take action on this issue.
1) Where is Burma? What is going on?
Also known as Myanmar, an alternate pronunciation of the same word favored by the military regime, Burma is the poorest nation in South Asia, located between Bangladesh, India and China. After a coup in 1982, the nation was ruled by a xenophobic military government for 30 years until a period of reform following civil unrest.
Despite releasing scores of political prisoners in 2012-2013 and negotiating treaties with some ethnic groups, the transitional government has continued harsh restrictions on certain ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Rohingya Muslims, who live mainly in the Northwestern state of Rakhine.
In the last two years, the situation has become much worse. Allied with the military, the “969 Movement” of extremist monks has been spreading anti-Muslim violence beyond the Rakhine state and throughout Burma. In an effort to “purify” the nation, these Buddhist supremacists have been committing rape, arson, murder and land confiscation on a massive scale. In 2014, mobs chased out international agencies from Rakhine state, leaving 700,000 Burmese Muslims without medical care. Hundreds of thousands struggle to survive in what Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times called “concentration camps.” They are denied freedom of movement, marriage, jobs and schooling. At least an equal number of refugees have fled to an unknown fate.
2) Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are “the Worlds’ Most Persecuted Minority,” according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. This stateless Muslim people may constitute up to 7% of the total Burmese population of nearly 60 million, but their numbers are not exactly known because the government has refused to include them on the national census. The first Burmese census in a generation was carried out in 2014, but despite government promises to the funders of the initiative — the U.K. and the U.N. Population Fund — the Rohingya were excluded.
Though there are 135 ethnicities in Burma, the government continues to deny the Rohingya any legal status or rights, insisting that they are “Bengalis” illegally in the country. Bangladesh, however, does not claim them; in recent years, Rohingya fleeing from persecution have been turned back at the Bangladeshi border and sent back into conflict and danger.
Muslims have lived in Burma for hundreds of years. Ancient coins even show Muslims in positions of power. Early European explorers first mention Rohingya by name in the early 19th century. Today many Burmese scholars say the name is made up and mainly came into use in the mid-20th century, but even their own sources raise questions about this assertion.
Unfortunately, the Rohingya seem to have inherited some of the resentment directed toward Indian administrators brought by the British to staff its colonial occupation of Burma. These darker-skinned “Kalar” were Hindus and Muslims, and now Rohingya are called by this pejorative racial name and face Jim Crow-like legal and social restrictions.
Some Rohingya did indeed regularly cross the colonial borders between Bangladesh and Burma along traditional trade routes and fishing sites. But the Burmese majority tragically now sees the Rohingya and their modest economic activity as a threat, not an asset.
Over the past 30 years, rights restrictions have driven as many as a million Rohingya to other lands. Unknown numbers of displaced “boat people” have drowned or been captured by traffickers to toil as slaves in the seafood industry. The lucky ones have found the relative safety of second-class residency in Malaysia, Thailand and parts of Bangladesh. But they live precarious lives and are at risk of another expulsion.
3) How Does Religion Come Into This Sad Story?
In the years since 9/11, Islamophobia has increasingly become a tool to frighten and divide populations around the globe. In Burma, Buddhist Monk Wirathu organized his 969 Movement to protest the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Bamian, Afghanistan. However this movement came to oppose the presence of any Muslims in Burma. Its leadership promotes a ban on interfaith marriage and its monks respond to provocative messages and incite anti-Muslim mobs across the country, even in the more cosmopolitan cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Even non-Muslims can be beaten if they patronize Muslim businesses.
How is it possible that Buddhists can be so violent when their religion calls for an end to suffering? Theravada Buddhism is a branch of Buddhism that has some militant traditions with sacred texts that assign more value to Buddhist lives than non-Buddhist lives. Moreover, most Burmese monks live in a monastery for a year or two before returning to family and job. During that time, monks are often dependent on the military for food. Such deep links between the military and monks can also be found in Sri Lanka, where “360,” another anti-Muslim movement, has been forming.
It is not yet clear how much these movements may be influenced by American and European Islamophobes. However, using the same smears found on typical right-wing websites, pro-Burmese government bloggers recently attacked CAIR and Burma Task Force USA for their successful efforts to persuade Congress to condemn the ongoing persecution of Burmese Muslims.
Sacred nationalism misleads many monks, but not all. Though the 969 Movement has paid no attention to criticism from the Dalai Lama or American Buddhists, international pressure has helped protect and support local leaders opposing the spread of hate.
