A People on the Brink
Burma's Rohingya face an existential threat — and we must not look away.
- By Cameron Hudson
- May 15, 2015
Driving through Sittwe, the dusty provincial capital of Rahkine state in northwest Burma, you notice a small poster affixed to nearly every shop and home. In English these signs read "white card," and they alert anyone passing by that the building's occupant sides with recent government efforts to prevent Burma's most threatened ethnic and religious minority group, the Rohingya, from participating in the upcoming national elections. Most of Burma's Rohingya are, in fact, stateless, and "white card" refers to the special identity documents issued to them by the government in lieu of the papers held by Burmese citizens. A few months ago officials decided that white card holders would not be allowed to participate in the national vote scheduled for this fall — effectively excluding the overwhelming majority of Rohingya.
As you drive on, the cacophony of bustling markets and careening tuk-tuks gradually gives way to the quiet of unpaved jungle roads and, eventually, a makeshift barbed wire roadblock that now separates nearly 150,000 Rohingya from the outside world. My Buddhist driver, from the state's majority Rahkine ethnic group, refused to take me past the fence line into one of the world's largest collections of internment camps — an implicit acknowledgement that he didn't feel safe proceeding into a Rohingya community. Similarly, on the other side, my Rohingya guide refused to try to leave, too fearful of the consequences of being found outside the camps. "They just want us all to go away," was the best explanation one camp dweller could give for his three years of internment.
The Rohingya we met inside the camp referred to it as an "open prison." They have been interned here since a spate of inter-communal violence in 2012 killed scores of Rohingya and destroyed the homes and businesses of 140,000 more. Many people described how their Rakhine neighbors perpetrated the abuses, while others recounted that police officers or other local government actors were also involved. One woman remembered a fire brigade that approached when Rohingya houses were ablaze. Instead of extinguishing the fires, the firefighters poured gasoline and helped them spread.
Small wonder that many Rohingya are fleeing the country in desperation, taking to ramshackle boats which often become death traps. Their grim story stands in stark contrast to the official narrative emerging from Burma. After decades of military dictatorship and international sanctions, Burma has been haltingly shifting to civilian government and re-engaging with the international community since 2010. This slow liberalization has started to feel like a success — and from Washington, London, and Brussels it looks like one: scores of prominent opposition political figures have been released from imprisonment and are now preparing to participate this fall's general election. Some sanctions have been lifted and foreign investment is flowing in. The space for civil society groups is expanding.
But one local activist cautioned against the "euphoria of change," stressing that a real and lasting transition cannot occur unless it happens for everyone in society — regardless of ethnicity or religion.
The Rohingya — a community of just over one million Muslims at the bottom of Burma's ethnic caste system — are not feeling the euphoria. In fact, they are now increasingly at risk of being eliminated entirely from the country's political, social and economic life. While only about 10 percent of the Rohingya population are interned in camps and suffering from insufficient food and a lack of health care, the entire population is at risk of elimination.
The first step towards the Rohingya's destruction is the increasingly aggressive application of a 1982 citizenship law requiring them to accept the label "Bengali" — a reference to neighboring Bangladesh and an assertion that they are not really Burmese — or else have their citizenship and basic rights and freedoms revoked. Under either scenario, the intention is clear: to deny Rohingya their legal place in Burmese society. "By denying us citizenship," one Rohingya advocate told me, "they are denying our entire existence, our struggle, and our survival." The move has made the Rohingya the world's largest stateless people and now serves as the justification for every indignity and transgression inflicted upon the community — from denying them freedom of movement and ability to hold jobs to the basic right get an education, receive government services, or hold property.
This targeted nature of the attacks against the Rohingya have drawn increasingly worried references to the United Nation's 1948 Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as the "attempt to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group," and have prompted warnings that the Rohingya could become the latest victims of this crime of crimes.
Subject to hate speech sponsored by both state and religious figures, targeted attacks, forced internment, and arbitrary detention, the Rohingya have now become targets of national legislation reminiscent of the Nazi-era Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jewish Germans of citizenship rights based on their presumed "ethnic" origins. In similar fashion, the latest Burmese laws aspire to limit Rohingya birth rates and their ability to marry. One Rohingya leader described this de facto apartheid system as "an attempt to depopulate the Rohingya people" through their "soft elimination." This is quite literally what the government's recently proposed and ominously sounding "Population Control Bill" would do.
Perhaps even more alarming is seeing how official discrimination has given way to popular hatred of the Rohingya by the country's Burman ethnic majority and other ethnic groups. Even Burma's Western-backed, pro-democracy advocates like Aung San Suu Kyi haveremained silent on the persecution of their compatriots, as coming to their defense now would run counter to the popular will.
Added together, this potent climate of racism, xenophobia, and hate has primed Burma for further rounds of deadly violence, as was last seen in 2012. Though the official death toll remains relatively low, in the hundreds, many human rights groups believe the true number to be substantially higher. As national elections approach later this year, the warning signs for massive atrocities grow ever more conspicuous. The Rohingya's disenfranchisement could serve as the spark that sets the country ablaze.
To its credit, the Obama administration has taken notice of these disturbing developments and has signaled to the Burmese government that it should take steps to protect and strengthen minority rights as a precondition for a deepening of the relationship. Military assistance, something Burmese officials have made a top priority, has rightfully been put on hold.
Meanwhile, the president's new Atrocities Prevention Board has helped ensure that the threats to Rohingya remain a central component of the deepening bilateral discussion with Burmese officials. The president raised their plight in meetings with his counterpart last November and has implemented initiatives to detect early warning signs of new violence against the Rohingya — something not done for the Tutsis of Rwanda two decades before. But will it suffice?
As Burma's opening continues, growing numbers of European and U.S. investors are rushing to get a piece of the country's investment bonanza. But with the opening of every new Mercedes dealership or luxury high-rise, Western leverage to achieve adequate protections for the most vulnerable of Burma's citizens erodes.
In a 2012 conference at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, then-Secretary of State Clinton warned that "the United States and our partners must act before the wood is stacked or the match is struck, because when the fire is at full blaze, our options for responding are considerably costlier and more difficult." So much wood is already stacked in Burma. The crimes and injustices that have already been perpetrated against the Rohingya represent some of the core preconditions for genocide that analysts and advocates look for — but it is not yet too late to do something about it.
Conditioning future concessional lending, military assistance, and development packages on the creation of new legislative protections for the Rohingya is a meaningful step the international community could take to ensure the rush to declare Burma a democratic success does not exclude the Rohingya. So, too, would pressing the current and future governments to hold accountable local, national, and religious authorities who have helped to incite, direct, or condone past and any future violence against Rohingya.
When we asked what could be done to improve their situation, some Rohingya told us that the national and local authorities should allow more humanitarian assistance to reach them. Some called for greater international pressure on the government. Others called for efforts to change hateful mindsets within society against Rohingya and other Muslims. In the meantime, one woman I met in a Rohingya internment camp said simply, "We can just stay here, pray, and wait." One thing is for certain: if violence does erupt and Burma's leaders and people do decide to seek a "final solution" for the Rohingya, it will be impossible for anyone to revive the tired refrain of past generations of genocide apologists — "we didn't know."
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