Myanmar: Will anyone speak up for the world's most persecuted minority?

Muslim residents take shelter at a house in Thabyu Chai village near Thandwe, in Myanmar's western Rakhine state on October 2, 2013. Terrified women and children hid in forests and security forces patrolled tense villages in western Myanmar as police said the toll from fresh anti-Muslim unrest rose to five.



CHICAGO — Myanmar may be the newest poster-child for democracy, but the country continues its campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has dubbed the violence by Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, “crimes against humanity.” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this year that Myanmar urgently needed to address the “disturbing” humanitarian situation of the Rohingya.

Since June 2012, HRW has documented the role of the Myanmar government and local authorities in the forcible displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims in an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Coordinated attacks by the government, monks and even civilians have resulted in killing, burning and making homeless tens of thousands of Rohingya, according to the group; even children have not been spared. “Hog-tied” corpses have been buried in mass graves and young women raped. Desperately needed humanitarian aid has been denied.

The worst atrocities against the Rohingya have occurred since Myanmar became more “democratic. ” The violence started in June 2012, after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won by-elections two months earlier.

One wonders whether that was the moment those behind the "ethnic cleansing" were waiting for. The army in Sittwe has besieged the Rohingya, a tactic that is pushing them close to starvation. There is nothing subtle about state complicity in the crimes that seem directed at eradicating the Rohingya from Myanmar.

Myanmar’s President, Thein Sein, has gone so far as to say that Rohingyas are "not our ethnicity ... we will send them away if any third country will accept them."

President Sein has even proposed the solution: he wants the Rohingya to be placed in UN-sponsored refugee camps, or resettled elsewhere.

For decades, the state has tried to get rid the Rohingya. Shortly after the military seized power in 1962, it began to dissolve Rohingya social and political organizations. The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act stripped Burmese nationality from the Rohingyas. Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingya were declared “non-national” or “foreign residents.”

The result is that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar and abroad are effectively stateless. Since 1984, Myanmar has even outlawed Rohingya families from having more than two children. Arbitrary arrests by soldiers are common, as are land grabs by the government.

Rather than criticize the state and promote a counter-narrative, media in Myanmar have tried to legitimize the violence by describing the Rohingya using the derogatory term “kalar,” meaning a dark-skinned person of South Asian appearance.

The press also calls the Rohingya trespassers from Bangladesh, ignoring the history of the Rohingya as indigenous to Myanmar. For centuries they have lived in Arakan State, a western region along the Bay of Bengal.

The Rohingya speak a different language from the majority of people in Myanmar, giving their detractors another rationale for classifying them as outsiders. Those who have been exiled to Bangladesh are shunned as intruders when they attempt to return.

Today, Rohingya babies are not issued birth certificates. Rohingya cannot marry without government permission, which is almost never given. Existing Rohingya marriages are not recognized unless heavy bribes are paid. Rohingya are not even permitted to travel outside their villages.

The Rakhine state government has closed down Islamic schools and banned Muslim children from state education.

If it won't acknowledge violence against the Rohingya as genocide, the international community should at least acknowledge that a humanitarian disaster has unfolded in Myanmar while the world slept.

It appears that the United States, Europe, China and Muslim countries are not facing up to the reality that the nightmare continues. Answers for this collective behavior are scarce. If maintaining the appearance of democracy in Myanmar is good for business, it comes at a huge humanitarian cost, as the Rohingya are finding out.

Dawood I. Ahmed is a lawyer from Pakistan who has worked at the United Nationa and is a doctoral candidate in human rights at the University of Chicago. Nadia Ishaq is a New York based attorney. She advocates on human rights concerns pertinent to South Asia. She previously worked in the region as a cross border transactional attorney.

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