4) Isn’t This Really About Oil, As Always?
Over the past few years, over 2 million acres have been seized and stolen from minorities in Burma. While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are homeless, this policy of displacement has also affected other ethnic groups, especially in areas where China is building a massive transnational pipeline project.
Because the military dictatorship previously laid claim to all property in the country, land ownership has become confused. The legal profession is only now developing after decades of disfavor. This situation makes it easy for local authorities to seize Rohingya land and assets.
The 60 million Burmese represent an untapped market for products ranging from soft drinks to cell phones. Investors also see the country as a source of extremely cheap labor. The government has cleverly lured international companies with empty promises of political reform.
In 2013, it was still quite common to hear the U.S. government proclaim Burma a success story for democracy and capitalism. Despite outbreaks of violence and ongoing rights restrictions, Congress agreed to let most sanctions lapse in the summer of 2013.
However the government may have overplayed its hand. The constitution has allotted 25% of seats in parliament to the military. The opposition party has been hobbled by laws that prevent its leader, the celebrated Aung San Suu Kyi, from running for president, using her former marriage to a foreigner as pretext. Released from years of house arrest, Suu Kyi remains in political limbo, unwilling or unable to advocate strongly on behalf of persecuted minorities like the Rohingya.
By 2014, it became difficult for the U.S. to deny that Burma’s government was dragging its feet on the road to a more open society. The arrest and re-arrest of political prisoners and journalists set off alarm bells. So did a ban on foreign NGOs with access to Rohingya. After Doctors Without Borders supported allegations of a massacre in early 2014, their staff was expelled from Rakhine State. Shortly after, orchestrated mobs attacked offices of other NGOs and as a consequence, over 700,000 Rohingya no longer have any medical care. The few hospitals in the area are believed to mistreat and turn away extremely ill Rohingya, and most choose to die rather than risk abuse.
5) What is Current U.S. Policy? Is the U.N. Responding?
President Barack Obama has suggested that Burma needs to include all people to successfully develop its economy. However the Obama administration sends mixed messages, engaging cordially with Burmese military leaders even in the immediate aftermath of violent attacks on Rohingya towns in 2013.
In May 2014, the House of Representatives passed Resolution 418 calling on the Burmese government to stop persecuting the Rohingya. Passage was propelled in part by the efforts of human rights advocacy groups such as the U.S. Campaign for Burma and Burma Task Force USA, a coalition of 18 Muslim-American organizations. After this resolution passed, a few modest limits on engagement with Burma were maintained. However, Burma dismissed these actions as the work of special interests.
U.S. and international investors continue to pour money into Burma. In June 2014, the U.S. Campaign for Burma issued a report card for some of these U.S. corporations and found that almost none were operating with sufficient transparency or avoiding partnerships with known abusers of rights such as the Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise, a military entity that runs businesses throughout Burma. Only Pepsi-Cola scored a passing grade as a socially responsible investor.
Companies from China, Japan and Singapore have even fewer restrictions and are unlikely to use their leverage to promote human rights. Moreover, in 2014, Burma took the rotating chair of ASEAN, which promotes economic cooperation throughout the region. Fellow members are unlikely to criticize Burma during its chairmanship, despite the widespread impact of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution.
Former U.N. Special Rapporteur Jose Quintana called the situation in Burma an emerging genocide. Organized mobs previously had attacked his car while he visited Burma. His contract was not renewed, but his replacement issued a report in late July 2014 making clear that she was unimpressed with Burmese policies.
6) So, Is this a Genocide?
This question can be a distraction, but it is still worth asking. Because a finding of “genocide” carries legal weight in the United Nations and would require international response, diplomats and even some human rights groups avoid using the term, preferring “ethnic cleansing” or “persecution.” However it cannot be denied that elements of state policy toward the Rohingya have been genocidal, seeking to eliminate them from Burma through violence, expulsion, quarantine and confinement as well as limits on a variety of rights, including the number of children allowed.
To ensure their safety, some Rohingya have called for U.N. peacekeeping troops to intervene. But at a time when civil war and sectarian conflict are on the rise, nations are reluctant to support the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2R). Prodded by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the U.N. has worked within its committees to exert some gentle pressure on the government of Burma. OIC representatives have faced protests and been intimidated when visiting Burma.
Most news articles report that 140,000 Rohingya are refugees, but because families have been fleeing the country over the past 30 years, the actual number may approach 1 million, according to research done in affiliation with the United Nations. Moreover, official figures report 25,000 refugees in Malaysia, but consular staff told me the actual number is 100,000. No one knows the total in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand and several other countries.
The U.N. registers some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered throughout the region, which allows them some basic food assistance when living in camps. However many receiving nations are not signatories of international treaties on the rights of refugees and do not fully cooperate. The majority of refugees are not registered, few are allowed to work legally, and in several nations, their children are not allowed to attend school.
In July 2014, Bangladesh passed a law to restrict food allotments to Rohingya refugees, and forbid intermarriage. Also in July, the Thai government began to forcibly repatriate Rohingya, even after award-winning Reuters news reports exposed how badly the Thai government had been caring for the refugees, even implicating the Thai navy in enslaving Rohingya along with traffickers. In response to the Pulitzer prize awarded to Reuters for the articles, the Thai government plans to sue the journalists.
In October 2015, Fortify Rights commissioned an in-depth report from the Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic and Yale University about the situation in Burma. The report draws off of Burmese government documents to support the case that anti-Muslim violence is state orchestrated and genocidal. And in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s election, government and Buddhist leaders kept up the anti-Muslim messaging to drive votes to the ruling military party.
7) How Depressing! So Is There Nothing We Can Do to Help?
As residents of the U.S., we have the ability to influence U.S. policies if we organize and make calls to Congress on a regular basis. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama visited Burma in October 2014 and responded to public demand to speak about the Rohingya. Resolution 418 was passed in the House of Representatives calling on the government of Burma to respect the rights of the Rohingya and other minority groups. Community members can help with similar congressional outreach campaigns, which are ongoing. Numbers matter. There are regular campaigns organized by the U.S. Campaign for Burma, Burma Task Force USA and End Genocide, among others, which are in need of support.
There are not many Rohingya in the U.S., but they are also included in congressional outreach. Many have personal stories of political imprisonment, home invasion and attack. They also are available to speak at various events.
In partnership with Rohingya living in the U.S., Burma Task Force USA filed a legal action in the U.S. against President Thein Sein and several of his ministers, with Rohingya plaintiffs describing their torture and abuse. Others hope to see the International Criminal Court take on this issue. Civil liberties groups working on this issue include Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights and Physicians for Human Rights. Refugee services that have been helping Rohingya include American Jewish World Service and Doctors Without Borders. A list of links follows this short article.
We can back advocacy efforts with our own dialogues, statements and media support, perhaps even delegations visiting Burma. Peace education groups are already partnering with local Burmese leaders. Some Burmese Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics have created small campaigns to model interfaith solidarity.
We cannot afford to look away. Unless our collective response reaches the size and scale of the Save Darfur Movement, we may only succeed in slowing down the genocide, not stop it. Regardless, this would be a valuable gift of time for the Burmese themselves to strengthen their emerging civil society, relax the chokehold of the military and manage their nation’s remarkable but complicated diversity. Let us not assume that most of them do not wish to live in peace. We must engage.
For the powers that be, the free market must rule, and profits are preferable to prophets. National interest mainly includes security, prestige and financial gain. With this perspective, human rights are marginalized as simply one factor supporting a productive society.
But the general public is not quite so cold blooded. Then why is it turning a blind eye to the ongoing suffering of Muslim minorities in Burma? The crisis there has been going on for years. Do we keep silent because Muslims as victim and Buddhists as perpetrator do not fit the prevailing view of either community? Or are most people simply tired of the suffering of the world, which may seem increasingly vast?
I do hope we can agree that forgetfulness is not a solution and an informed and engaged people should be pressuring their representatives to exemplify moral values as well as bureaucratic imperatives. After all, it should be clear by now that we are all connected—on economic, cultural, technological and last, but not least, deepest human levels.
The next steps are up to you.
Rohingya Blogger: http://www.rohingyablogger.com/
U.S. Campaign for Burma: http://uscampaignforburma.org/
End Genocide: www.endgenocide.org/
Physicians for Human Rights August 2013 report: http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/reports/patterns-of-anti-muslim-violence-in-burma.html
Fortify Rights Reports: http://www.fortifyrights.org/publications.html
Reports by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/MMIndex.aspx
International State Crime Initiative, October 2015: http://statecrime.org/state-crime-research/isci-report-countdown-to-annihilation-genocide-in-myanmar/
Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and Yale Law School in partnership with Fortify Rights, October 2015: http://www.fortifyrights.org/downloads/Yale_Persecution_of_the_Rohingya_October_2015.pdf